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  Diocese Busy Paying for Sins of Its Fathers
With Another Pedophilia Lawsuit Just Settled, and Others Pending, the Local Diocese Continues to Find Itself Mired in Controversy over Sexual Offenses by Priests

By Debbie Salamone, Gene Yasuda and Jim Leusner
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
September 17, 1995

Thrust into the public spotlight repeatedly this year by a sexual abuse scandal, the Catholic Diocese of Orlando promises to do all it can to halt priests from preying on young parishioners.

It's an assurance that's been made before.

Diocese officials contend they have taken swift action against priests who are pedophiles.

Yet the diocese in the past simply has moved wayward priests to other parishes, paid settlements to victims in exchange for their silence and helped at least one troubled priest find a job outside the church, as a family counselor.

Those practices, outlined in detail in several lawsuits against the diocese and former priests, now threaten the very thing church officials try to protect - the trust of loyal Catholic followers.

The emotional toll also has carried a financial cost. The diocese so far has paid millions of dollars in settlements to victims involved in dozens of attacks by priests during the past two decades. At least one lawsuit was settled privately in recent weeks, but the church remains embroiled in two other suits and is talking to several other alleged victims.

And if victims are successful in claiming that the church acted improperly in handling pedophilia problems, millions more could be at stake.

Pedophilia in Central Florida

The problems have a long history. From 1973 to 1994, priests in the Orlando diocese were accused of, or admitted to, molesting nearly three dozen youths, mostly boys, according to court documents and interviews with church officials, priests, abuse victims and lawyers.

Such attacks left victims emotionally shattered. One committed suicide; another tried to kill himself.

While most of the alleged attacks occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, many victims came forward only recently after years of counseling.

Although diocese officials say they regret the past abuse cases, they insist they, like most of society, knew little then about pedophilia or how to curtail it. But as they gained more knowledge over the years, church leaders said they did their best to protect young children by upgrading sex abuse policies and taking swift action against accused pedophiles.

But records show that, even in some recent cases, the church has been slow to oust problem priests.

Here and across the nation, that reluctance to deal swiftly with troubled priests is partly why many dioceses have had their lawyers working overtime.

"The main reason people are going to civil courts with problems with priests is . . . they're fed up with being manipulated, lied to and jacked around," said Father Thomas Doyle, a priest for 25 years who is currently an Air Force chaplain near Fort Walton Beach.

The canon lawyer and former top official at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., is now a critic of the church. He has provided testimony 70 times about the church's poor handling of pedophilia and is a witness in one lawsuit against the Orlando diocese.

The Catholic Church's pedophilia problem became a national issue in 1983. Lafayette, La., priest Gilbert Gauthe was accused of molesting at least 35 boys and girls. Gauthe received a 20-year prison term, and the church paid an estimated $20 million in settlements.

The case sounded a nationwide alarm that the church was not immune from such tragedies. In many places, church officials recognized financial liability and questioned whether confession, counseling and moving priests among parishes were effective measures.

But the Orlando Diocese, which includes nine Central Florida counties, didn't act until two years later when scandal in its own back yard became public.

In 1985, four boys sued the diocese, alleging abuse by Father William Authenrieth between 1978 and 1983 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Rockledge. Several of the victims had been altar boys. At the time, the church had no written policy on how to deal with such sex abuse cases.

Authenrieth, 58, admitted molesting the boys but was never prosecuted because of evidence problems. Eventually, he was forced from the diocese and asked to leave the priesthood.

But the case hit the diocese's pocketbook hard - costing more than $2 million.

The policy that was born in part from that scandal a decade ago remains today. It works like this, according to Orlando Diocese Chancellor Sister Lucy Vazquez: After a complaint, church officials call the state child abuse hot line, suspend the priest, require a psychological evaluation, investigate internally and provide victim counseling.

If a priest receives treatment, he could return to a church post where contact with children is limited. Otherwise, the priest is dismissed and may permanently lose priestly credentials.

The diocese says it is not its responsibility to contact law enforcement, saying that should be done by the victims. Instead, church officials say they instruct victims on how to prosecute. Since its most recent scandal, the church has begun publicly requesting that victims report abuse to the church.

Once a victim has gone to the church with a complaint, Vazquez said the Orlando Diocese informs the public only when it has permission from the victims to do so.

But victims groups, such as the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in Chicago, say going to the diocese first gives church officials a chance to dissuade victims from calling police or suing the church.

Until recently, public announcements of alleged sexual misconduct have been rare. Instead, the church has opted for secrecy in out-of-court settlements and quiet negotiations with victims.

Attorneys Sheldon Stevens and Charles E. Davis, who have fought the diocese in several cases, contend that the church has covered up for some pedophiles. The church denies that.

"There has been absolutely no effort to cover up anything. There has been no effort to protect perpetrators," Vazquez said. "The first concern I have is the victims. . . . The pain they've gone through. . . . Children were hurt, and we couldn't stand by and allow that to happen."

Are diocese officials doing enough?

Orlando's efforts to fight pedophilia, through its policies and practices, fall short when compared with what other dioceses are doing around the country. For example:

The Archdiocese of Chicago has fired two dozen priests since 1991. Rather than conduct investigations itself, the diocese employs a victim advocate and an experienced child abuse investigator to deal with church cases. Victims groups and law enforcement officials applaud such efforts, saying church officials, with an obvious conflict of interest, shouldn't police themselves. They also say clergy aren't trained or qualified to investigate.

The Diocese of Belleville, Ill., where 12 priests were accused of sexual misconduct in recent years, has a toll-free, confidential number for victims to report abuse to the church.

When a Belleville priest is dismissed, church leaders write to the priest's supervisor explaining the allegations. Parishioners also get the letter and are invited to a church meeting with counselors present. Later, the media are notified.

"They (parishioners) feel they're well-informed and the diocese is taking the issue very seriously," said Belleville Vicar General Rev. James Margason.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis created an educational videotape for its parishes and, more importantly, in 1992 began criminal background checks on priests and employees. That way church officials ducting criminal background and fingerprint checks.

A look at the past

The 1985 policy was supposed to halt past practices. Before then, Orlando transferred priests among parishes when faced with accusations, according to court records, attorneys and even Bishop Dorsey, who took over the nine-county diocese in 1990.

Some left the diocese only to find priestly work elsewhere. It was uncommon for police to get involved or for details about accusations to leak out from the diocese. Local Catholics were left in the dark.

But with its policy in place, church officials committed to fight pedophilia aggressively.

"Nineteen eighty-five was a sincere effort on the part of Bishop (Thomas) Grady to address the problem . . . When the Authenrieth case happened, we had no policies in writing or in place - but neither did anybody else," Vazquez said. "It was the best attempt at that time to address the problem and protect potential victims."

Court records, however, show that diocese leaders neither dealt swiftly nor effectively with some accused abusers in the following years.

In 1986, a year after the policy began, the church struck a deal to pay for the college education of an accused pedophile priest if he left the church, according to court records and church officials.

Since then, a lawsuit filed in Brevard County contends that church officials knew about the allegations against Father Thomas Pagni but continued to move him among various parishes. The allegations have not been proved in court, but the church eventually would get him out of the priesthood by paying for his training to become a mental health counselor.

Pagni, 45, now is charged with molesting three teen-age boys in Brevard County whom he met through his work as a youth and family counselor in recent years. The cases are pending.

Church officials have said they relied on psychologists who thought Pagni's pedophilia problems were corrected and he could continue as a priest. Officials said they paid for his education because they thought it was "the compassionate thing to do."

Pagni, who now lives in Tampa, denies all the allegations, said his St. Petersburg attorney, Robert Pope.

Father Eamon O'Dowd was accused in 1983 of having an affair with a Seminole County parishioner and her 12-year-old daughter while at St. Charles Borromeo Church in College Park. Although O'Dowd, 65, has not returned repeated phone calls for comment, he maintained his innocence on television months ago.

He was charged in 1983 with lewd assault, but the charge was dropped when he entered a pretrial diversion program and got counseling.

Three years later, in 1986, the church paid the Seminole County family $250,000 in an out-of-court settlement that prohibits the family from talking about the matter, according to court records.

The diocese transferred O'Dowd to other churches where he remained until March. But church officials, who called O'Dowd an exemplary priest during the past 12 years, said he retired after recent publicity made it impossible for him to continue working.

Father Arthur Bendixen, one-time chancellor of the diocese, was suspended in February 1994, four months after the church received a sexual abuse complaint against him.

A year later, a former altar boy sued, alleging sexual abuse between 1982 and 1994. The lawsuit alleges the diocese failed to recognize signs of Bendixen's sexual activity, particularly after another priest spotted him naked in bed with a young boy in 1978. A former priest and a church activist in Orlando said they called for investigations of Bendixen in 1986 and in 1992, but nothing was done.

Bendixen, 44, who denies molesting the altar boy, maintains he was offered other priestly jobs even after the September 1993 complaint. Bendixen, once the diocese's No. 3 official, is unfamiliar with any other allegations. He is in his native Peru and could not be reached.

The church has reached several out-of-court settlements with men who say they were abused as boys by Bendixen.

In all the cases outlined above, church officials say they acted properly. Diocese officials would not talk about Bendixen in detail because the former altar boys' lawsuit is pending.

However, in court papers filed in that lawsuit, the church says it never had any warning about Bendixen before the September 1993 complaint.

The third and most recent lawsuit against the church this year - in addition to those against Bendixen and Pagni - ended recently.

The diocese said it reached an out-of-court settlement with a man who said he was molested at age 15 in 1980 by retired Volusia priest Lawrence Redmond.

Redmond, 58, the former vicar general - a top deputy to the bishop for 3 1/2 years - retired in January, citing heart problems. He declined comment on the allegations. The part of the lawsuit containing accusations against Redmond was thrown out because the man waited too long to sue.

Chancellor Vazquez said settlements also have been made with other men who claim abuse by Redmond. She will not discuss the settlements but said six men have come forward, including one in the past few weeks.

"The vast majority of our ministry are good men who help people," Vazquez said. "But if we have any priest who hurts anyone, it's one too many."

Financial fallout

What if Stevens and other attorneys win large settlements or verdicts against the church?

Diocese officials will not discuss their insurance coverage because of pending litigation. But two years ago, church attorney Robert Pleus said the diocese for four years had been unable to purchase insurance coverage. If money was needed to pay a claim, "it would come out of the collection plate," Pleus said.

Pleus said at the time the church was setting money aside to cover future claims. He said that in the 1980s, insurance companies nationwide began eliminating or greatly reducing the availability of liability coverage for misconduct involving priests.

So far, court records and various sources say the Orlando Diocese's pedophilia tab has reached at least $3 million in settlements. Payments in the 1985 case involving Authenrieth account for much of that; the rest took the form of secret settlements made before people actually sued in court. The total amount is unknown and could be much higher.

Nationally, the picture is similar.

Numerous church experts, including victim advocate groups and former church officials who have studied the issue, estimate up to 6 percent of the nation's 53,000 priests are pedophiles. They have arrived at that widely reported estimate mainly through study of court settlements and priests who have sought treatment.

The figure also was cited in a 25-year study by a former Catholic priest who is now a psychotherapist. Richard Sipe interviewed 1,500 priests and others with firsthand knowledge of priests' sexual behavior and extrapolated the 6 percent figure. The church has criticized it, claiming the actual figure is much lower.

Outside experts also estimate settlements and attorney fees have cost the church up to $650 million. Church officials estimate the costs are much less, perhaps $125 million.

What can the church do? Some church critics point to changing celibacy rules. But psychologists disagree if such a lifestyle and pedophilia are linked. Others think a change in church structure, which gives bishops virtually unchecked power, should be examined.

"They (bishops) don't want to be held accountable to the press or the civil courts," said Jason Berry, author of Lead Us Not Into Temptation, a book on the church's sex abuse crisis. "I don't think they have even come close to addressing the core problem, which is the culture of the priesthood itself."

Victims and their advocates say the church's attack on pedophilia will change only if individual bishops commit to halting the crime in their dioceses. Ultimately, it is the bishop who ousts a pedophile priest - or keeps him as a servant of God.

 
 

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