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  Cleric Ok'd Priest Transfer Despite Abuse Allegations
Former Dallas Diocese Official Cites Concerns about Confidentiality, Reputation

By Todd J. Gillman
Dallas Morning News
August 9, 1994

A top Roman Catholic official said Monday that he knew of sex abuse allegations against the Rev. Robert Peebles Jr. in 1984, yet agreed to transfer him to a Dallas church anyway.

"We made the best decision at the time in view of the circumstances," said Bishop David E. Fellhauer of the Victoria Diocese, who at the time was the second-ranking official in the Catholic Diocese of Dallas. "There are also matters of confidentiality and people's reputations."

Also Monday, Mr. Peebles confirmed the contents of court papers filed last week in which he admitted abusing at least seven boys while a priest. At least two of his five priestly assignments came after church superiors learned that he had been accused of sexually abusing boys.

"Everything I said in my deposition I said under oath, and I stand by it," said Mr. Peebles, now an attorney at New Orleans Legal Assistance. "I pray that God will give me the ability to accept the consequences of my sins as a gift from him and that he will have mercy on me and my family."

Court documents filed last week detail allegations that Catholic officials in Dallas repeatedly failed to protect young parishioners, despite growing evidence of sexual abuse by three priests, including Mr. Peebles.

Allegations in lawsuits against the three now involve what could be dozens of young victims during the past 15 years.

After one 1984 incident that led then-Father Peebles to resign as an Army chaplain - to avoid a court martial, say his accusers - he was moved to St. Augustine Catholic Church in Dallas as assistant pastor.

He eventually became pastor of St. Augustine before leaving the priesthood after three more boys accused him of sexual abuse.

Bishop Fellhauer, who was vicar general in Dallas from 1979 to 1990 , denies allegations of a cover-up. But he said Monday that in retrospect, the 1984 transfer was a mistake.

"In general, the church today takes a much more cautious approach to the reassignment of somebody against whom accusations have been made," he said.

Three of Mr. Peebles' alleged victims have filed lawsuits in state District Court in Dallas. In depositions in the cases, Mr. Peebles names Bishop Fellhauer and two other diocesan officials as knowing before his transfer to St. Augustine about the 1984 Army incident.

Bishop Fellhauer said he is deeply troubled by sex abuse scandals that have rocked the church nationally.

"It's been a very shocking and scandalous affair, a very sad episode," he said. "The actions of a few have brought a great deal of harm to the church."

Sylvia Demarest, attorney for the three "John Does" who have sued Mr. Peebles and church officials, says the diocese tried to cover up sexual abuse by clergymen and ignored complaints by victims.

Church officials deny that.

In a deposition taken in May and in medical records filed with one case, Mr. Peebles admitted that he molested between seven and 20 boys during five church assignments from 1979 to 1986.

Bishop Thomas Tschoepe, who retired in 1990 after 21 years as bishop of the Dallas Diocese, denied last week that church officials ever covered up any sexual abuse.

"A little bit" of sexual abuse did occur, he said, but "it's all blown out of proportion."

A third top church official who Mr. Peebles testified knew about allegations of sexual abuse before his 1984 transfer is on vacation and could not be reached for comment. The official, Monsignor Robert C. Rehkemper, is now pastor at All Saints Catholic Church in Far North Dallas.

Diocesan officials referred inquiries to attorney Randal Mathis, who represents the church in cases involving all three priests.

"I continue to believe that when all of the evidence is presented in court that the diocese will be able to demonstrate that the diocese reacted in a responsible and appropriate manner," Mr. Mathis said.

Mr. Peebles was formally "laicized" in 1989 after being forced to resign as a priest. He had been ordained in 1977.

Mr. Peebles entered Tulane University law school in 1987. The diocese paid $ 22,000 toward his tuition, plus $ 800 monthly for his first two years there. He joined the Louisiana bar in 1990, and bar records show no disciplinary action against him.

Court documents allege that the diocese's payments came after numerous warning signs or outright confessions that Mr. Peebles was molesting boys.

The documents say that in early 1982, at an annual priests' retreat conducted by the Dallas Diocese, Mr. Peebles confessed to a fellow clergyman, the retreat director, that he had molested two boys.

Mr. Peebles said in his deposition that the clergyman told him "not to be overly worried" and that the boys "could bounce back."

A few months later, Mr. Peebles was transferred to Fort Benning, Ga., where he served as an Army chaplain.

In 1984, he invited an altar boy from All Saints to visit him.

Once he arrived, the boy said, then-Capt. Peebles gave him beer and violently attacked him. The boy fled and told military police about the alleged sexual assault.

The suit says Capt. Peebles admitted to military investigators that he had sexually abused the teen-ager.

Army records included in the lawsuit show that Capt. Peebles also told military investigators that he had sexually molested a youth while at All Saints in the early 1980s and had "voluntarily entered psychological counseling" after being caught.

That counseling, according to the lawsuit, was paid for by the Dallas Diocese.

Mr. Peebles accepted a "less than honorable" discharge from the Army in 1984.

A few months later, church superiors transferred Mr. Peebles back to Dallas and made him assistant pastor at St. Augustine Church. He was promoted to pastor in June 1985 and held the post until August 1986.

Later that year, Mr. Peebles resigned his position as a priest and entered St. Luke's Institute in Maryland for treatment.

Medical records show that he had been referred for evaluation "because of admitted sexual involvement with adolescent boys."

Mr. Mathis, the diocese's attorney, said that after Mr. Peebles "returned to Dallas it was understood that he did not pose a continuing threat to anyone, based on medical advice."

On Monday, Mr. Peebles said the treatment he has received in the past few years has made a difference in his life. Asked whether getting treatment earlier would have made a difference, he said at first that he didn't know.

Then he said, "I did have treatment earlier."

Asked about the lawsuit allegations that his superiors should have acted more quickly to protect young church members from him, he said:

"I think they did the best they could knowing what they knew at the time."

 
 

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