The Catholic Diocese of Memphis Is at Work Creating a List of Clergy Who Are “credibly Accused” of Sexual Abuse of Children.
By Katherine Burgess
Memphis Commercial Appeal
September 9, 2019
As Memphis' Catholic diocese works on list of clergy accused of sex abuse, many questions remain
Bishop Carroll Thomas Dozier’s body is entombed in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, watched over by two kneeling stone angels.
Memphis’ first bishop is remembered for his activism: For opposing the segregation of schools, advocating for women’s rights and offering absolution to estranged Catholics.
He’s also “credibly accused” of sexually abusing a child, the Catholic Diocese of Richmond announced in February.
Nonetheless, his body remains in the cathedral, and his portrait continued to hang in the chancery this spring
Faced with increasing pressure from victims and advocates, the Catholic Diocese of Memphis is at work compiling its own list of credibly accused clergy. This comes after more than 135 other U.S. dioceses have released their own lists.
However, diocesan officials in Memphis have refused to answer questions about the criteria being used to create the list, what information will be included or who, exactly, is doing the work.
“I assure the people of the Memphis Diocese that we are taking all of the necessary steps to address your concerns,” Bishop David Talley wrote to people in the diocese in May. “As your Bishop, I promise to do everything in my power to safeguard our children and youth and to help those who are victims of abuse. We must be transparent and bring to light any wrongdoings of the past so healing can take place.”
Talley has asked lay members of the diocesan review board — which the diocese says includes judges, former prosecutors, medical professionals and experts — to review the diocese’s files regarding priests, bringing information to the board. Then, the board will provide Talley with a list of names.
Critics say the diocesan review board is not without bias: It serves at the will of the bishop. They also say that the Diocese of Memphis has been historically reluctant to release information, although that could change under its new bishop, Talley, who was installed in April.
What one victim’s mother thinks of the review board
Glinda Rhodes remembers going before the diocesan review board after the death of her son, Ian Watts, at 30 years old.
Watts had been the happiest of children, Rhodes said, until he began his second year at St. Anne Catholic School in Memphis.
For the next 20-something years, her son’s life spiraled out of control, Rhodes said, and she always had the gnawing feeling that something wasn’t right. Finally, after the Catholic Church had been racked with public scandals over sex abuse, she asked her son whether something had happened to him in Catholic school.
After treatment for alcohol abuse, Watts began recovering memories and told his father that he had been raped. Later, he returned to St. Anne, attending a midnight Mass on Christmas of 2010. He began to have flashbacks, telling his father, “Dad, they took turns with me.” He named two priests and said there was a third whose name he didn’t remember.
It had happened when he was seven years old, he said.
In early February of 2011, Watts died in a car crash.
Later, the family filed a complaint with the Diocese of Memphis, which initiated a process of evaluation. The diocesan review board interviewed some members of the family separately. Rhodes said that at the time she could identify a financial tie between all but one member of the board and the Catholic Diocese.
It was like a courtroom, she said, with them picking apart everything the family members had to say.
“The character of the priests was never an issue, never brought up,” she said.
One of the priests named by her son had been in seminary at the time, which the priest used to defend himself, Rhodes said. However, seminarians were regularly at the church, she said.
Ultimately, the review board said that while Watts had likely been sexually assaulted, because he was deceased, they couldn’t call his accusation credible.
“They make the determination. It’s their call from beginning to end and they do not look at the character of the priest,” Rhodes said. “That is not even brought into play.”
As for the review board creating a list of credibly accused clergy now, the thought makes Rhodes laugh bitterly.
The Diocese is part of a larger church contending with sex abuse
The Catholic Church has been increasingly pressured to grapple with allegations of sex abuse since the early 2000s, when the Boston Globe’s investigation into cover-ups in the Catholic Church gained national attention. In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a scathing report into findings of child sex abuse committed by Catholic clergy, prompting more dioceses to create their own lists before law enforcement creates it for them.
“Full transparency is the expectation right now from law enforcement to Catholics in the pews. I think being up front about credible abuse allegations is quickly becoming a standard that every diocese really should meet,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life. “Secrecy defined a culture of clericalism that created this context where abuse of power became the norm. I think those days are over.”
Although the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has urged Tennessee’s attorney general to investigate the state’s Catholic dioceses, the attorney general's office says it doesn’t have that jurisdiction.
Tennessee, and Memphis specifically, have their own histories of grappling with sex abuse allegations.
In November 2018, Nashville — which was the only diocese in the state until Memphis was created in 1970 and Knoxville in 1988 — released a list of 13 former priests who had been credibly accused. Knoxville then issued a statement saying they had only one other case involving an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest.
David Brown, an abuse survivor who is involved with SNAP, said that when Nashville released its list, they left some names off. SNAP pushed back and they later added some names, he said.
Some names expected on Memphis list are already known
The Memphis Diocese hasn’t released its own list, but priests have been named in other ways, in lawsuits and on other lists.
In 2010, Memphians learned that 15 priests over four decades had been accused of sex abuse in the diocese after documents were released to The Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Daily News regarding a “John Doe” lawsuit. Some names were redacted if the allegations had not been substantiated.
That release “stunned” Catholics in Memphis, Brown said.
That lawsuit focused on the Rev. Juan Carlos Duran, a former Dominican priest who abused a 14-year-old boy while serving at the Church of the Ascension in Raleigh. The Bolivian-born Duran had been expelled from the Franciscan Order in 1985 for sexually abusing a boy in Bolivia, but was nonetheless accepted by the Dominicans, who knew of his past.
The Dominicans moved Duran to assignments in Panama, Miami, St. Louis and Memphis with good references. He also faced allegations of sexual abuse of children in St. Louis, before being moved to Memphis and sexually abusing 14-year-old "John Doe." The diocese admitted to not doing a thorough background check, according to Commercial Appeal archives.
In some cases, lists released in other dioceses have included the names of clergy who served in Memphis.
The most shocking of those allegations was when the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, released its list that included Dozier, who was assigned to three parishes there before being appointed the first bishop of the Diocese of Memphis after it separated from the Diocese of Nashville. The allegation of abuse was made after his death, but other details were not given.
“Dozier’s a tough one. Dozier is very famous for being an enlightened bishop, being on the forefront of issues of racial justice and things like that. Nobody likes it when somebody like that is accused of child abuse. It complicates the narrative,” said Terence McKiernan, who leads BishopAccountability.org, an organization that tracks allegations against clergy. “If Richmond put him on their list, they put him on their list because he was credibly accused.”
The Catholic Diocese of Memphis said in a statement on Aug. 1 that Dozier’s inclusion on the Richmond list “will be one of the matters brought before the Review Board.”
“The Memphis Review Board is actively investigating the matter of Bishop Dozier, and Bishop Talley is assisting them in their efforts to collect whatever information from outside the Diocese might be available to them,” the statement read. “Since the Memphis Review Board has not yet completed their review, at this time the Diocese does not want to pre-judge their recommendation.”
Brown himself was abused at 15 years old while growing up in Nashville by the Rev. Paul Frederick Haas, who was dismissed in 1977 and died in 1979. He was later named on the Nashville list. Haas also spent time in Memphis, including on the faculty of Memphis Catholic High School.
“Release that list and do it now,” Brown said, as if speaking to the Diocese of Memphis. “Tomorrow’s too late.”
It's unclear how the review board will operate
Diocesan review boards were created to advise the diocesan or eparchial bishop “in his assessment of allegations of sexual abuse of minors and in his determination of a cleric’s suitability for ministry,” according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
“Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the diocesan bishop/eparch, with the advice of a qualified review board, to determine the gravity of the alleged act,” the charter reads.
McKiernan said it’s important to remember that members of the board are usually selected by the bishop.
Just how much information the review board works with is also up to the bishop.
In 2011, the chair of the diocesan review board in Philadelphia wrote an article explaining that she and other members of the board had been shocked to discover that they had not reviewed all cases of allegations against priests, nor did they know if all relevant information had been given to them regarding the cases that were presented.
The Catholic Diocese of Memphis did not answer a question about what criteria would be used to determine who is included on its list. When asked, it did not provide The Commercial Appeal with a list of members of the diocesan review board. Although Talley has authorized “employing a professional investigator to assist” the review board, the Diocese did not release the name of that investigator.
Retired FBI agent Kathleen McChesney, who was hired by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to establish its Office of Child and Youth Protection in 2002, said it can be a best practice for a diocese to use their review board to look at information.
She said she didn’t want to conflate reluctance with taking a measured approach toward creating a list. In some cases, a diocese has all the information available to make its disclosures, whereas others have merged or have little information in electronic formats.
In Memphis, diocesan files on priests and deacons have already been comprehensively reviewed twice. Talley’s request for a third review is “out of an abundance of caution and because he has arrived in Memphis so recently,” according to the diocese.
And when a list is released, there are questions of which names and details will be included.
SNAP criticized Talley, Memphis’ new bishop, when he was bishop of Alexandria, Louisiana, for not including work histories on their list.
McKiernan said it is fairly common to include an assignment history.
It is also important to include dates of those assignments, he said, allowing people to track down any gaps — whether a priest had shorter assignments than usual or may have been sent away for a period of time. It also shows whether they were allowed to pursue positions in close proximity to children.
Details like these allow people to learn about the diocese and “the enabling behavior as well as the abuse itself,” he said.
The Catholic Diocese of Memphis did not answer a question about whether work histories or types of abuse would be included in their list of credibly accused clergy.