SYRACUSE Police Raised Concerns about Priest 30 Years before Child-molesting Accusations Surfaced
By John O'Brien
December 11, 2014
|Monsignor Charles Eckermann in 1984, when the Syracuse Diocese appointed him principal of Bishop Ludden High School then abruptly removed him days later without explanation. (John Berry | The Post-Standard)|
A 30-year-old secret began to unravel two months ago when the Vatican defrocked Monsignor Charles Eckermann over child-molesting allegations.
Two retired Syracuse police officers remembered Eckermann's name.
John Falge remembered how, at a hastily called meeting in 1984, Syracuse's police chief ordered him to deliver a warning about Eckermann to the bishop of the Syracuse Diocese.
Police had seen Eckermann soliciting male prostitutes repeatedly in downtown Syracuse, according to Falge and another retired officer, Thomas Murphy.
In May 1984, then-Bishop Frank Harrison announced that Eckermann would be the principal of Bishop Ludden High School. Police Chief Thomas Sardino wanted to put a stop to it immediately. He called Falge and Murphy into to his office that same day and gave Falge an order, the two officers say.
Falge was told to go to the bishop right away, reveal Eckermann's alleged misconduct, and make an unusual demand, said Falge, who would later become police chief himself.
As Falge recalls it, the chief said: "I want you to go over there and tell him that I, the chief of police, adamantly am opposed to this, and I do not want him in that position, with kids there, because of this guy's conduct. I want you to stay there until he assures you or personally transfers him, right there on the spot."
The next day, Harrison rescinded the appointment and sent Eckermann to a parish in Binghamton.
This back story remained a mystery for 30 years. A newspaper story in May 1984 said only that Harrison had suddenly reversed his appointment of Eckermann the day after making it. He would not say why.
The diocese never warned worshipers in Binghamton or in Syracuse's suburbs about the concerns over Eckermann.
Four years later, Eckermann began sexually assaulting an altar boy at a church in Manlius where Eckermann was assigned, according to the altar boy, Kevin Braney.
Braney brought his allegations to the diocese last year. The diocese determined they were credible.
The Vatican ordered Eckermann removed from all priestly duties this year after confirming the diocese's finding that Braney's allegations were credible.
Falge and Murphy, both police sergeants in 1984, revealed Eckermann's history to Syracuse.com last month after reading a story about the Syracuse Diocese and the Vatican taking action against Eckermann.
|John Falge in 2000, when he was Syracuse police chief. In 1984, as a sergeant, he warned Bishop Frank Harrison that police had seen Monsignor Charles Eckermann repeatedly picking up prostitutes downtown. The bishop immediately rescinded Eckermann's appointment as principal of Bishop Ludden High School.|
The diocese has no record of the police department bringing its concerns about Eckermann to Harrison, spokeswoman Danielle Cummings said. Two players are no longer alive to tell their story: Sardino died July 14, 2000, Harrison died May 1, 2004.
Eckermann was a big name on the local education scene at the time. He was a member of the Syracuse school board and former president of the board when Harrison appointed him Ludden's principal.
It didn't matter to Sardino, Falge and Murphy said.
"He said 'No way, we're not gonna allow this to happen, not in our community,'" Falge said.
Accuser: Church could've stopped Eckermann
Police could have charged Eckermann with patronizing a prostitute, a move that might've ended his work in education. But the charges would not likely have stuck, Falge said. Officers never caught Eckermann soliciting a police officer working undercover, so any criminal charge for patronizing a real prostitute would've depended on the prostitute's cooperation, Falge said.
"How am I gonna get someone to say, 'Oh yeah, he gave me money?'" Falge asked. "They're not gonna do it. At that time, that was a plague we had, trying to get the prostitutes off the street. They weren't going to give up their livelihood to have someone arrested."
The police had no evidence that Eckermann was engaging in sex with children, including the prostitutes, Falge said.
"If there was ever a minor involved, he would've gone to the can faster than you can blink," he said.
Braney, now 41 and a school administrator in Colorado, said the church should never have allowed Eckermann to be around children after the 1984 warning.
"Tragically for my family and me, the church did not take the steps to protect children from a known predator," Braney said. "The suffering that we have undergone has been indescribable, and to know that it was so easily prevented is heartbreaking."
The diocese's handling of Eckermann 30 years ago echoes others nationwide, said the head of a national organization that advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse.
"It's a painfully familiar pattern," said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, out of St. Louis. "Syracuse Catholic officials did with Monsignor Eckermann what thousands of Catholic officials have done and usually do with troubled clerics -- at best, the absolute bare minimum and at worst the enabling of extremely hurtful actions that could and should have been prevented."
Braney said he hopes his case will demonstrate a need to scrutinize how the church handles allegations of abusive priests. He said he was thankful that Falge and Murphy were willing to speak publicly about what happened in 1984.
Eckermann, 83, did not respond to a letter seeking comment about the 1984 accusations. In October, Eckermann declined to be interviewed about his removal from the ministry or Braney's accusations.
An earlier version of this story said Eckermann lives at The Nottingham, a senior living community in Jamesville. But a spokesman for Loretto, the nonprofit that owns the facility, said today that Eckermann moved out a month ago -- a few weeks after Syracuse.com first reported the accusations against him. The spokesman would not say where Eckermann's living.
'Tell the truth,' bishop tells ex-cop.
Bishop Robert Cunningham, in an interview with Syracuse.com last month, said Falge called him two months ago, when a reporter first asked about the 1984 situation.
"He wanted to know if I had any suggestions," Cunningham said. "I said, 'You should just tell him the truth.'"
It's hard to say how the church would handle the same circumstances today, the bishop said.
|Syracuse Bishop Robert Cunningham on Nov. 24, 2014.|
"We certainly would see that the person probably needed counseling and some spiritual direction as to whether he was in the right place as a priest," Cunningham said. "Priests are sinners. Like everybody else, none of us are perfect. We all want to strive for holiness. We all want to do what God expects of us."
In Eckermann's case, after the diocese was put on notice, "unfortunately, we found out that things happened which should not have happened," Cunningham said. "We're sorry about that, terribly sorry about that."
Another man came forward in 2002 with sexual abuse allegations against Eckermann, Cummings said. But that accuser later changed his statement and would not cooperate, she said.
Braney was the first accuser of Eckermann to fully cooperate, she said.
"When that happened, I took the information, acted upon it as quickly as I could, as soon as we found out what the story was, and we moved forward," Cunningham said.
Murphy said he wrote a letter to Cunningham in October after seeing a newspaper story about the diocese taking action against Eckermann over Braney's accusations.
In his letter, Murphy said he wanted to give the back story on Eckermann.
"The diocese knew, and this kid never should've been a victim," Murphy said, referring to Braney. "Eckermann never should've been put back in a parish again."
Cunningham called Murphy after getting the letter.
"He said, 'That would never happen on my watch,'" Murphy said.
Contact John O'Brien at email@example.com or 315-470-2187.