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  Priest Accused of Molesting Teen Girl, Groping Women

By Joel Engelhardt
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
April 19, 2002

Police are investigating a former Palm Beach County priest accused of sexually abusing a teenage girl while she attended a local Catholic church more than 15 years ago.

The target of the investigation, the Rev. Frank Flynn, is the first priest in the 18-year history of the Palm Beach Diocese to be accused of molesting a minor, church officials said.

Father Flynn was dispatched to Ireland in 1997 after several women accused him of sexual misconduct.

Until now, the handling of Flynn's case has been defended by the diocese's interim leader, the Rev. James Murtagh, who had said that any sexual activity had been consensual or unproven but never criminal or involving minors.

Murtagh alerted State Attorney Barry Krischer on April 10, five days after the woman's mother told the diocese she had just learned of the allegations from her daughter, who is now an adult. The mother said the incidents occurred between 1979 and 1986.

The allegation heated up a long-running feud between the church and several parishioners, including outspoken critic and church benefactor Ed Ricci, over Flynn.

It took 15 years - from the first complaint by a prominent parishioner in 1982, through several allegations of unwanted advances and two out-of-court settlements - before the Palm Beach Diocese removed Flynn once and for all.

His case is very different from those of the many pedophile priests now confronting the church throughout America, but it offers disturbing parallels. In Boston, New York and many other cities, church leaders moved pedophile priests from parish to parish as they continued to attack young boys. Here, several women say the Palm Beach Diocese shrugged off their claims of priestly philandering and ultimately moved Father Flynn rather than defrock him.

Following the national pattern, the local diocese turned to physicians to pronounce Flynn fit before returning him to active duty.

Flynn is now development director of All Hallows Seminary in Dublin and remains a priest. He would not comment, but his attorney and friend, Jack Scarola, said, "The last thing he wants to do is add fuel to a fire that ought not to be burning at all."

When contacted about the most recent allegation, Flynn - speaking through Scarola - issued an adamant denial.

"He authorized me to tell you that he absolutely, unequivocally and emphatically denies any inappropriate sexual conduct with any minor ever at any time under any circumstances," Scarola said. "He is prepared to fully and completely cooperate in any investigation."

The state attorney's office asked Palm Beach Gardens police to investigate, because the alleged incident took place in the city at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church, where Flynn served from 1978 to 1988. Murtagh said he would refrain from conducting an internal church inquiry until police tell him to proceed.

Statute of limitations?

"Given the heightened state of awareness concerning these matters at present, we do not want our inaction to be perceived by the family, in any way, as a lack of concern by us," diocesan attorney C. Brooks Ricca Jr. wrote to Krischer. "At the same time, Father Murtagh wants to be certain that we do not take any steps which interfere with your duties. . . . Father Murtagh is adamant that swift action be taken but I will only proceed after you give the green light."

Police plan to interview the woman, who no longer lives in Palm Beach County. The investigation could be as short as one interview, because if the alleged sexual abuse is not a capital case, such as forcible rape, the statute of limitations to prosecute will have passed, Palm Beach Gardens police Maj. Robert Artola said.

Artola said fondling and even consensual sexual intercourse with a minor are not capital crimes and couldn't be prosecuted at this late date.

The statute of limitations on some sexual abuse charges starts running when the crime is reported or when the victim becomes 16 and runs until 20 years of age, he said.

For Ricci, the charge is another indication that the church erred when it moved Flynn to another parish after several women complained of unwanted advances.

"I've been saying that the guy was a sexual predator and now this is just another one coming out of the woodwork. I'm scandalized by it," Ricci said.

Ricci, the attorney for two women who urged the church to act against Flynn, has focused national attention on the diocese since allegations of pedophilia brought the downfall of two bishops, including Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, who resigned March 8.

Ricci has threatened to withhold his own six-figure contributions and persuade other major donors to withhold money until the church reforms.

In recent weeks, his anger has turned on the church's interim leader, Murtagh, who assigned Flynn a new parish in 1990 despite at least three sexual misconduct allegations. Ricci demanded Murtagh resign.

Murtagh, a church insider since the founding of the Palm Beach Diocese in 1984, called Ricci's outrage personal. Ricci denied it, saying he just wants the diocese to stop all abuse - whether the victim is a teenage boy or an adult woman. But Ricci also admits intense distrust of Murtagh because of his handling of Father Flynn.

Flynn's case illustrates how the church has handled accusations of misconduct against its priests, the very men entrusted to carry the word of God to the people. It casts light on the hold priests can have over parishioners and the fear that still grips women who feel they have been wronged at the hands of men.

In the church's view, an affair between a priest and a woman breaks the priest's vow of celibacy but no criminal laws.

As any other employer, the church must give its workers a chance to be treated and return to the job, Murtagh said. This is especially so for priests, who spend long years preparing for a spiritual quest that requires they cast aside the most intimate of human needs.

The church must balance its desire to avoid tormenting the flock, the alleged victim and the accused priest against its wish to assure parishioners a safe and inviting place to worship.

To the women, the early lack of action against Flynn is an abuse all its own, this time by a male-dominated church hierarchy. They ache over the behavior of a male authority figure with extraordinary power over them, a relationship that mimics the classic pattern of abuse: teacher over pupil, doctor over patient, priest over supplicant.

Even now, in a nation once consumed by the sexual exploits of a president, the allegations against Father Flynn are not easy for women to discuss. Five women who say Flynn made unwanted advances when he served as pastor at St. Ignatius agreed to discuss the incidents, either personally or through their attorneys, only with the promise of confidentiality. Their outrage is made all the more difficult by a lingering affection that surrounds this charismatic priest, a compassionate man who sat vigil at hospitals and appeared without prompting to help grieving families.

"He had a sixth sense about people needing friendship or advice. And he just was there. He was always there," said Mary Sykes, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Lake Worth, where Flynn spent his final seven years.

"Just to take this part of his life, probably the worst part of his life, the mistakes that he made, and judge him strictly on that - we would be bigger sinners," she said.

"Would I trust him with my life? You betcha. He was - he is - a good priest. A role model? Yes. He made a mistake? Yes. But you know what? That just proves he was human."

But several parishioners at St. Ignatius during the 1980s saw another side: a man who preyed on women and later reminded them in vulgar pantomime of his behavior. And a priest who returned from church-sponsored treatment for womanizing to host a conference designed to encourage women to play a more active role in the church.

At first, the church saw the allegations against Flynn as nothing more than one person's word against another's.

The fact that one of the women making the allegations was a prominent career woman did nothing to change that. Her identity and that of other alleged victims will remain confidential in keeping with a Palm Beach Post policy to maintain the privacy of women who allege sexual abuse.

She first came forward in 1982. Father Flynn grabbed her, pressed his body against her and kissed her in a room off the sanctuary, said her psychiatrist, Dr. Michael O'Hara Sr., and other female parishioners. She went to Miami, then the diocesan headquarters for Palm Beach County, to urge Father Flynn's removal.

But she did not file a formal complaint, which would have required an investigation, said Monsignor Pablo Navarro, then the archbishop's secretary. And in a recent interview, Murtagh characterized the allegation as nothing more than "he said/she said."

"Now you're right, the person has standing in the community. (But) that doesn't mean you have to take somebody's word if you can't prove something," Murtagh said. "We did not go to the authorities or preach against it - we did not discourage them (from going to the authorities.)"

In 1984, when the church created the Diocese of Palm Beach, the same woman complained to the new bishop, Thomas V. Daily. This time she was accompanied by an attorney - Ricci - but still the church did nothing.

Flynn stayed and his womanizing continued during the mid-1980s, say women who attended church at St. Ignatius or worked in the church office.

"It was like when you have a crazy person in the neighborhood and you say, 'That's him.' People talked about it all the time - women, not men," said one parishioner.

"We amused ourselves talking about how many women that he possibly could be doing it with," said another.

One woman, startled in the church offices by what she calls Flynn's unwanted advances, recalls slapping his face so hard she could still make out the imprint when he said Mass hours later. She said he never touched her again.

Another woman said she had just undergone surgery and considered Flynn her friend, until one fateful day.

"He just came up behind me and grabbed me. He kissed me. And not just like a little friendly hug and peck. Not like that. I was so startled. And I knew that I was so innocent. That I did nothing to bring this on," the woman said.

The woman who slapped Flynn said he caught her alone in a church kitchen with her back to the door. Another woman said Flynn invited her to his office and closed the door. The woman who had just undergone surgery said she simply found herself alone with her priest at the church offices.

The women said there were others and rumors of affairs swirled.

But only one of those three women complained to the church. She said she wrote a letter in the mid-1980s to then-Bishop Daily, whom she considered a friend. It went unanswered. She said she wrote another, telling Daily she resented his silence. Daily's response?

"(He said) 'If this is how you feel, I guess we won't be talking anymore,' " the woman said. "I felt betrayed."

Daily, now bishop at the Diocese of Brooklyn, refused to comment. He has recently been immersed in the scandal sweeping Boston, where court documents show that before coming to Palm Beach, Daily dismissed allegations of pedophilia against the Rev. John J. Geoghan, moved from parish to parish despite repeated allegations of molestation.

In Father Flynn's case, there would be no change until the allegations shifted from unwanted advances to a broken affair.

It started at a religious retreat with three other women and Father Flynn, the woman said in an e-mail to The Palm Beach Post. She stood before an ocean sunrise contemplating her troubles when a man surprised her from behind and wrapped his arms around her.

Only when she turned to face him could she tell who it was: her priest, Father Flynn. He kissed her, she said, and led her to his hotel room, where she gave in to his advances.

Church: Sex was consensual

The church called her behavior consensual sex. The woman and her psychiatrist, O'Hara, called it an inexcusable abuse of a priest's sacred trust.

"This was the beginning of my being a victim of his sexual molestation," she wrote.

The woman, who was married with a child, said she entered into a "sick relationship" that continued for many months, even while she lived in Atlanta caring for her dying father.

"After we had 'relations,' he would give me the Holy Eucharist to bring to my father. And when my father died, Frank flew to Atlanta to celebrate his funeral Mass because we were 'friends.' Sick? Yes!" the woman wrote.

The woman maintained her silence through a suicidal depression that forced her to undergo electroshock therapy. She said she hired O'Hara, a devout Catholic who holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame and Loyola University in Chicago, at Flynn's suggestion. It took months until she finally admitted the affair with her priest and achieved a breakthrough, O'Hara said.

O'Hara, already aware of at least one other alleged victim of Flynn's, recommended the woman hire Ricci, and together they met Bishop Daily, threatening a lawsuit.

The bishop argued that exposure would harm too many people, O'Hara said. Flynn at first refused but ultimately admitted the affair to Daily, the woman wrote.

A battle of wills ensued. The church and Flynn's attorney, Scarola, threatened to make the case public, Ricci said. The church, in a statement issued by Murtagh April 4, said Ricci threatened to go to the press.

The woman changed lawyers, hiring Palm Beach's Bob Montgomery, but decided she couldn't put her family through a trial. She agreed to silence her claim and the church agreed to pay some medical bills, a small percentage of costs that ultimately topped $250,000, she said.

"I will never forget the last thing that Bishop Daily said to me when he handed me the check: 'I hope you understand, I have to protect the people of God,' " the woman wrote. "That one statement did even more damage to me."

Montgomery's investigator, Joe Lundy, said the woman's affair with her priest was consensual - not rape. Scarola said that points out an important distinction: "If he was simply responding to the advances of a female parishioner that may not be proper but it's not illegal."

Murtagh called such incidents "consensual relationships gone sour." But that doesn't mean the church will ignore such behavior, he said.

"You can't have priests behaving in an immoral fashion. If it's reoccurring, then you have to stop it," he said.

O'Hara bristles when he hears anyone refer to an affair between a priest and a parishioner as "consensual."

"This was a very vulnerable woman. Unconsciously she's seeing this priest as being on a pedestal. They had the kind of relationship where he had power over her. He had enormous psychological power," said O'Hara, who has a practice in Jupiter.

In Flynn's case, the third complaint to the diocese - the first of a fully consummated sexual relationship - prodded the church to act.

Before he left the Palm Beach Diocese in April 1990, Daily relieved Flynn of his duties at St. Ignatius and sent him for medical treatment. When doctors cleared Flynn to return, Daily assigned him as an assistant at St. Sebastian Church in Sebastian.

Enter Father Murtagh. A panel of priests selected him to fill in as interim administrator during the four months before Daily's successor, J. Keith Symons, arrived. As interim leader, Murtagh returned Flynn to Palm Beach County as pastor of the diocese's second oldest parish, Sacred Heart in Lake Worth.

The decision would haunt him a decade later - in the person of Ed Ricci.

Ricci said he believes Murtagh acted to help a longtime friend, born in Ireland like Murtagh. Murtagh said he did it because doctors had cleared Flynn and he was in Sebastian simply awaiting an opening.

Furthermore, Murtagh said, returning Flynn to the priesthood followed diocesan policy.

Allegations of affairs between priests and adults are not the same as allegations of pedophilia, he said. An adult affair shatters vows of celibacy and breaks rules of moral conduct but does not violate criminal laws. The priest has erred but priests are human and humans make mistakes. Policy requires the priest be granted a second chance, he said.

To Ricci and Dr. O'Hara, it was cruel and foolhardy to put Flynn right back into an environment where he would be in a position of authority over vulnerable women. Daily had been warned, yet it happened again. He should never been given another parish, they said.

When Bishop Symons arrived in August, Ricci and O'Hara demanded an audience.

Symons was unmoved, they said. "He wasn't interested in what you had to say," O'Hara said.

Sacred Heart case surfaces

Symons, who resigned in 1998 over allegations of molesting teenage boys decades ago, was last reported to be serving at a monastery in Michigan.

A few years went by. Then a lawyer called Ricci for help putting together another case against Flynn, this time at Sacred Heart.

The lawyer, who Ricci has not identified, described familiar circumstances. The woman's husband was dying. She went to Flynn for counseling and he took advantage of her, Ricci said.

The church would settle with the woman and agree to remove Flynn in 1997, seven years after he started at Sacred Heart. Parishioners were told Flynn, who is now 59, had a weak heart and was leaving for health reasons.

Even then, he tried to stage a comeback after Symons left in 1998, Murtagh said.

That resulted in a visit from the first alleged victim, the prominent parishioner represented by Ricci. She threatened to expose the whole sordid affair. Murtagh said he advised the incoming bishop, O'Connell, against allowing Flynn to return.

"My counsel was that no way this would be possible," Murtagh said. "It doesn't mean he wouldn't be fit for the ministry somewhere. It depends on the situation and if his behavior is corrected."

Such action came too late as far as Ricci is concerned. The allegations against Flynn highlight the church's basic failure to understand the clergy's power over the faithful, he said.

"This is about sex, money and power. Ultimately power is reserved to an elite group of men who don't recognize the exploitation of women," Ricci said. "They don't believe the victim. They believe that all women are Jezebels. That's been the view of the Catholic church since the Middle Ages. It's a fundamentally anti-feminine attitude and it's shameful, absolutely shameful."

But Scarola is quick to warn that all may not be as it seems when it comes to Flynn.

"There are clearly two sides to the story. If one side is being presented as a circumstance where Father Flynn abused his power as a clergyman, there is clearly another side to that story," Scarola said.

"My interest is in seeing that there is a separation between legitimate public concerns about pedophilia and the far less significant public concerns about some priest who may have kissed a female parishioner who then decided that was inappropriate," he said.

Murtagh agreed.

"They (priests) have human weaknesses. Some of these consensual relationships between adults - we can't understand how that can happen," he said. "Now that it happened, we try to correct it, like with any other situation in the workplace.

"Because it's 'he said/she said' you can't prove anything, but nevertheless we'll be very sensitive to the claim and we'd be very receptive to providing counseling."

Father Flynn and the Palm Beach Diocese

1978: The Rev. Frank Flynn starts as pastor at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church in Palm Beach Gardens.

1982: A prominent parishioner complains that Flynn made an unwanted sexual advance.

1984: Diocese of Palm Beach created; Thomas Daily installed as bishop. Mid-1980s: Flynn makes unwanted advances toward three women, they say. One says she complained to Daily. The prominent parishioner, accompanied by attorney Ed Ricci, also complains to Daily.

1987-1989: A parishioner says she suffered a mental breakdown after having an affair with Flynn. The church pays some medical bills and sends Flynn for treatment. He then becomes an assistant pastor in Sebastian.

April 1990: Bishop Daily reassigned to Diocese of Brooklyn; the Rev. James Murtagh is appointed interim leader.

June 1990: Murtagh promotes Flynn to pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Lake Worth.

Summer-fall 1990: J. Keith Symons is installed as bishop; attorney Ricci and psychiatrist Michael O'Hara Sr. urge him to remove Flynn from Sacred Heart; he refuses.

March 1997: Flynn leaves Sacred Heart after a woman threatens to sue over alleged affair.

March-April 2002: Murtagh named interim leader after resignation of Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell; Ricci says Murtagh isn't doing enough to reform the diocese, cites role in Flynn's promotion; wants Murtagh to resign.

April 5, 2002: A woman tells Murtagh that her daughter is accusing Flynn of sexual misconduct between 1979 and 1986, when the daughter was a teenager. A police inquiry begins.

 
 

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