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  Priests Pose No Danger
Priests Pose No Danger, Archdiocese Assures Officials Say Children Safe, but Critics Are Skeptical

By Tom Heinen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
March 9, 2002

As Boston's pedophilia scandal rattles Roman Catholic dioceses across the nation, Milwaukee archdiocesan officials say measures they have taken are protecting children. But some critics of the church remain skeptical.

"People in the archdiocese should feel confident that the issue of sexual abuse involving priests and minors has been taken very seriously and that no priests who present any known dangers to minors are currently serving in a parish," said Jerry Topczewski, spokesman for the 10-county archdiocese.

Topczewski would not say how many allegations the archdiocese has investigated in recent years, how many priests have no pastoral assignment because of a history of sexual abuse of minors, or how much has been spent on out-of-court settlements and treatment of victims.

An internal review of past cases was made in recent days to ensure that policies and procedures the archdiocese adopted in the mid-1990s and earlier had been effective, he said.

"What it means, bottom line, is all we have to go on is their word, and there's no accountability feature in place," said Frank Martinelli, co-founder of an action network for survivors of clergy abuse that was active in the 1990s in Milwaukee. "We really have no way of knowing if the problem has been adequately addressed because there's no information."

Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland publicly launched Project Benjamin in 1989 as a response to allegations of sexual abuse against priests. Believed to be one of the first such projects in the nation, it initially helped victims, fielded complaints and responded in other ways.

It evolved into an archdiocesan office with detailed protocols for receiving complaints, conducting investigations, assisting victims, monitoring and getting treatment for offenders, and providing other services. The office now is run part time by Barbara Reinke, a licensed psychologist who also has a private practice.

Weakland referred a reporter's inquiries to Topczewski, who said no Milwaukee archdiocesan priests had been reassigned or removed from parishes because of sexual abuse incidents with minors since Boston's scandal arose this year.

Abuse in other states

That wasn't the case in California, where the Los Angeles Times reported Monday that in the last two weeks Cardinal Roger M. Mahony had directed as many as a dozen priests with a history of sexual abuse to retire or leave their ministries.

It was the latest in a series of reactions nationwide to the revelations in Boston, where a former priest was moved quietly from parish to parish over three decades by church officials who knew his history of sexual abuse. John Geoghan, who was defrocked in 1998, is accused of molesting 130 boys.

Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law -- the most senior Catholic prelate in the United States -- has responded to increasing pressure by removing 10 priests from their assignments and turning over to prosecutors the names of about 80 priests suspected of abusing children as long as four decades ago. Published reports this week indicated the Archdiocese of Boston could spend more than $40 million to settle the cases.

In turn, Philadelphia, New Hampshire and other dioceses around the country have suspended priests who were accused of molesting children. Some also have turned over names and other details to authorities even though the cases may be too old to prosecute.

Since about 1995, the Milwaukee archdiocese has had a policy of reporting "current" allegations of sexual abuse of minors to authorities, Topczewski said. A current allegation means the statute of limitations has not expired.

Only one prosecutable incident involving a diocesan priest has occurred here since 1990, he said. There also was one involving a religious order priest not under the direct supervision of the archdiocese. And the prosecution of a diocesan priest in the 1990s for incidents that occurred decades earlier was controversial.

Father John O'Brien, a Fond du Lac parish priest, was sentenced in 2000 to 18 months of probation and ordered to undergo psychiatric counseling for indecently touching a 17-year-old boy in a rectory in 1999.

A psychiatric team at a private residential treatment program has approved letting O'Brien provide limited help in a nursing home setting, but he has not begun doing that, Topczewski said.

In dealing with offenders, the archdiocese begins with a presumption against a ministerial reassignment, he added. Clerics are excluded from reassignment if they had a formal diagnosis of pedophilia (attraction to children before puberty) or ephebophilia (attraction to youths after puberty). Certain personality disorders also warrant exclusion.

The psychiatric team determined that O'Brien, who is in therapy, never was a pedophile or ephebophile, Topczewski said.

High rate of recidivism

Father Dennis A. Pecore, a Salvatorian order priest in Milwaukee, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1994 for repeatedly molesting a boy under the age of 13 from 1989 to 1992.

Father William J. Effinger in Sheboygan was sentenced in 1993 to 10 years in prison for assaulting young boys in the late 1960s and late 1970s. The archdiocese knew of similar complaints against Effinger during his stints at other parishes, and much like happened with Geoghan in Boston, reacted by reassigning him to parishes without warning anyone of the allegations.

Asked by the Catholic Herald in 1994 how he would handle cases then as opposed to 15 or 20 years ago, Weakland said he had relied on therapists' recommendations and hoped that he had learned from the experiences.

"Today, mental health professionals know more about the nature of the disorder and would not be so optimistic as then. The rate of recidivism is high."

Topczewski would not reveal the number of older cases that can no longer be prosecuted. Those, which involve adults reporting incidents that can be decades old, are the most common nationally.

Patricia Marchant, a Milwaukee psychotherapist who specializes in cases of sexual abuse, said measuring the problem by the number of victims who file a complaint within the criminal statute of limitations is bogus.

"The majority of victims repress their memories," said Marchant, who said she was sexually abused by a priest at the age of 8 but did not file a civil suit against the Diocese of Madison for 27 years. "It is too intolerable. My memories were so horrific there was no way I could even face that truth until years later."

Asked about reporting old cases to civil authorities, Topczewski said the diocese saw no benefit in that. "We believe that the protocols we have in place have addressed (this) through internal investigation to the satisfaction of those making the complaints, and the priests have been held accountable."

That sort of response doesn't satisfy critics such as Martinelli.

"You know, good intentions and 'Trust us, we've learned.' No other institution would be allowed to get away with that," he said. "It's like Enron saying, 'I know the public is concerned, but we'll take care of this ourselves.' "

Topczewski declined to provide statistics on out-of-court settlements and payments, the most common way dioceses nationwide have handled credible allegations of abuse that are outside the statute of limitations.

In 1995, Weakland reported that in the previous eight years the archdiocese, its insurance companies and offending priests had made $5.5 million in payments to victims, attorneys and mental health professionals treating victims.

According to that report, 12 unassignable priests were receiving support and treatment as of 1994.

Weakland had long declined to release such data to news media but did so after priests at an assembly raised questions and he responded to them.

 
 

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