Banned Priest Not Monitored
By David Heinzmann
April 26, 2013
Five years after church officials ordered the Rev. Carroll Howlin to stop functioning as a missionary priest in this isolated mountain community, Joliet diocesan leaders received a letter from a suburban pastor that illuminated just how little the diocese had done to enforce its own protective measures amid a crippling sexual abuse scandal.
Howlin, an avuncular-looking priest who moved here more than 30 years ago, had been suspended in 2002 after he was accused of molesting a teenage boy — the second of four such allegations he would face in his career. The Joliet Diocese later substantiated claims involving two other victims, including one who committed suicide at 17.
Church officials removed Howlin from public ministry, but otherwise left him alone in Kentucky with a $1,100-a-month pension. He was allowed to continue living in this remote community where he once helped run the Good Shepherd Catholic Chapel, providing food, clothing and other social services.
It appears officials even left Howlin alone in 2007 when the Rev. Gregory Rothfuchs of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Joliet wrote to the diocese that he had discovered the monthly collection his parish had taken up for Good Shepherd for three decades was going directly into Howlin's personal bank account and the nuns running the mission had not seen a penny.
It was an alarming revelation given that the abuse claims against Howlin alleged he had used money to gain sexual favors from two impoverished teenage boys. Rothfuchs, who immediately stopped the collection, also informed officials Howlin had been engaging in "informal ministry on the side" in Kentucky.
There is no indication in Howlin's personnel file that anyone investigated — or even talked to him about — the discovery.
And six years later, Howlin, 79, still lives in circumstances that experts say cast doubts on the Roman Catholic Church's promise to better protect children following a national priest sexual abuse scandal.
Despite a Vatican ruling sentencing Howlin to a lifetime of "prayer and penance" and banning him from unsupervised contact with anyone under the age of 18, he serves as his own minder here in rural Kentucky. The choice of whether to follow the Vatican's restrictions involving ministry or being alone with children remains entirely up to him.
Officials of the diocese — home to about 650,000 Catholics, mostly in DuPage, Kendall and Will counties — do not believe they could have done anything more, a spokesman said.
Volunteer groups from across the country — including the Joliet Diocese — continue to stay in a guesthouse on the 4-acre compound where Howlin has lived for more than 15 years. A sign on the property reads "Hills and Hollers Ministries." Local volunteers who do missionary work say they regularly consult with Howlin for advice about how to help families, and records show he remains on the board of directors of another Christian charity that operates a medical clinic for the poor.
"The Vatican told the Joliet Diocese that this man needs to be supervised, and they're not doing it," said Marci Hamilton, a canon law expert and professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. "It's no different than if they left a stick of dynamite in Kentucky and claimed it wouldn't be their fault if it exploded because they're too far away to monitor it."
Howlin, who has not been charged with a crime, declined comment. He is appealing the Vatican ruling.
'We have no control'
James Cmolik, a longtime Howlin friend who moved to Whitley City from Downers Grove after retiring, runs Hills and Hollers Ministries, which brings in volunteer groups from across the country to build and repair homes for people in the area. Most of the groups stay at the St. Joseph's Inn adjacent to Howlin's home, though Cmolik said he does not inform visitors of the priest's past or the Vatican order prohibiting him from being alone with minors.
"I have no reason to. He has nothing to do with our group," he said. Like some others in Whitley City, Cmolik made a distinction of the fact that Howlin sold his compound to former Joliet Diocese priest James Barney in 2006 and now officially lives there as its sole permanent tenant. "We rent the facility from Mr. Barney."
When a Tribune reporter pointed out that the scrapbook section of the ministry's website included a photograph of Howlin, whose nickname is "Pud," socializing with a visiting group of volunteers, he said the photo had been posted by the visitors and he would take it down.
St. Mary of Gostyn Catholic Church in Downers Grove continues to send a volunteer group — known as "Pud's Builders" — to Whitley City each year, though the diocese says organizers are required to tell participants about the allegations against Howlin. In a photo slideshow celebrating the group's 30th anniversary, there is a picture of Howlin wearing a bathrobe as he eats breakfast with volunteers. It has a caption reading "Pud...Shepherd/ Mentor/Priest/Friend."
At least some of the groups staying at the inn adjacent to Howlin's ranch house appear to be unaware of the priest's past. Mark Westendorf, a deacon who oversees his Cincinnati parish's regular mission trips to Whitley City, said he had no idea of Howlin's past.
The Cincinnati parish called the diocese for information about Howlin after being contacted by the Tribune, and Joliet officials disclosed his background, said diocese spokesman James Dwyer. If any of the other dozen volunteer groups scheduled to stay at the compound "choose to contact us, we will tell them everything they need to know," Dwyer said.
Joliet Bishop R. Daniel Conlon believes the diocese has handled the Howlin issue correctly, Dwyer said. Conlon, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, has met the diocese's obligation to inform the public of Howlin's circumstances by issuing a news release in 2002 and listing his name among priests with substantiated allegations on its website, Dwyer said.
"Since he's no longer a (functioning) priest of ours, how can any entity be expected to have the resources to know what someone else is doing at any given moment of the day?" Dwyer said. "We are no longer responsible for his actions, but we do our best to inform everyone when we hear something and have for the last decade.
"It's not in our diocese," said Dwyer, who added that diocesan officials had no knowledge of the circumstances of Howlin's current life until the Tribune raised questions. "We have no control over that aspect of what he's doing."
But Howlin is in fact still a Joliet Diocese priest who is supposed to answer to its bishop, according to both the Vatican and other experts. The diocese continues Howlin's pension, and Conlon has the authority to dictate where Howlin lives. Many dioceses give housing assignments to priests removed from ministry so that they can supervise them more effectively.
"Without any supervision, how can you be sure that he is meeting his lifetime sentence of penance and prayer?" asked Nicholas Cafardi, former dean of the Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh and one of the foremost lay canon lawyers in the United States. "Something doesn't quite click here."
In the nine years since the diocese review board deemed two allegations against Howlin credible, records show church officials have done little to keep tabs on him. His file includes only a few letters reminding him not to minister to the public and one forcing him to stop writing his "Cleric's Column" for the weekly newspaper.
Dwyer said there has been no reason to otherwise monitor his activity in Kentucky or demand his return to Joliet, even after the 2010 Vatican ruling prohibiting him from being alone with minors.
"From everything we've heard, he's so infirm right now," Dwyer said. "He doesn't get around much. So it almost seems like overkill."
The diocese fought for years to keep Howlin's records private, but it recently relinquished his personnel file and those of 14 other priests with substantiated claims against them as part of a legal settlement in an unrelated case.
Howlin became a diocesan priest in 1961 and spent his early career as an instructor at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary near Romeoville. In 1977 he was granted a three-year leave of absence to do missionary work in McCreary County, Ky., a hardscrabble area struggling with high unemployment, a rampant drug trade and a lack of social services.
As three years here turned into three decades, Howlin's reputation grew among the mostly Baptist locals. He led clothing drives, ran food pantries, helped build houses and brought running water to backwoods homes.
"We owe a lot to the Catholics around here," says Dora West, who lives in nearby Pine Knot. "Father Howlin put a lot of roofs over people's heads. That's why no one is going to believe anything bad about him."
Howlin was briefly suspended in 1995 after a former seminarian accused the priest of sexually molesting him during a camping trip. Records show the diocese review board found in the priest's favor. Church officials returned him to ministry after a Catholic psychiatric facility declared that Howlin did not pose a threat to children.
Seven years later, a California man sued Howlin, accusing him of repeated abuse when he was a 16-year-old seminarian at St. Charles Borromeo. The suit alleged that the abuse took place multiple times at the seminary and during a mission trip to Kentucky. A Will County judge dismissed the case, ruling that the statute of limitations had passed.
The Vatican ruled that it could not consider the claim because at the time of the allegation, church doctrine held that the boy was not a minor. Still, the diocese purchased an annuity worth $78,000 for the victim in 2010.
Church officials suspended the priest in 2002 pending investigation, and he was never reinstated. They attempted to distance themselves from Howlin by telling reporters that the diocese had very little contact with him since granting him leave in 1977. The contents of his 1,500-page personnel file, however, appear to contradict that claim. The file includes news clippings and voluminous correspondence about his missionary work over the years.
While the diocese's internal investigation of the California man's allegation was still pending, then-Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch wrote to one of the priest's friends complaining that he was forced to remove Howlin from ministry. On the day the letter was dated, June 12, 2002, Imesch was in Dallas with other bishops to adopt new guidelines to protect children from abusive priests.
"I am upset that Father Howlin has been released from ministry," Imesch wrote to the supporter. "... people like Father Howlin are removed from ministry for a period of time far beyond what I think is called for."
Local authorities in Kentucky responded with a different tone.
Commonwealth's Attorney Allen Trimble, whose district includes Whitley City, said in an interview that he was deeply disturbed by the allegation from the California man when he talked to him by phone in 2002. Diocese records show Trimble told a church official that "he would bet the farm" the allegation was true.
"I wanted to make a case, and I'd had a really good conversation with him," said Trimble, who added that he was disappointed but not surprised when the man did not follow through with a prosecution.
"Victims, especially men, are sometimes reluctant to prosecute," Trimble said.
Giving and taking
A year later, Howlin was accused of abusing her two teenage brothers, Michael and Jayson Bellamy, in Whitley City in the 1990s. Church records say Howlin established a relationship with the brothers, members of an extremely poor and "dysfunctional" family, by showering them with basic necessities such as school supplies, clothing and a refrigerator for their home. He sought sexual favors from the boys as payment, according to the allegation.
When the family later moved to Indiana, Howlin kept tabs on Michael through calls, letters and conversations with his grandparents, who stayed behind in Whitley City. Church records show that in three letters to Michael sent over two weeks, the priest wrote, "You're good and I love you."
Nine months later, in June 1998, Michael committed suicide, shooting himself in the right temple with a handgun. He was 17.
Diocese investigators found Michael had told his mother and grandmother about the alleged abuse before his death, but the women did not report Howlin, in part because of his stature in the community. They shared the accusation five years later, when Howlin already was suspended.
Both the diocese and a Vatican court substantiated the abuse allegations involving Michael and his younger brother, Jayson.
Their mother never filed a lawsuit against the diocese, but documents show church officials bought her a used car and a three-bedroom house to live in "for her lifetime" in southwestern Ohio.
Property records show the mother's home is held in a trust overseen by former Joliet Bishop J. Peter Sartain, who was promoted to Seattle archbishop in 2010. The property tax bill is sent to diocese offices in Joliet, records show.
Trimble said he was not familiar with the family's case but was not surprised it was not pursued with authorities. The region, he said, has a pervading mistrust of law enforcement and a bit of an outlaw culture. Seeking help from authorities could have been a bridge too far for people living in Whitley City.
"This county is probably as isolated a county as we have in the state of Kentucky," Trimble said. "It's also the Oxy(contin) capital of the state."
Jayson Bellamy, who has struggled with drug abuse and mental illness, did not seek reparations from the diocese. Currently serving time in an Ohio prison for aggravated vehicular assault, Bellamy told the Tribune the only payment he received was $40 from a diocese investigator for an Oxycontin prescription.
"I don't blame him (Howlin) for all of my problems. ... But what he took ruined my life," Bellamy said. "He took my sense of security. He took my self-esteem. He took my self-worth. He took my brother. Everything you're taught growing up, you now question. Things could have been so much different."
Bellamy, 31, still recalls the desperation he felt when, as alleged in records, Howlin bought him much-needed gym shoes and then asked for a sexual favor in return. The substantiated charges against the priest also allege that he offered Jayson $9 an hour for back rubs, a windfall for a teenager who often worked odd jobs to put food on his family's table.
Bellamy says he complied to help his unemployed mother. At one point, Howlin even bought the family a new refrigerator and gave Bellamy use of an old Mustang when he was only 14.
"I think the whole being-a-kid thing got skipped," Bellamy said during an interview at the Noble Correctional Institution in southeastern Ohio. "As long as everyone was all right, why say anything? Mom was smiling. Everyone was happy for the first time in a long time. No one needed nothing. That was a change."
Cash kept coming
The diocese review board deemed the sexual abuse allegations from the Bellamy family credible in 2004, but the contributions kept coming in for another three years. And they might not have stopped if a new parish priest had not looked into the donations shortly after his arrival at St. Paul's in 2007.
Rothfuchs' letter suggested that Howlin had exercised sole control over most donations coming from Joliet for years. Part of the money from St. Paul the Apostle went to cover his health insurance, but the rest, while earmarked in Joliet for Good Shepherd, went into Howlin's bank account. The records do not indicate the total amount collected since 1977, but the account contained about $23,000 in 2002, according to one diocese memo.
Rothfuchs reported to the diocese that he'd spoken to one of the Good Shepherd nuns, who told him "the mission has never directly received any donation from St. Paul's." The nun said she was aware of the monthly contribution, but it went to Howlin and she "thought it was his to do with at his discretion."
"When asked what he would be using the money for in the five years since he was suspended from ministry, (the nun) said that she didn't know and that during his suspension he had not forwarded any of the donated money to Good Shepherd Mission," Rothfuchs wrote. "She also indicated that he had been doing 'informal ministry on the side' to alcoholics."
In a series of interviews, a diocese spokesman said there was no evidence that Howlin misused the money, though he acknowledged that church officials never investigated the matter. Rather, the diocese assumed the donations went to the poor based on other people's observations that Howlin did not appear to live an extravagant lifestyle, Dwyer said.
"We don't know 100 percent for sure that there was not a misappropriation, but we don't have evidence to suggest otherwise," Dwyer said. "We know volunteers have gone down there and have come back and given testimony that was glowing about how it's been used to help the poor."
Jayson Bellamy counts his family among the poor that Howlin helped. He also counts his family among those Howlin hurt.
And it's the hurt that prompted him to speak out about an ugly chapter that others appear willing to ignore.
"If I can keep just one person from going through what I've seen and been through, then why not?" he asked. "It'd be inhumane not to."