Punishing the Wayward
Flores Has Disciplined Nine Priests,but Still Faces Some Criticism
By J. Michael Parker
San Antonio Express-News [Texas]
April 28, 2002
In the past 16 years, San Antonio's Catholic archdiocese has dealt with nine wayward priests, including four indicted on child molestation charges and a priest who admitted three years ago to several affairs with women and who fathered a child when he was pastor of a local parish.
One of the priests, Father Xavier Ortiz-Dietz, is serving a 20-year prison sentence for aggravated sexual assault of a child after he was accused in 1992 of molesting five altar boys. Four years ago, the archdiocese reached a $4 million settlement with Dietz's victims.
As U.S. bishops move toward a national policy on sexual misconduct by priests in the wake of a meeting between U.S. cardinals and Pope John Paul II, the nine area cases shed light on how Archbishop Patrick Flores has treated problem priests and victims of their abuse.
Flores and his deputies say they investigate complaints quickly and thoroughly. Since 1986, the archbishop has suspended eight priests for sexual misconduct on the recommendation of a crisis intervention committee.
He sent the ninth into counseling in 1998 after the panel, most of whose 12 members are lay people and all of whom are credentialed counselors, advised Flores to monitor the priest for inappropriate behavior but not to suspend him. The accusation against that priest involved an adult, not a minor.
From all appearances, most rank-and-file Catholics here respect their priests unless they have witnessed suspicious activities.
In Boston, where the church covered up more than 100 sex-abuse complaints against a priest, polls show more than two-thirds of Cardinal Bernard Law's flock want him to resign. Law has become a symbol of the crisis sweeping the American Catholic church and its failures to effectively address sexual abuse cases.
Such anger hasn't been directed at Flores, who has no history of shuttling high-risk priests from parish to parish.
"My faith is still strong. I'm not going to stop being a Catholic because of what a small number of priests have done," said Margaret Collazo of St. Anthony of Padua Parish.
She said she trusts Flores and his staff to handle allegations quickly, but added, "My faith is not in priests - it's in God."
Flores is still vulnerable to criticism. A Survey USA poll conducted for KSAT-TV showed last week that 40 percent of adult Catholic respondents disapproved of how he has addressed the issue of sexual misconduct by priests, while 28 percent support his handling of it. The survey had a margin of error of 5.7 percent.
Some victims and their advocates say Flores has failed to respond to obvious red flags in the backgrounds or behavior of some priests, and that even when confronted with victims' allegations, he has reacted with skepticism.
"The archdiocese doesn't follow its own policies," said J. Douglas Sutter, a Houston lawyer who recently petitioned the Vatican to remove Flores. "It hasn't enforced canon laws governing how priests should behave, and it hasn't followed its sexual misconduct policy, which says that sexual abuse will not be tolerated."
Sutter represents two women, Jerrilyn White and Julia Phelps, who are suing the archdiocese, alleging sexual misconduct by Father Michael Kenny in the 1970s and 1980s.
Kenny, a popular priest who has served at five area parishes, was suspended in 1999 after he admitted having what he called long-term consensual relationships with White, Phelps and other women, the youngest of whom was 17. He testified the affairs went on for years; that he took women out to movies, dancing and underage drinking; and that he had sex with at least four of them.
Phelps' lawsuit states Kenny once forced himself on her sexually in front of her two small sons when she was not fully conscious because of pain medication. Kenny admitted the sexual encounter but testified the children were asleep in another room.
He also admitted he fathered a son by a third woman in 1982, baptizing him at the church where he was pastor.
The accusations by White and Phelps are among three pending lawsuits against the archdiocese. In the third case, Hector Escalante complained that Monsignor Michael Yarbrough kissed him on the lips and groped him in his office in 1998 when Escalante was 27, on his last day on the job as a St. Matthew's Parish employee.
Yarbrough admitted kissing him but said Escalante misunderstood the gesture, which the priest said was common among men in his family. He denied groping Escalante.
The archdiocese's crisis intervention committee found Yarbrough's explanation credible, said Monsignor Lawrence Stuebben, Flores' top administrative aide, in a March 27 deposition in the Phelps case.
"Confronting him with what happened is surely making him aware ... that boundaries seem to have been crossed in this case and something needs to be done," Stuebben testified.
Policy and proportion
The church's track record in handling serious cases of misconduct is documented in court cases going back to the late 1980s, in news clips, and in interviews with church officials, parishioners and victim advocates.
The proportion of identified sexual predators among area priests - and the San Antonio church's policy on how complaints are handled - seem typical of most U.S. dioceses, national observers say.
The archdiocese reports evidence of crimes against minors to civil authorities - in Texas, that's the law - and it doesn't respond to accusations by simply moving the accused to other parishes, as have dioceses whose cover-ups have exploded into national scandal this year.
Beyond that, comparisons are difficult, since no national database exists on how dioceses have handled problem priests.
Flores and other church officials said they can't discuss pending lawsuits, but claim they have handled complaints appropriately.
The archdiocese, like others, examined its sexual misconduct policies after a wave of scandals in the early 1990s, producing a 12-page policy in 1994 that Flores says is as good as most. National observers agree it's typical, although several dioceses now have more specific and stringent policies.
But no policy can guarantee against wrongdoing, Flores said.
"I have 350 priests, a thousand nuns and hundreds of deacons and lay people, and they can't be watched 24 hours a day," he said. "We tell everybody who works for us - even volunteers - that if we learn that you're doing this, we're not going to put it under the carpet or send you somewhere else."
Counting religious orders, about 380 priests serve in the archdiocese. That number hasn't changed much over the past 16 years, and the nine local cases of sexual misconduct are slightly more than 2 percent of that total, which fits national estimates on the proportion of sex offenders in the priesthood.
Most offenders nationwide have preyed on teen-age boys, and that also fits most of the local cases. The most recent case of pedophilia, the abuse of children under the age of puberty, was filed in 1993 against Dietz, a serial predator who some believe could have been blocked from serving in parishes if church officials had been more alert.
Like many bishops, Flores says parents and other parishioners should be watchful and report suspicious conduct.
But the archbishop has said he does not remember being told of inappropriate questions Dietz asked a woman several years before the priest was charged. The woman has said she told Flores directly.
A similar claim was made by a man who said he told Flores about seeing Father Federico Fernandez naked in a swimming pool with two girls, ages 10 and 11, in 1983 - five years before the priest was suspended and indicted on a charge of indecency with a child stemming from a 1987 fondling incident.
A judge dismissed the Fernandez case after prosecutors said the victim's family didn't want it pursued. Flores insisted he didn't remember the earlier complaint against Fernandez.
Flores said he was surprised in 1997 when lawyers representing victims of Dietz found a 1974 letter in Assumption Seminary files from a Mexican seminary warning that Dietz had "marked sexual conflict." Dietz arrived in San Antonio that year.
But both Flores and Stuebben later testified that even if they'd seen the letter, it would not have served as a warning, given their ignorance of pedophilia at the time and the many positive letters they had received about Dietz.
Such a letter surely would be noticed if it arrived in the mail today, said Father Jose Aviles, director of Assumption Seminary's vocation office.
Scrutiny of candidates at the seminary, the archdiocese's main training ground for new priests, is almost microscopic, he said. The vocation office requires a full psychological report, including a sexual history and a family background, and it checks county, state and federal criminal records and the state sex offender registry.
"We ask if he's ever applied to another seminary or diocese; if so, we check why he wasn't accepted. If it's for sexual reasons, we don't accept him, because that will come back to haunt him later," Aviles said.
The Dietz case cost the San Antonio archdiocese more than $4 million in a 1998 lawsuit settlement. It paid an undisclosed sum believed to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in another case a decade earlier. Church officials say those are the only settlements the archdiocese has paid, although it has also picked up the tab for counseling several victims and priests.
There's a definite disconnect in perceptions between church officials and people who have complained to them about priests.
Flores said he believes most who complain of sexual abuse to the archdiocese are satisfied that their complaints are acted on. But lawyers for several complainants say the first response by Flores and Stuebben has been to question their veracity.
The archdiocese's policy considers the accused innocent until proven guilty. Officials do ask for proof and look for signs that the complaints are truthful, Flores said. Sometimes, he said, he asks why the complainants waited so many years - an understandable question but one that seems not to grasp the emotional difficulty sexual abuse victims often have in telling even their own family members or friends.
Nowadays, the questions bishops ask and the way they handle complaints are determined to some extent by insurance companies, Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin said.
Michele Petty, an attorney for several victims in the Dietz case, said the archdiocese's policy "looks great on paper," but she still hears from people who say they aren't happy with the way their complaints are handled. It's sometimes difficult to get the archdiocese to pay for counseling for victims, she said.
The archdiocese conducts workshops each year that define sexual abuse's different forms, the damage abuse does to victims, and the archdiocese's intolerance of such misconduct. But Petty said they aren't publicized widely enough for most rank-and-file Catholics to know they're scheduled.
"They also need much better training of priests," she said. "They're hearing about this stuff and dropping the ball, because they don't know how to respond or how to counsel someone who's been abused."
If complaints against a priest are substantiated, the church's response usually is suspension. But Yarbrough is still serving at St. Matthew's Parish, and his congregation appears to support him.
"I'm not aware that people at St. Matthew's have had any difficulty with any of this," the priest said last week.
He informed parishioners at Masses this month about the action taken by the archdiocese.
"He told us what happened and said he's receiving counseling and monitoring," said John Mulady, the head of his parish council. "I thought he handled it well. I think we have to support him with our prayers. I haven't heard any adverse comment in the parish about it."
Some parishioners said they didn't want to be interviewed about it, but others said they back both their pastor and their archbishop despite anger at the national scandal.
"I don't feel good about how some bishops handled wayward priests. They should have been put away," Cassandra Rousseau said. "I'm ashamed that so few priests have damaged so many."
But she said she admires Flores and the priests she knows, including Yarbrough.
"The Catholic community strongly supports its good priests, and this crisis will only make us stronger," said Rozana Corbo, a member of Holy Spirit Parish who attended a weekday Mass at St. Matthew's. "The archdiocese has stepped up to the plate and addressed allegations well. They haven't in the past."
Only the Holy See can permanently defrock a priest, and bishops across the country say the procedures for that are so cumbersome they rarely attempt it.
Flores said suspension of "priestly faculties" is the most severe punishment a bishop can inflict on a wayward priest, rendering him incapable of returning to ministry. Victims' families say it's not permanent enough and leaves the door open for bishops to restore them.
In fact, one of the priests Flores suspended, after undergoing extensive treatment and being certified by a psychiatrist as no longer a threat, is back in the pulpit.
Monsignor John Flynn was removed from St. Matthew's Parish in 1997 when the archdiocese learned of his misconduct with several young women that had occurred more than 20 years earlier. He later was appointed pastor of a Longview parish by former Tyler Bishop Edmond Carmody, now bishop of Corpus Christi.
Reached by phone last week, Flynn declined to talk about the national scandal.
"I informed the congregation here about my removal in San Antonio when I came, and they were supportive," he said. "I'm not restricted from being around young people."
Only one offending priest in San Antonio voluntarily asked the Holy See to remove him from the clerical state, and the Vatican complied.
In the first sexual abuse case involving a priest on record at the archdiocese, the priest received six months of treatment in 1986, was declared cured, and was assigned to a new parish. But he quit the priesthood when he was accused again, asking the Holy See to "laicize" him. The Vatican complied in 1989.
Flores said that happened before he or most bishops understood the likelihood of a known sex offender re-offending after treatment. He said he confronted officials at the New Mexico treatment center where the priest had been certified as fit to re-enter ministry, and "they told me they'd never handled this type of problem before."
Texas law requires people to notify authorities if they have knowledge of such a crime, but Flores said he did not because of the family's request for confidentiality.
"He was never arrested, because the family didn't want to press charges; they just wanted to make sure he was removed from ministry," Flores said.
Shock and sadness
Flores said he has been shocked by the scope of the nationwide scandals. Sister Charlene Wedelich, vicar for religious orders at the archdiocese, said the scandals are devastating to the overwhelming majority of priests, including Flores.
"He expects his priests to be faithful, and when some are not, that's a particularly depressing thing for him," she said. "This (scandal) is the saddest thing to happen in our church in my lifetime.
"It's telling us we need to ask ourselves whether we're doing enough or we need to do more. I don't care how much you've done. You always have to say, 'What more can I do?'"
Any priest coming to the archdiocese from elsewhere must have both the permission and recommendation of his bishop or religious superior, and Flores said he relies on that.
But at least one suspended priest, Father Mark Matson, got through that net. A member of the Theatine Fathers religious order, he celebrated Mass at several local parishes in 1999 without requesting or receiving faculties from the archdiocese. He returned to Hawaii in 2000 and was convicted of sexual assault and attempted sexual assault stemming from a 1998 incident involving a 13-year-old boy.
Matson is now serving a 20-year sentence.
Safeguards are more stringent at Assumption Seminary and the Catholic school system, both part of the archdiocese. In his year and a half as the seminary's vocation director, Aviles said he's rejected several candidates, all for reasons of sexuality.
"It's easier to get into heaven today than it is to get into a seminary," observed Father Bill McNamara, pastor of St. Anthony's Parish in Elmendorf.
But many priests worry about the future of the priesthood, he said, and are angry at the inaction of some bishops.
Still, they believe Flores has done a good job under difficult circumstances, McNamara said. And the priest said he has received nothing but support from lay Catholics since the national scandals broke.
"I wear my black suit and collar wherever I go, and I always see friendly faces," he said. "People in the parishes know their priests, and most of them look above and beyond the scandals. They know the sexual offenders are a very small minority."
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