|Sexual Abuse and Church Settlement
August 14, 2009
JEFFERSON CITY - The Catholic Church paid the largest out-of-court settlement ever in mid-Missouri to a victim of sexual abuse by a mid-Missouri priest.
The out-of-court settlement is for $600,000 and the agreement the Catholic Church will strip the priest of his title and duties.
The victim's lawyer said the sexual molestation happened between 1983 and 1988, but the priest's history as an abuser began before that.
Earlier in the 1980s, the priest, then known as Carmine Sita, pleaded guilty to charges of child molestation at his parish with the Newark, New Jersey Archdiocese.
After the case, the Church sent Sita to a Catholic treatment center in New Mexico run by the Servants of the Paraclete, whose website describes the organization as a "Catholic Congregation of religious men ministering to priests and religious brothers." There, Sita legally changed his name to Gerald Howard.
Shortly after that, the Jefferson City Catholic Diocese took Howard on as a priest at the Saints Peter and Paul parish in Boonville. It's there that he met the victim.
The Jefferson City Diocese said Howard didn't stay at the church for long.
"Father Howard was removed from Saints Peter and Paul in 1984 for reasons other than abuse and thereafter had no other assignment in the Diocese. According to our records, there were no allegations of abuse at the time of his removal," Ronald Vessell said, who is Associate to the Chancellor of the Diocese of Jefferson City.
However, the contact had already been made with the victim. The victim's lawyer said even though Howard had left the parish, the abuse continued to occur.
"It was multiple sexual assaults on a weekly basis, and it included the priest plying the victim with illicit drugs: LSD, acid, cocaine, marijuana," one of the victim's lawyers Bryan Bacon said.
Bacon said the victim, who remained silent about the abuse until 2008, when his family approached the Jefferson City Diocese, wants to press criminal charges against Howard. The priest, however, is nowhere to be found.
"From what we understand, he lived in Boonville for awhile, then he lived in Columbia, and then we don't know what happened to him, so he's still out there," Bacon said. "He's still technically a priest. He's not serving any diocese, but he has not been defrocked yet."
The national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - or SNAP - said the Church should never have let Howard continue as a priest after he pleaded guilty to the initial charges of child molestation in New Jersey.
"This diocese - the Jefferson City Diocese - knowingly imported a convicted predator and kept his secret for decades," national director of SNAP David Clohessy said, who was also abused by a priest as a child.
Clohessy and Bacon said one major concern is that Howard is still at large, and since his criminal record is all under his previous name, there's no way for someone to know about his legally-documented history of abuse.
"If he molested any child after he left his Boonville parish, it's because Catholic officials chose to protect themselves instead of protecting children," Clohessy said.
However, Vessell said after the Jefferson City Diocese let Howard go from the Boonville parish, he hasn't re-emerged.
"It's not like there was an immediate danger to anyone, because, by 2008, we knew he wasn't around here," Vessell said. "We did look for him. We didn't find him."
Bacon says the victim wants Howard to turn up.
"The hope here is more of a criminal issue, and that's to get Howard prosecuted and convicted for forcible sodomy," Bacon said.
Vessell said the Catholic Church has increased safety measures since the 1980s to prevent sexual abuse from occurring. For example, he said, the Jefferson City Diocese now processes about 1,000 criminal background checks of its employees and volunteers each year. Also, it teaches a "Teaching Touching Safety" class in all of the Catholic schools within its jurisdiction.
The $600,000 settlement paid to the victim was funded by the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, the Diocese of Jefferson City, and the Servants of the Paraclete, who ran the treatment center Howard attended.
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