Who Is Monitoring Suspended Priests?
The Surprising Answer: No One
By Michael Clancy
November 10, 2006
Neither the Diocese of Phoenix nor civil authorities are supervising more than half a dozen priests who are under suspension for sexually abusing children, but remain in the priesthood.
One of them, Wilputte "Lan" Sherwood, has dropped out of sight, failing to report to his probation officer since June 2005. When he was convicted 12 years earlier, he admitted to having sex with 1,840 people, including 22 minors, mostly picked up as hitchhikers.
While the church has offered the priests a recovery plan that includes counseling, officials say they cannot require the priests to follow through. Nor can they require them to keep in contact.
Police and probation officers don't always track the priests either. Many of them have not been convicted of abuse, and some have completed probationary periods.
Peter Pollard of the anti-abuse organization Stop It Now says punishment is not enough to protect minors.
"We need a full menu of prevention programs that offer hope as well as accountability," he said. Pollard is a victim of abuse.
While none of the seven priests are known to have abused minors since their suspensions, the concern is that they could. In the past two months, two suspended Catholic priests were arrested.
In Syracuse, N.Y., police busted a priest from Delaware on charges that he repeatedly abused a teenage boy. In Davenport, Iowa, a suspended priest was accused of having contact with children after it was prohibited as part of his previous sentence for possession of child pornography.
The cases throw a harsh light on the inability of Catholic authorities to keep track of nearly 4,000 priests nationwide who are accused of abuse and were suspended but not removed from the priesthood.
The Diocese of Phoenix pays a stipend to suspended priests, if it knows where they are, and offers spiritual and psychological counseling. Most do not take part.
Besides Sherwood, the list of priests includes Patrick Colleary, who won an extradition fight and remains in Ireland, avoiding pending charges in Maricopa County, and Joseph Lessard, who served a probation sentence in 1993, was suspended in 2002 and since has moved to Thailand.
One other apparently has left the church. Harold Graf, according to the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, now attends Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. He was suspended in 2002 for a case dating back to the 1970s. No charges or lawsuits ever were filed.
Attempts to reach Graf through the cathedral failed. Cathedral administrator Martin Pommerenke said he knew nothing of Graf's past, although Graf has taught religious classes at the downtown church.
The Tucson diocese counts 10 diocesan priests who are suspended. It, too, has lost track of at least one of them.
Cause for concern
Although no Phoenix or Tucson priest is believed to have reoffended, Peter Isely, a therapist who is a leader among abuse victims, said the public should be concerned about the possibility.
"Dioceses ought to alert communities about where these guys are, and they should release information on their histories, making it easy to find," he said.
According to the church's own statistics, more than 4,000 American priests have been accused of abusing a minor. As in Phoenix, many of them are dead, several served time in prison, and others left the priesthood.
"Many of the proven, admitted and credibly accused pedophile priests essentially get little or no supervision," said David Clohessy, national director of the SNAP, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "They live alone or with retired priests, often near neighbors who have no idea that they were accused of this crime."
Paul Duckro, director of the Office of Child, Adolescent and Adult Protection for the Diocese of Tucson, said the threat of returning offenders to the active priesthood is too risky.
"The reoffense rate is 17 to 20 percent," he said. "By psychological standards, that is good, but you have to consider the downside of even an improbable event. In these cases, it is tremendous. It is a risk you just cannot take."
In Tucson, officials rely on a two-pronged approach toward keeping offenders in check: maintaining open communication with the public and working closely with law enforcement, Duckro said.
Maxine Stein, president and chief executive officer of the anti-abuse group Stop It Now, said psychological counseling reduces the rate of reoffending from around 10 to 15 percent.
But "we cannot assume anyone has had treatment," she said. "If someone is attracted to children but gets no treatment, they continue to have the same problem."
Dwyer, the Phoenix Diocese spokesman, said, "The diocese and the bishop believe they have an obligation to maintain contact and to establish parameters of healthy living, in order to help them function responsibly in society."
Of 31 priests linked to the sex abuse scandal with connections to the Phoenix Diocese, nine have been convicted of crimes, and one is awaiting trial. At least 10 have been named in civil suits.
Priests who are suspended may not celebrate Mass publicly, wear a clerical collar or appear publicly as a priest.
"If they are held accountable somewhere, somehow, they can continue their lives without abusing again, " Duckro of Tucson said.
"Mostly they need a podium from which to offend. Without the podium, the status, you take away their opportunities and their modus operandi."
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