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  Archdiocese Ousts Priest from Church
He Was Accused of Sexual Abuse 15 Years Ago

Older Cases Are Being Reviewed

By Patricia Rice and Phillip O'Connor
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
March 1, 2002

The Archdiocese of St. Louis removed the pastor of a church in St. Louis this week in response to sexual abuse charges leveled against him 15 years ago.

Officials say the removal of the Rev. Joseph D. Ross as pastor of St. Cronan Catholic Church is the result of an archdiocesan review of older cases to see whether additional action is warranted. It is uncertain whether more removals will follow.

The review comes at a time when Roman Catholic officials across the country are under intense scrutiny. The Boston diocese is being criticized for failing to remove 80 priests accused of sexually molesting children.

The allegations against Ross date to when he was an associate pastor at Christ the King Catholic Church in University City.

"In the case of Father Ross, we are not talking about a new allegation of abuse," said Steve Mamanella, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. "Instead, this decision revolves around a more stringent standard being implemented as part of our regular archdiocesan review. Father Ross is someone who has had a creditable allegation in the past and remained in a parish assignment because he was evaluated as posing no risk."

Ross could not be reached for comment.

Thursday afternoon, hand-painted signs decorated with a flower, butterflies or hearts rested against a sun room wall outside the front door of the St. Cronan Rectory. The church is at 1203 South Boyle Avenue.

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The signs read: "We're with you Joe," "We love you Father Joe," "WWJD (What would Jesus Do?)" and "You'll always be parish family."

A woman who answered the rectory door said Ross was not there and said she'd been told to refer any inquiries to Bishop Timothy Dolan of the archdiocese. Parish members say Ross is staying with friends.

At the St. Cronan Parish Center across the street, a man and a woman who said they worked for the parish declined to comment and also referred questions to Dolan. The man, who said he was the janitor and part of the congregation, said few church members lived in the area. Instead, most are the children and grandchildren of those who once lived in the neighborhood, but now drive in for services, he said.

Mamanella, speaking on behalf of Dolan, called Ross' removal a sign of the change in the American cultural mind-set about sexual abuse in the 1980s.

The archdiocese's special sexual abuse committee is reviewing allegations made prior to 1996, when new church policies were put in place, Mamanella said.

The committee includes three priests, an ordained deacon, a social worker, teachers and seven lay experts, including a psychiatrist. Dolan is the archdiocesan vicar in charge of sexual abuse allegations.

Parishioners support priest

Many St. Cronan parishioners expressed dismay, disappointment and anger that the archdiocese had requested that Ross resign.

"I stand behind Father Joe completely and totally, and as far I am concerned, the archdiocese has moved rashly," said Dennis Geivett, who has been attending the church for 20 years, though he is not a Catholic. "It's a cowardly act, at the very least a rash act on the man's reputation."

News of Ross' removal spread Wednesday on the parish "telephone tree" and via e-mail. That night, about 100 people gathered for a special 7 p.m. meeting in the church's sanctuary, according to more than a half dozen people who attended.

The 30-minute meeting began with a hymn and prayer, they said. A parish member then read a letter from Ross, in which the priest said he had been removed because of the 15-year-old allegation.

After the announcement, they prayed for the pastor, who had helped the parish become active in social justice issues, including efforts to end the death penalty, parishioners said. Afterward, parishioners stayed in the pews and talked about how Ross needs their compassion and support, attendants said. Several scribbled notes that they then left for him in the rectory.

"The parish is feeling victimized by the lack of process," said Angie O'Gorman, a parishioner and former member of the parish council. "This kind of disappearance of our pastor is unacceptable. This is not a moral way to deal with employees."

Jennifer Halling, a 12-year member of the parish, said Ross has served well.

"He has baptized our children, sat with those dying of cancer and buried our dead," Halling said. "Father Joe is our brother."

About 350 people attend weekly services at the 123-year-old parish. Ross had served at the church for 11 years. He was ordained in 1969.

David Clohessy, the St. Louis-based director of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he had sympathy for the victim.

"My heart goes out to (Ross') victim or victims," said Clohessy, who was abused as a boy by a priest in another region. "It must have been awful to know that even after taking the courageous step of reporting abuse that this man was reassigned a parish.

"I also feel for parishioners at St. Cronan. It's a vibrant parish of good people."

The red-brick church with a steeple topped by a mint-green colored cross is wedged between Tower Grove and Manchester avenues, just south of Highway 40.

The blocks surrounding the red-brick church are dotted with s treet-corner churches, a few small industrial shops, boarded-up buildings and abandoned lots. A few new homes are sprinkled among the neighborhood.

But most of the area consists of small, brick apartment buildings and weathered and worn one-story bungalows, some in need of repair. Small American flags are visible in the windows.

During one 30-minute span Thursday afternoon, three cars pulled up in front of a house nearly in the church's shadow and honked their horns. Each time, a young man emerged from a nearby dilapidated apartment building, ran to the car, leaned in and then retreated back indoors, in what appeared to be drug transactions.

Later Thursday afternoon, yellow school buses and private vehicles pulled up outside the community center to drop children at the church's after-school care center.

About 10 miles to the northwest, in an area of University City with wide, tree-lined streets and manicured lawns, you'll find Christ the King, Ross' former church. The pretty yellow-limestone church with the red tile roof sits nestled in a neighborhood of tidy two-story brick homes. On some Sunday mornings, the sidewalks carry many parishioners to Mass.

Father John Jay Hughes, senior priest in residence at Christ the King, said he was unaware of Ross' removal from St. Cronan until told by a reporter. He said he was unaware of the circumstances of Ross' departure from Christ the King 15 years earlier.

"You hear so many different things," he said, declining to elaborate. "I don't know why he was removed from this parish. He moved on. Priests move on for all kinds of reasons."

Several longtime parishioners said the church made no announcement about the reason for Ross' departure at the time, but one longtime parish employee said she was aware that Ross "was asked to leave" the parish.

"He was gone within a very short period of time," she said.

 
 

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