Evansville diocese kept identity of 'incurable pedophile' priest secret in 1990s
By Jon Webb
Evansville Courier & Press
April 1, 2019
“Father Joseph Clauss, a retired priest of the Diocese of Evansville, celebrates his birthday Sept. 27. He resides at Guadeloupe Retreat Center.”
That was one of several upbeat messages that appeared in diocesan newspaper The Message all through the 1990s. The paper consistently marked Clauss' birthday and the anniversary of his ordination.
But it never mentioned the reason for his “retirement.” Or why he lived at a complex in Southern California.
In 2002, the truth finally came out: Clauss was an “incurable pedophile.”
This February, the diocese released the names of 12 priests who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. Clauss, who died in 2003, was one of them.
There were 10 substantiated allegations against him – the second-most of anyone on the list. He admitted to one.
The details of those accusations have never been made public. And for 12 years, the diocese shielded churchgoers from the truth about a man who once taught their children and worshiped alongside them for decades.
Pastor and teacher
Clauss was ordained as a priest in 1956.
He went on to serve as pastor or associate pastor at six churches throughout the diocese. That doesn’t include residencies or administrative work at four other churches, nor does it scrape his varied career in the Catholic school system.
He served as a teacher at Memorial High School before becoming superintendent at Loogootee’s St. John High School in 1967 and Washington Catholic High School in 1969.
That all ended in December 1990. Details are scant, but that’s when Clauss was reportedly accused of molesting a child in Ohio. The diocese put him on administrative leave.
At least that’s how the church phrased it in this February’s release and some of The Message blurbs. But vague explanations of Clauss’ status varied in his "happy birthday" messages.
Sometimes he was on “medical leave.” Eventually, that morphed into “retired” – quite a congenial term, considering the truth.
After the church heard about the Ohio allegation, then-Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger banned Clauss from public ministry and shipped him to a series of retreats run by a religious order called Servants of the Paraclete.
Diocese officials said they reported the matter to police. Clauss never faced any charges for any of the accusations against him.
All this didn’t become public until May 2002, when a new allegation surfaced amid a flurry of accusations against other Evansville priests. It was all part of a nationwide reckoning in the wake of explosive reporting by the Boston Globe – a reckoning that’s still taking place today.
Diocese officials called Clauss an “incurable pedophile.” First in California and then New Mexico, Clauss and several other priests received treatment at various facilities for everything from depression to pedophilia.
Many of the men were accused of unspeakable crimes, but the places were hardly prisons. According to Courier & Press stories from 2002, the Cherry Valley complex where Clauss first stayed featured a swimming pool and shuffleboard court.
After the Paraclete consolidated operations, Clauss moved to the Villa Louis Martin in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. That place boasted private rooms, walking trails and cable TV, among other amenities.
In 2002, a Paraclete spokesman told the Courier that daily room and board at the Villa was $65 – not counting medical bills or additional treatment.
Clauss lived at the facilities from 1990 until his death in 2003, and according to the Courier archives, the diocese paid for all of it.
He was supposedly kept under constant supervision, stripped of all monastic titles and not allowed to go into nearby towns without a chaperone. The man who once served as a teacher and principal in Evansville posed a serious danger to children.
However, a June 2002 report from the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California, questioned how closely Paraclete members watched the disgraced priests at the New Mexico retreat. The story claimed several of them even worked in nearby parishes.
A 2018 lawsuit, meanwhile, argued that the priests treated at Paraclete centers should be included on the list of accused clerics within the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
The suit stated that 43 names should be added to the 74 already accused. Among those 43 was Joseph Clauss – although he was never accused of working in New Mexico parishes or committing additional offenses, as far as we know.
The Villa Louis Martin played a pivotal role in the coverup scandal that engulfed Pennsylvania dioceses last year. A lawsuit alleged the church used the complex to "laundry" abusive priests and stick them back in the system, where they were free to commit more abuse.
And according to the Press-Enterprise, many residents who lived near the treatment centers had no idea what went on there.
“I was told that it was a place for ‘wayward priests’ with alcohol problems,” Cherry Valley resident Patsy Reeley told the paper in 2002. “But I never saw anybody there. It was a very quiet place, very obscure. I doubt many people knew it was a place for pedophiles.”
‘Stop sending him money’
That kind of secrecy may have aided a bizarre incident back in Evansville.
In 2002, about three weeks after the initial story on him broke, Clauss was accused of bilking his former Evansville parishioners out of money.
The Courier & Press obtained letters Clauss wrote to at least two elderly Evansville women. In them, he claimed he needed donations to fuel his tireless mission work at the Morongo Indian Reservation.
Of course, he wasn't doing mission work. He was marooned at a facility for predator priests.
But the women didn't know that at the time they received the letters. They reportedly sent him small amounts of cash, some of which was deposited in an investment account at a Vincennes bank, according to statements snagged by the C&P in 2002.
Gettelfinger called a meeting at St. Joseph Catholic Church to address the matter. He said Clauss attempted the same grift two years before with a member of his former congregation at Resurrection Catholic Church.
Clauss’ replacement at Resurrection, the Rev. Ray Brenner, spoke with the woman.
“I told her to stop sending him money,” he said in 2002. “I told her the diocese was taking care of his needs.”
Gettelfinger told churchgoers Clauss was “in denial” about his life. That he would never admit why he’d spent more than a decade in a secretive complex for pedophiles.
Gettelfinger said he planned to fly to New Mexico to confront Clauss one last time.
But the whole incident – and the blanket of secrecy that shrouded Clauss for 12 years – left some of the women’s family members feeling angry and deceived.
“The bishop sheltered this information and caused more harm than good,” one of the women’s daughters told the Courier & Press in 2002. “… The church seems to believe silence is morally correct.”