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  Former Archbishop Testifies Priest Seemed Rehabilitated

By Chip Johnson
Saint Paul Pioneer Press
February 13, 1996

Former Archbishop John Roach testified Monday that a priest with a history of sexually molesting young boys continued leading parishes because he was spiritually reinvigorated through a "religious experience."

The former archbishop of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese testified for nearly three hours in the punitive phase of the trial of the Rev. Robert Kapoun, known across Minnesota as the "Polka Padre" because of leading Masses to polka music. Meanwhile, it was announced Monday that Kapoun had been asked to resign from the priesthood.

Last week, a Hennepin County jury awarded Prior Lake resident Dale Scheffler, 28, $550,000 after determining that Kapoun molested him during a camping trip nearly 15 years ago.

Scheffler's attorney, Jeffrey Anderson, who has handled hundreds of such cases, said a punitive award would send a powerful message to the archdiocese.

In 1992, an Anoka County jury awarded a victim $2.8 million in punitive damages, but the judge reduced the award to $100,000, Anderson said.

On the witness stand, Roach told jurors he discovered a "new, changed man" in discussions with Kapoun in 1987, after the priest had completed psychological and spiritual counseling.

"I found him to be a dramatically changed person," said the retired archbishop. Kapoun was "believable, holy, very honest about things he'd done in the past," he added.

In retrospect, the decision to allow Kapoun to remain a parish priest was a good one, Roach said. Kapoun was removed last week from a parish position in Heidelberg, and he was asked to resign his priesthood.

During his tenure, Roach acknowledged there were at least five priests who were accused of sexually molesting male youths. None of them has ever been charged with a crime.

"You have no idea about the prayer and grief I have been through," he said.

The trial questions the existence of a legitimate policy toward dealing with pedophile priests in the Catholic church, and provides an appropriate backdrop for the victims, who say the church's practice is to first ignore and then to dismiss or to conceal the problem.

According to previous studies, there is no evidence to suggest that pedophilia is more prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church than other professions, but the church has been severely criticized for the way it has handled the issue.

Since the early 1980s, there have been allegations of sexual assault brought by parishioners around the nation. Throughout the ordeal, church officials have used spiritual and psychological counseling to address the problem.

"We began in the early '80s with no knowledge of pedophilia, and we were in good company," Roach said. "We thought it was a treatable disease, but we began to learn how serious it was. We made some terrible mistakes."

On Monday, the gallery in District Judge Gary Dawson's courtroom was packed with observers. Some onlookers were sexual abuse victims, their relatives or friends. During courtroom breaks, many of them shared stories and traded telephone numbers.

Barbara Blaine, the founder and president of SNAP, Survivors Network Of Those Abused By Priests, said Catholic sexual abuse victims are taught not "to air dirty laundry in public," referring to the reluctance of victims to involve law enforcement officials.

"They tell us they will fix it and we believe them," Blaine said.

When first confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct in the early 1980s, Roach admitted that church officials at the archdiocese office were poorly equipped to address the problem.

"At that time, none of us could have defined pedophilia," said Roach. "We were ill-equipped to deal with a phenomena we knew nothing about."

Blaine disputed that position.

"We knew before 1985 that it was wrong to abuse kids," she said. "To say they didn't know, is absurd. We knew."

 
 

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