Religious Orders Can Hide Abuse by Priests
By Julia Lieblich and Todd Lighty
April 7, 2002
As Roman Catholic dioceses across the nation struggle with allegations of sexual abuse by their priests, some are finding that independent religious orders have allowed priests with histories of misconduct to work in parishes where neither parishioners nor church officials knew of their past.
More than 15,000 of the 46,000 priests in the United States belong to religious orders whose members answer not to a diocese but to their own superiors. The order priests seek permission of dioceses to live and work in their parishes. As dioceses move to tighten control over their priests, order priests are not necessarily covered by local policies. And in some cases, communication about allegedly abusive priests has broken down amid mismatched policies, keeping crucial information from reaching churches where the priests work. Nearly a decade ago, a priest who reported to the Society of the Divine Word's Chicago province pleaded guilty to battery charges for touching the genitals of three 13-year-old boys in Indianapolis. Last week, the mother of one of those boys learned that the priest, whom she thought had been kept away from children, was working as a pastor in California.
"We had no idea he was still in ministry," said the mother, who asked that her name not be used to protect her son's identity. "I'm sure when he went to California they didn't tell parishioners what he'd been involved with in Indiana."
She was right. The priest's order failed to fully inform a California diocese about his history.
Just last week, the Archdiocese of Chicago acknowledged it did not know that a Salesian priest who worked in a Northwest Side parish had a long history of alleged sexual abuse. In 1999, the priest was accused of molesting four children from one Chicago family. The Salesians promised the archdiocese they would investigate but transferred the priest first to New Jersey and then out of the country, never notifying law-enforcement authorities of the allegations.
Seth Taube, a lawyer for the Salesians' eastern province, said Saturday that the province had not known of any prior misconduct by the priest, Rev. Carlos Peralta. During his time in New Jersey, Peralta had no unsupervised access to children, Taube said.
James Dwyer, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said officials were conducting an ongoing review of its policies for dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, adding that it's likely the review will include a discussion of order priests.
"We have less control over order priests than people think we do," Dwyer said.
"That's one of the archdiocese's problems," said Mark Cavins, a Cook County prosecutor in charge of the Child Advocacy and Protection Unit. "If you are a priest working for a religious order, the archdiocese doesn't consider you one of their priests. That's not good. You think the average Catholic or the average citizen on the street sees a difference between a priest working in an order and one for the archdiocese? A priest is a priest."
Religious orders are societies in the church whose members take public vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and commonly live in community with one another.
Charles Reid, a canon law expert at Emory University, said that although the orders are independent corporate structures, they have an interconnected relationship with the dioceses that requires coordination and communication.
Bishop is shepherd "The code of canon law is very clear. The bishop is the shepherd of the diocese," Reid said. "The bishop is the ultimate authority on what happens in the diocese. To borrow a political expression: The buck stops here."
On Friday, after inquiries from the Tribune, the San Bernardino, Calif., diocese began looking into why the Society of the Divine Word failed to inform them that Rev. Ponciano Ramos had been convicted in 1993 of battery charges for touching the genitals of three boys.
After Ramos' guilty plea, his order moved him to Chicago and then to Riverside, Calif. By 1998, he was the pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Yucca Valley.
Rev. Howard Lincoln, the spokesman for the San Bernardino diocese, said it has a strict policy "never to assign to any ministry a priest who has abused children. ... If he has abused children, there are no second chances in our diocese."
But, he said, the diocese had never received a copy of the court case and supporting documents from the order. "We had [the order's] unreserved recommendation, and we acted on what we received."
Ramos was a highly regarded priest at St. Rita Catholic Church in Indianapolis when a boy informed his parents that Ramos had touched him inappropriately.
According to papers filed in Marion County (Ind.) Superior Court, the incident began when a nun at St. Rita's Catholic School noticed a "terrible odor" in her classroom on April 24, 1992. Pupils told her it was a stink bomb and one boy admitted to setting it off accidentally.
After a second stink bomb was released, the nun summoned Ramos, who was director of the school. She asked him to question the 13 7th- and 8th-grade boys.
Talk with priest "The boys were lined up in the hallway outside the classroom and entered the room one by one to talk to Father Ramos," according to court papers.
Ramos told a boy, John, to unzip his pants. "When John did not do as he was told, Father Ramos undid John's pants and stretched them out," according to court papers. "He put his hand inside John's underwear and ran his hand along the inside crotch, thereby touching John's genitals."
Ramos admitted to the same scenario with two other boys.
As the case wound through criminal court, John's mother sent a five-page, handwritten letter to the judge. "[My son] was traumatized that someone he respected and had faith in would do such a thing," the mother wrote. "Because of the trauma John has suffered, he has been in therapy for 10 months trying to get his life back to normal. ... As a mother, it hurts me to see John is hurting and know there is little I can do to take away some of his pain."
But prosecutors agreed to drop the felony child molestation charges, and Ramos then pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges of battery.
Prosecutor Carol Orbison said that for a charge of molestation, the state had to prove Ramos was attempting to gratify himself or the child sexually. "[But] there was no rubbing described, no action that would allow me to argue sexual intent," she said.
Suspended sentence Ramos received an 18-month suspended sentence.
The priest also agreed to stay away from children during his 18-month probation, to pay for counseling for the three boys and to complete an educational program that "deals with issues of sexuality, sexual development, sexual victimization and appropriate boundaries to respect in contacts with other people (with emphasis on the adult/child relationship)."
Ramos, 55, did not return several telephone messages left last week at his parish, the provincial office and the diocese.
Religious orders generally are responsible for investigating their own priests and handling the legal proceedings. The Chicago province of the Society of the Divine Word paid for Ramos' legal representation and brought him to north suburban Techny, in the archdiocese of Chicago, where he stayed from May 1992 to September 1993 but was not involved in public ministry.
Chicago archdiocese officials said the order never informed them Ramos was in the area.
In 1993 the order transferred Ramos to Riverside, Calif., where he served as treasurer for the order's western province. The head of the Midwest province, Rev. Stanley Uroda, said he sent the western province materials detailing Ramos' background.
"They knew absolutely what occurred," Uroda said.
Any diocese where Ramos worked, he said, should have known his history, "to know what kind of risk they themselves should be taking."
Diocese not informed Rev. Eamonn Donnelly, provincial for the western province of the Society of the Divine Word, said the province's policy is "to tell the bishop everything."
But he acknowledged that his predecessor had never provided the diocese a full accounting of Ramos' past.
Donnelly said that although he now is responsible for overseeing Ramos, he did not know the details of the case.
"I got from hearsay what happened," he said.
Chuck Kleiss, who sits on the parish council at St. Mary's in Yucca Valley, said he was unaware of Ramos' past, and he doubts any other parishioners were either.
"He's a gem," Kleiss said of Ramos. "Everything about his personality and character is above reproach. ... Whatever he has done in the past, we all have little things we're not happy or too proud of."
One woman said that had she known of the past abuse, she would not have let her children be alone with Ramos. "If everyone was aware then things wouldn't be in the closet. I don't think anybody else would get hurt," she said. Still, she was among those who called Ramos a kind and well-respected priest.
But Orbison, the Indianapolis prosecutor, expressed concern upon hearing that the diocese of San Bernardino did not know of Ramos' history. "I think it's unfortunate and frightening that a person who employs him and puts him in a position of working with young children is not fully aware of the facts," Orbison said.
One of Ramos' victims said Friday that the priest should never be allowed to work around children.
Diocesan officials, he believes, dropped the ball in his case.
"If they leave it up to the order, they'll just blow this off like they've been doing," he said.
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