Archdiocese Sought a Quiet Way Out

By Tim Bryant, Greg Cancelada, Dawn Fallik, Jeremy Kohler, Thomas Lee, William Lhotka, Phillip O'Connor, and Patricia Rice
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
March 3, 2002

Until an abrupt change, the Catholic Church in St. Louis kept allegations of sexual abuse mostly under wraps. Some accusers were secretly paid. Some priests were moved. Sometimes, the allegations were dismissed.

For years, the St. Louis Archdiocese has tried to keep sexual abuse allegations against priests tightly under wraps.

The Roman Catholic archdiocese secretly paid people who made claims against priests, quietly reassigned accused priests or invoked the statute of limitations to escape lawsuits.

Its practices stood in stark contrast to the approach used across the river in the Belleville Diocese. When the Belleville Diocese dismissed 13 priests and a deacon during the 1990s over allegations of child sexual abuse, leaders candidly revealed their problems to the public.

But in St. Louis, in almost every case, members of the archdiocese's 220 parishes were told nothing of the allegations, investigations or final resolutions.

In the wake of the recent priest scandal in Boston, that pattern of silence suddenly changed when the St. Louis Archdiocese announced last week that it was removing two parish priests accused years ago of sexually abusing minors. On Saturday the archdiocese announced the removal of the Rev. Michael Campbell, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows and a member of the St. Louis Housing Authority's board. The Rev. Joseph D. Ross, pastor of St. Cronan Church, was removed Wednesday.

Bishop Timothy M. Dolan, who one month ago took over the task of overseeing claims of sexual abuse for the archdiocese, said the two resignations ensure that everyone in the archdiocese is in compliance with its new, stricter policy -- that no priest with a substantiated allegation of child sexual abuse should be in any pastoral setting or position that provides access to children.

"There is nobody we are worried about in the ministry," Dolan said.

But at least three priests who have been accused in civil court of sexual abuse remain active in the archdiocese today, two in contact with children, the Post-Dispatch has learned through interviews and a review of court records. The Rev. Bruce Forman is a director of a youth choir in Soulard. The Rev. Thomas Graham is chaplain at a nursing home in south St. Louis County, and the Rev. Leroy Valentine is an associate pastor in Florissant.

Dolan said accusations against the priests were unsubstantiated and the archdiocese has no plans to remove them. The archdiocese said it has no plans to review complaints against priests that it previously found not to be credible.

"I wrote this letter to stop him!"

Steven Pona said he was 14 and a member of Forman's choir in 1983 when Forman molested him. Forman assaulted him at least five times at a racquetball club, where the priest tried to remove the boy's swim trunks in the whirlpool, Pona said. In another incident, the priest took him to see "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" at a drive-in movie theater, where Pona said the priest forced him to drink Bud Light and tried to kiss him. He said Forman, who was then the pastor of St. Michael's Church in Shrewsbury, gave him pornography and invited him to spend the night at his house.

Forman denies the accusations.

Pona detailed the incidents in a 1983 letter to the St. Louis Archdiocese.

"I wrote this letter to stop him!" Pona said in his letter. "I know it's happened before, and I don't want it to happen again. I want you to do all you can to him."

The archdiocese never responded to his letter, said Pona, now 33.

"I heard nothing," he said last week. "I had to tuck it away and get on with my life."

That same year, Pona said, he also submitted to another priest a list of the names of 10 to 15 boys Pona said he had spoken with who said they also felt Forman had done inappropriate things to them.

Pona said he never heard back from the priest.

In 1995, Pona sued the archdiocese, claiming the incident triggered post-traumatic stress disorder. Attorneys for the archdiocese used Pona's letter to argue that his case should be dismissed, saying the statute of limitations had expired. A judge agreed, as did an appellate court.

Forman is now pastor at St. Peter and Paul Church in Soulard and directs the Young Catholic Musicians, an orchestra and choir of about 100 teen-agers.

He said the events never happened.

"This was resolved two years ago in my favor," Forman said in an interview last week. "False accusations against a priest are very traumatic. It calls into question their character. A false accusation has a strong physical toll and an emotional toll as well."

Pona said he spoke with Bishop Michael Sheridan four months ago about his claims.

"I felt compelled, this was the time," he said. Pona said Sheridan initially was "very receptive, very, very comforting, " and offered him the church's counseling services. In December, Pona said, Sheridan called him and told him that there was not enough evidence to support his accusations. Sheridan could not be reached for comment.

Pona said that he will continue to press his case under the church's new policy.

"I will never let this die," he said.

Graham was accused in a lawsuit of molesting a young boy from 1974 until 1981. The archdiocese reassigned him in the mid-1990s to a south St. Louis County nursing home for nuns. The lawsuit -- which was refiled in 1999 -- was resolved, according to court records. Graham declined to comment on Friday.

The archdiocese said last week that in some cases, priests accused of sexual misconduct are reassigned to duties such as nursing homes, where they could continue to serve as priests, but would not have access to children.

Valentine, currently an associate pastor at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Florissant, was removed from a previous parish following accusations of child molestation. Church officials didn't tell parishioners why he was moved.

He was placed on administrative leave and underwent rehabilitation at the Wounded Brothers Retreat in Franklin County.

In 1995, he was sued over sexual molestation accusations stemming from 1982. The case in St. Louis Circuit Court was resolved, and the file sealed in 1998.

Valentine, who has denied the allegations, declined to comment Friday.

Valentine was returned to a parish in October 1999, when he was assigned to St. Thomas as an associate pastor. The pastor, the Rev. Henry Garavaglia, wrote a letter to parishioners at St. Thomas about Valentine's new position and to tell them of the past allegations.

"The conclusion of the therapists who evaluated Father Valentine is clear that he poses no threat to children," the letter stated. "Additionally, the allegation has been resolved with no finding of guilty or liability on the part of Father Valentine."

Parishioners said they appreciated the open way the parish handled the situation.

"He's good with kids, and he's tough with them," said Phil Kiefer, who has three children in the parish. "I think you have to give them the benefit of the doubt and make them welcome."

Cases involving Forman, Graham and Valentine are among the more than 20 lawsuits filed in St. Louis and St. Louis County circuit courts against the archdiocese since 1994 alleging sexual abuse by priests, records show. The records of some of those cases are under court seal.

At least seven case files open to public view were settled for amounts that all parties agreed to keep confidential. In at least one other case, the archdiocese paid a $70,000 settlement to a victim who claimed to have been abused by a priest at a north St. Louis County retreat center. A court-appointed mediator assisted in some of the settlements. Other cases were dismissed outright.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis has one case pending against it, according to an archdiocesan lawyer. The Rev. Kenneth Roberts, a Dallas priest, is accused in the recently filed case with abusing children in St. Louis in the 1970s.

Only one of the cases has gone to trial.

In 1999, a jury ordered the archdiocese to pay Henry Bachmann $996,560 in actual and punitive damages over his claim that, when he was 13, the Rev. James Gummersbach sexually abused him. Jurors also awarded Bachmann's wife $200,000 for damage to the couple's marriage.

Two years ago, the Missouri Court of Appeals in St. Louis overturned the jury award saying the statute of limitations for suing the archdiocese had expired.

An appeals court judge at the time wrote, "We are mindful that, at times, the application of the statute of limitations may appear to produce a potentially unjust result. Yet, the statutes of limitations set by our legislature serve a legitimate purpose. Allowing a plaintiff unlimited time to bring an action increases the potential for spurious claims and decreases the court's or jury's ability to determine the truth."

Before the trial, Bachmann reached a separate out-of-court settlement with Gummersbach, now retired. The priest paid him $25,000.

Recent revelations

In the wake of recent revelations that the Boston diocese failed to remove 80 priests accused of sexually molesting children, dioceses across the country are being prompted to confront what may be the most devastating of pastoral transgressions.

The St. Louis Archdiocese's removal Ross and Campbell signaled its new policy.

Campbell has been a member of the St. Louis Housing Authority board since September. He is in his late 40s and was ordained a priest in 1979. Among the parishes where he has served is St. Raphael the Archangel in St. Louis Hills.

The review was made by the committee based on files and medical reports.

Many who know the pastor were surprised by the news.

"I'm surprised, and frankly, given what I know, I would give him the benefit of the doubt. If any charges are made, they really need to be looked at carefully," said James Shrewsbury, acting president of the Board of Aldermen, who has known the pastor for more than 10 years. "But allegations have to be thoroughly examined."

In St. Louis, the problem of child sexual abuse by priests long has occupied the leaders of the 550,000-member archdiocese.

Archdiocesan officials on Friday declined to discuss the details of cases in which priests were accused of sexually abusing a child. Officials also declined to give numbers of allegations or to say how many complaints had been referred to police.

Officials said that the allegations against the three priests who are still serving were not substantiated and that the priests pose no threat. They say they are doing everything they can to protect the public from problem priests.

Under archdiocesan rules adopted in 1996 for handling child sexual abuse allegations against a priest, the archdiocese's victim assistance coordinator immediately notifies police upon receiving any complaints of abuse by a priest, church officials said.

Archdiocesan policy then requires that the complaint be passed on to a 10-member sex abuse committee that meets within 48 hours of receiving the complaint. If the committee deems the allegation is credible, the priest is immediately pulled from the parish or school while local authorities continue to investigate. The committee has the priest evaluated by church-hired experts.

Under archdiocesan policy and recent state law, the complaint immediately would be reported to the police. The allegations leveled against the two priests were not reported to the police at the time, archdiocesan officials said, because they were not legally bound to do so. They also said they have no plans to notify police now.

Dolan said he believes the vast majority of the 838 priests working in the archdiocese serve honorably and well. He hopes that the new higher standard that led to last week's removal of the two priests will restore people's confidence in the church.

The primary concern of the church is the safety, welfare and trust of the people, Dolan said.

"Our standard is first to serve the victim," he said.

At the same time, the archdiocese also offers assistance to the priest, including testing, therapy or sometimes confining them in rehabilitation institutions for years.

Some victim advocates argue that the church should be more aggressive in suspending priests, even if the allegations against them can't be substantiated.

"As troubling and confusing as allegations may seem, the bottom line is that we have to always err on the side of protecting kids," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It's much harder for a child to repair his life, his psyche or her psyche and his or her spirituality than it is for a grownup to repair his reputation.

"There are probably few things in life that are worse than being accused of sexual abuse, but one thing that is worse is being abused, and another thing that's worse it being abused and not being believed."

In the aftermath of the Boston scandal, Dolan said the archdiocese will review older allegations of sexual abuse if the victims speak up.

"If there is anybody who has made an allegation in the past, let us hear from you," Dolan said.

CORRECTION-DATE: March 8, 2002


Two lawsuits accusing the Rev. Thomas Graham of sexual abuse were both dismissed at the request of the alleged victim. Attorney Ian P. Cooper, who represents Graham, said that no money was ever paid to the plaintiff in either case. This story included information about the suits against Graham.

Correction published March 15, 2002 - The position that the Rev. Bruce Forman held in 1983 with St. Michael's Church in Shrewsbury was incorrectly reported in this story. Forman was an associate pastor.


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