Across the Nation, Priest Sexual Abuse Cases Haunt Catholic Parishes
August 23, 2017
In May 2003, Thomas O’Brien, then bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix, admitted to sheltering at least 50 priests accused of sexual abuse, often shuffling them around to parishes across the state.
O'Brien's admission, released under an agreement with the county attorney, acknowledged he "allowed Roman Catholic priests under my supervision to work with minors after becoming aware of allegations of sexual misconduct." He also waived his own immunity should sexual misconduct allegations against him surface.
Thirteen years later, in a lawsuit filed last September, O'Brien — now bishop emeritus — was accused of sexually abusing a grade-school boy.
In recent months, USA TODAY Network reporters at the Pacific Daily News have uncovered scores of allegations involving 14 Catholic priests on Guam, where a former altar boy's accusation last summer that Archbishop Anthony Apuron sexually abused him in the 1970s has prompted other revelations.
Abuse cases also have roiled Catholic parishes elsewhere the nation, sometimes decades after evidence of the crimes first emerged.
In the O'Brien case, an Arizona man sued, claiming repressed memories resurfaced two years ago, according to court documents. The lawsuit accuses O'Brien, now 81, of sexual abuse from 1977 through 1982. O’Brien, who stepped aside as an active bishop in June 2003 after he was found guilty of leaving the scene of a fatal accident, denies the accusation.
The suit names 60 other Roman Catholic priests or church employees, dating back to the 1950s and alleges a cover-up.
The diocese itself eventually exposed some priests as part of an agreement with Arizona prosecutors in the early 2000s. At least two of the priests fled the U.S. and remain at large, and a substantial number are now dead.
A Maricopa County Superior Court judge is considering diocese attorneys’ motions to dismiss several of the lawsuit's 14 claims.
The 2003 agreement in O'Brien's case brought major changes within the Catholic Church in the Phoenix area, including victim assistance and training on sexual misconduct for all diocesan staff and volunteers
|Bishop Thomas O'Brien in 2002. (Photo: The Republic)|
In Louisiana: Church's response evolves
Accusations of sex crimes involving Catholic priests and children in Louisiana may date back seven decades, court records reveal.
The case of the Rev. F. David Broussard, who is expected in a St. Martin Parish court on Nov. 27, is the most recent. The 51-year-old former pastor in Breaux Bridge, La., while not accused of sexual contact with children, was charged in July 2016 with 500 counts of possession of child pornography after investigators say they found hundreds of images on his personal computer.
Broussard wrote a public apology after his arrest but pleaded not guilty to the felony charges in May. He remains free on $25,000 bond and is on administrative leave.
Former priest Mark A. Broussard (no relation to F. David Broussard), convicted in March 2016 of molesting altar boys in the neighboring diocese of Lake Charles in the late 1980s, was arrested in 2012 after a man wrote to Lake Charles Bishop Glen John Provost to reveal accusations against him.
Mark Broussard was sentenced in May 2016 to two consecutive life sentences for aggravated rape and 50 additional years for other sexual abuse charges.
Shattered faith: Nearly 100 sex abuse suits against Catholic priests rock island of Guam
The Lafayette-area cases were just two of many involving local priests and children. In 2014, a Minnesota Public Radio investigation uncovered a wealth of court-related documents tied to such incidents in the Diocese of Lafayette.
The link: the Most Rev. Harry Flynn, who was bishop both in Lafayette and in Minnesota, where sex abuse cases involving the clergy were uncovered. Those cases revealed that at least 15 Lafayette priests had sexually abused children.
The accused served in myriad church positions across the Lafayette diocese, including in small Acadiana towns such as Abbeville, where Gilbert Gauthe's case drew nationwide attention in the 1980s. Gauthe admitted to raping or sodomizing 37 children dating back to 1972; in 1986, he pleaded guilty to 11 counts of child molestation and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but he was released a decade early. As many as 100 people may have been abused by Gauthe, according to bishopaccountability.org, a watchdog website.
The Catholic Church’s response today to accusations of sex abuse involving clergy members is much different than it was in the latter half of the 20th century, when priests might merely be reassigned to different parishes, evidence shows.
Bishop Provost turned over accusations against Mark Broussard to police; Bishop Douglas Deshotel cooperated with local authorities when F. David Broussard was arrested. The Diocese of Lafayette now says it marches in step with the Catholic Church's mandates to protect children and since 2003 has enacted practices including criminal background checks and fingerprinting for clergy and others who have contact with minors.
In Delaware: Bankruptcy and new allegations
In 2002, as a child sexual abuse scandal in Boston's archdiocese engulfed the Catholic Church, The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., began chronicling decades of child abuse, cover-ups and quiet transfers of priests from one parish to another.
By 2011, the Diocese of Wilmington and several religious orders throughout the diocese distributed more than $110 million to 152 adult survivors who were sexually abused by area Catholic priests.
|GUAM PRIEST SCANDAL The Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica in Hagatna is shown in this file photo. An U.S. District Court judge has approved attorneys' request to consolidate as many as 25 clergy sex abuse lawsuits. (Photo: Jacqueline Hernandez, Pacific Daily News)|
Tens of millions more were paid in confidential settlements with dozens of other childhood rape survivors who had been abused in families, other churches, non-profit groups or in public, private or religious schools in Delaware, TheNews Journal found. Dozens of living and deceased priests were exposed as abusers.
The Wilmington diocese filed for Chapter 11 protection in 2009, just hours before the start of Delaware’s first trial involving sex abuse by a Catholic priest. At the time, the diocese listed assets of as much as $100 million and liabilities of as much as $500 million.
But the victims had the law on their side. In 2007, Delaware passed the Child Victims Act, one of the toughest child abuse laws in the nation. It gave accusers two years in which to file civil suits that otherwise would be barred by statutes of limitation. Under the settlement terms, the church agreed to measures designed to prevent future abuse, such as having survivors address candidates for the priesthood and appointing an independent child protection consultant.
The Wilmington diocese emerged from bankruptcy in 2011, after it laid off employees, liquidated an emergency fund and sold properties, including the bishop’s home.
Since the two-year window closed in 2009, six additional plaintiffs have said they were abused as children during the 1970s and 1980s, says Wilmington attorney Thomas Neuberger, who represented many of the original victims.
Wilmington diocese spokesman Robert Krebs said the diocese has not settled any abuse claims since 2011. The diocese did ask Pope Benedict XVI to laicize, or formally remove from the clergy, the nine priests it had suspended because of abuse allegations. Four of the cases are still pending, Krebs said.
In Minnesota: Statute of limitations lifted
Minnesota Catholic dioceses are wrestling with new accusations of priest abuse after a 2013 state law temporarily lifted the statute of limitations to file civil actions. Under the law, victims age 24 and under as of 2013 have unlimited time to sue. Those over 24 had a three-year window that ended in May 2016; by that time accusers had filed more than 800 claims against churches, schools, the Boy Scouts and a children’s theater.
The heightened scrutiny led to the downfall of two bishops, and two Catholic dioceses — including the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis — filed for bankruptcy in 2015.
Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Anthony Piche resigned in 2015, days after the archdiocese was criminally charged with child endangerment over its handling of an abusive priest who ultimately went to prison.
The Duluth diocese filed for bankruptcy in 2015 after a jury found it responsible for $4.8 million of an $8.1 million jury award to just one accuser.
The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minnesota disclosed a list of 71 priests with substantiated claims of sexual abuse of minors, archdiocese spokesman Tom Halden says. Most incidents occurred from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. The archdiocese says all men who were assigned there have been permanently removed from ministry.
The Diocese of St. Cloud, which covers a large part of rural Minnesota, is still working to resolve 74 claims, including 31 against clergy members, that were made during the three-year window, spokesman Joe Towalski says. Most claims are related to allegations from several decades ago.
In New York: Long-term loans pay out millions
New York accusers have filed 118 claims of abuse by Catholic clergy. The Archdiocese of New York has paid out more than $1.5 million to settle claims filed against six former Catholic priests from the Hudson Valley. The cases date as far back as the 1970s.
Seven men who say priests abused them when they were children filed claims and received individual settlements of $150,000 to $350,000.
Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, has called the 2016 compensation program "a sincere effort to try and help people achieve some measure of healing from what was done to them.”
The Diocese of Rochester published a list in 2012 of 23 priests accused of abuse and said all had been removed from public ministry. Bishop Matthew Clark, who has since left, had promised to update the list as new allegations of abuse arose and disclose the fates of four priests whose cases were still in progress. That never happened.
Doug Mandelaro, a spokesman for the Rochester Diocese, said no allegations have been made since 2012.
Two victims in Buffalo made their abuse allegations public in 2015, saying they were dissatisfied with how Bishop Richard Malone handled their cases.
Syracuse Bishop Robert Cunningham testified in a 2011 deposition that the victims of child-molesting priests are partly to blame for their own abuse. He apologized after the remarks were reported by the Syracuse Post-Standard in 2015.
In California: A big wake-up call
Uriel Ojeda, an assistant pastor at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Redding, surrendered to the Sacramento Police Department on Nov. 30, 2011, after complaints he sexually assaulted a young teen girl in her bedroom when he worked in Sacramento that year. In 2013, Ojeda began serving an eight-year sentence at Avenal State Prison.
|The Rev. Uriel Ojeda, 32, a priest in the Sacramento Roman Catholic diocese, is seen during his arraignment on child molestation charges in Sacramento Superior Court in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, Dec. 2, 2011. Ojeda ultimately was sentenced to eight years in prison for assaulting a young teen girl. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP)|
Diocese spokesman Kevin Eckery said Ojeda was removed from the priesthood and no longer receives money or spiritual support from the diocese. The victim and her family received counseling.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, which covers 20 counties from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Oregon border, came under fire in 2005 when 33 people accused 10 priests of sexual assault from decades earlier. The diocese settled the lawsuit, offering $35 million to victims one day before a civil trial was to begin.
Eckery said that case spurred the diocese to change their rules to include background checks and fingerprinting for priests and evaluating whether they are fit to work with children. “There’s no excuse for what happened,” Eckery said.
In Pennsylvania: Ongoing investigations
A Pennsylvania grand jury investigating sexual abuse by priests recently recommended charges against the Rev. John T. Sweeney of Greensburg, according to a statement by the state’s attorney general’s office. In July, prosecutors charged Sweeney with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, accusing him of using his position to force a 10-year-old-boy to perform oral sex.
|Rev. John T. Sweeney, of Greensburg, Pa. arrives for an appearance before District Judge Cheryl J. Peck-Yakopec, in Leechburg, Pa., Monday, July 24, 2017. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced that Sweeney was arrested and charged with involuntary sexual intercourse, a first-degree felony, for a sexual assault committed against a 10-year-old boy. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) (Photo: Gene J. Puskar, AP)|
A statewide grand jury is investigating six of Pennsylvania’s eight Catholic dioceses. Five dioceses confirmed they were served subpoenas.
A two-year investigation by the state attorney general’s office into the Altoona-Johnstown diocese found last year that at least 50 priests or religious leaders were involved in the sexual abuse of children.
Multiple grand jury reports have found that priests in the Philadelphia diocese sexually abused children — one 2005 report found abuse by 63 priests.
In Iowa: From uncooperative to excellent
As recently as 2015, at least one Iowa Catholic diocese was still dealing with the fallout from an abuse scandal that rocked the state in the mid-2000s.
In January 2015, Pope Francis removed Howard Fitzgerald, a veteran pastor who worked in central and western Iowa for decades, after an investigation revealed he sexually abused a minor decades ago. Fitzgerald was the fifth priest defrocked for sexual misconduct in the Des Moines diocese since 2003.
Independent auditors hired by the U.S. Conference of Bishops applauded the diocese encompassing Des Moines in 2004 for “the excellence and extent of Bishop Joseph Charron’s communications policy and practices.”
Diocese: Iowa pastor asked to be released from priesthood
In a 2010 letter, Bishop Richard Pates said the diocese is committed to preventing sexual abuse, pointing out it notifies civil authorities when allegations arise and offers a victim assistance advocate outside the church.
But in contrast, the independent auditors left the Diocese of Davenport "because they were unable to verify whether or not it had adopted the mandated policies,” according to reporting by The Des Moines Register in 2004. At the time, diocese attorneys insisted on being present for auditors’ interviews with church leaders and employees.
Davenport's diocese, with $4.5 million in assets, became the fourth in the nation to file for bankruptcy in 2006, following Portland, Oregon; Tucson, Arizona; and Spokane, Washington. Days later, Pope Benedict XVI appointed a new bishop.
The Archdiocese of Dubuque did not reply to a request for information on any current legal proceedings, but church representatives for the dioceses in Des Moines, Davenport and Sioux City said there were no pending cases involving priest sexual abuse.
“The bottom line in all of this is that the Catholic Church cares about children — all children — and wants to protect them,” Des Moines Bishop Pates wrote in 2010. “Jesus had a special place in his heart for them, and the church can be no less loving."
Contributing: Jerod MacDonald-Evoy, The Arizona Republic; Ken Stickney, The (Lafayette, La.) Daily Advertiser; Margie Fishman, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal; Stephanie Dickrell, St. Cloud (Minn.) Times; Jorge Fitz-Gibbon, Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal; Sean Lahman, Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle; Amber Sandhu, Redding (Calif.) Record Searchlight; Joel Shannon, York (Pa.) Daily Record; Courtney Crowder, The Des Moines Register; Greg Toppo, USA TODAY.