Deceased Austin Priest Accused of Sex Abuse
By Esther Wang
April 24, 2002
A deceased Austin priest was accused of sexual abuse in a lawsuit filed Monday against the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore. - one day before Pope John Paul II condemned such acts within the Catholic Church.
An unnamed plaintiff named as R.H. alleges Father Rocco Perone - a priest at St. Austin Parish Church from 1957 to 1988 - sexually abused him more than two dozen times over a three year period from 1951 to 1953 starting when he was nine years old.
St. Austin's is located adjacent to the UT campus, along with the University Catholic Center. St. Austin church officials declined to comment.
The lawsuit is holding the Arch-diocese and the Paulist order of the Catholic Church liable for Perone's misconduct, saying both knew of the abuse in the mid-1950s but chose to ignore the complaints by transferring him to other parishes - first to Utah for a year, and then to Austin. This tactic of transferring known child molesters to different churches rather than punishing them has been played out in parishes across the nation, shaking the U.S. Catholic Church and prompting the Vatican to call a special meeting for U.S. cardinals in Rome.
Kelly Clark, the plaintiff's attorney in the lawsuit, said several witnesses have told him that parents of molested children complained to church authorities in the 1950s about Father Perone. He was transferred about a year later.
"Can we prove the causal connection? No. But is it a reasonable conclusion? Certainly," Clark said of the timing.
After speaking to witnesses, Clark said he believes Perone had a long history of abuse, possibly extending into his 30-year tenure in Austin. Several others, since learning of the lawsuit, have come forward with allegations of abuse against Perone, who died in 1992.
The priest was sent to a treatment center in the 1980s, during the end of his stay at St. Austin's - one more reason Clark believes he may have continued to molest children until he left Austin in 1988.
"We have a priest here who by our account abused five to 10 kids in a 10-year period in Oregon. What are the chances that he simply stopped abusing children upon getting to Austin?" Clark asked.
In Portland, Perone was an associate pastor working daily in the church, and when he was reassigned to St. Austin's, he became a missionary - based in Austin but traveling throughout Texas to preach in other parishes.
The Rev. Michael Evernden at the Paulist's main headquarters in New York advised people not to read too much into Perone's many transfers. Paulist priests in general are moved around several times throughout their lives, he said.
"I'm not saying there isn't, I'm just cautious about reading anything into it," Evernden said.
He said the complaints in the lawsuit are the first reported to the Paulists about the priest, but did acknowledge that Perone was sent to St. Luke's Institute outside of Washington, D.C., a treatment center specifically for priests with psychological or substance abuse problems.
The Archdiocese of Portland also said in a statement released Monday that it "has no record of receiving any complaints against Father Perone while he was in Portland."
The fact that R.H. and others are coming forward 50 years after the alleged incidents are a sign of a change within the Catholic Church, Evernden said, in light of the recent scandal concerning pedophilia and the priesthood.
Pope John Paul II's Tuesday address to U.S. cardinals, where he called the situation a "crisis" and a "crime" that "has no place in the priesthood," would never have occurred so publicly years ago, he said.
While 50 years ago the Catholic Church may have dealt with sexual abuse by brushing it under the carpet, today the church deals with those issues very openly - especially today, Evernden said.
"We have dealt very forthrightly with this," he said, adding the Paulists have always put its priests into treatment programs when notified of any problems. "There was more of that a long time ago, but we certainly don't deal with it that way now. I think we're dealing with a different kind of mindset here."
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