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  Dallas Diocese Faces Criminal Investigation

By Heather O'Connell
The University News [Dallas TX]
March 23, 2005

The Dallas County District Attorney (DA) opened a criminal investigation last month to examine how the Catholic diocese in Dallas handles allegations of clergy sexual misconduct.

The DA, Bill Hill, intends to ascertain whether Bishop Charles Grahmann "has received any allegations of abuse by members of the clergy that have not subsequently been reported to law enforcement," Rachel Horton, a spokeswoman for Hill, said.

After examining clergy personnel records "for any indication of violations of state laws relating to minors" three years ago, Grahmann claimed all violators had been removed from ministry and all allegations of abuse had been reported to the state as required by law.

Two recent events, however, have provoked the DA's office to verify Grahmann's claim.

First, Father William Richard, a priest in Rockwall who retired last month because of a dispute concerning the parish music minister, had several claims of sexual misconduct filed against him. Several students from Catholic high schools in Dallas and Plano where Richard worked alleged incidents of sexual abuse by Richard occurring in 1993.

The boys provided sworn statements to Grahmann accusing Richard of sexual harassment. The allegations included unwelcome looks, requests, comments, and messages to the boys, Kevin Carr, the boys' lawyer, said.

Richard denies the claims.

Grahmann transfered Richard in 1994. Carr said he never received a response from the diocese, however, and the DA's office claims it never received any notice of the allegations, which are required by law to be reported.

Another incident of clergy misconduct occurred shortly after in Grand Prairie, which also spurred Hill's suspicion of clergy misconduct in the diocese.

Police arrested Father Matthew Baggert on charges of possessing child pornography. The priest had pictures of naked four-year-old boys on a computer in his office, police said.

After hearing about the possibility of Baggert's misconduct, the diocese sought evidence of the pornography and immediately contacted the police, Deacon Bronson Havard, Dallas diocese spokesman, said.

The diocese suspended Baggert from ministry according to Catholic Church policy that bars child abuse offenders from ministry. The Church defines abuse as,"behavior by which an adult uses a minor as an object of sexual gratification."

Grahmann banned 10 other priests from ministry for such sexual misconduct in the past.

The Rockwall and Grand Prairie cases sparked the investigation; the police will not, however, limit the investigation of the diocese to these two cases.

In fact, the allegations against Richard, the Grand Prairie priest, may not be recent enough to prosecute, Horton said.

The Dallas diocese said it will comply with the DA's requests in order to aid in the investigation.

"We welcome the DA's help and will cooperate fully with him," Havard said.

Though investigators would not comment on the nature of the investigation beyond the possibility of a grand jury, the DA has asked anyone with knowledge of clergy abuse to inform police.

"We would urge any victim of abuse by any member of the clergy to report the matter directly to the police. We would also ask anyone who has reported such abuse to the Church in the past that was not subsequently reported to authorities, to come forward," Horton said.

Horton further recommended that parents ask their children who may have had contact with a priest about any possible abuse and to report possible abuse. The DA's office expressed concern that many crimes remain unreported because the memory of the abuse can be too traumatic for the victim to confront. Other cases are kept private as victims and their families attempt to reconcile the matter with the Church without involving the police.

The investigation of the Dallas diocese will be the first involving clergy in ministry after the adoption of the "zero-tolerance" policy, which bars clergy from public ministry after one sex abuse conviction.

Several other dioceses nationwide, including Boston, Los Angeles, and St. Louis, have undergone investigations involving possible failures to report abuse. Some of these investigations resulted in prosecuted priests, subpoenaed churches, and defrocked clergy.

 
 

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