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  Hospitals Say They're Confident in Chaplains
They Point to Safeguards in Hiring

By Lisa Glass And Tim O'Neil
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 6, 2002

The sexual abuse scandal rocking Roman Catholic parishes in St. Louis and the rest of the nation has reached another supposed haven: hospitals.

The removal in the last few weeks of two area hospital chaplains because of past abuse allegations is bringing new attention on a line of work more used to comfort, not controversy.

One area hospital says it is re-examining its procedures for hiring chaplains. But other hospitals that were polled informally expressed confidence that they have adequate safeguards in place.

A linchpin to most policies is checking with the appropriate authorities of a prospective chaplain's religious denomination. That assumes a truthful or complete response, and the hospital spokesmen said they believed that's what they get.

The question arises after church and hospital officials in the last three weeks removed priest chaplains at DePaul Health Center in Bridgeton and St. Anthony's Medical Center in south St. Louis County. Both priests had been ordained by the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., where they allegedly molested boys roughly two decades ago.

As always, there are complicating details. The hiring of those two priests here during the early 1990s may not have broken any policies at the time. An executive at St. Anthony's said the hospital was aware of the Rev. Jay Anthony Meis' past, and Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch said April 24 that his diocese informed DePaul and the Archdiocese of St. Louis of the "past" of the Rev. Fred A. Lenczycki.

An archdiocesan spokesman said it didn't learn of the case against Lenczycki until it received a tip in March. A spokeswoman for DePaul said the Joliet Diocese recommended Lenczycki when he was hired in 1992, but never updated DePaul when a lawsuit was filed against him in 1997.

Lenczycki, 57, was removed April 23 and returned to Joliet. The archdiocese and St. Anthony's announced Tuesday that Meis, 65, had been removed on April 24.

In both cases, the Joliet Diocese settled with the accusers. Neither allegation became a criminal case.

"Hindsight is 20-20," said David Siefert, chief executive of St. An thony's. "Generally we would not hire someone with that kind of history, but because it was a priest and because of the priest's duties, they (church leaders) felt a hospital was somewhere they could place these people."

Siefert said St. Anthony's hires priests who are alcoholics or suffer other dependencies, and who have been treated successfully. He said the hospital provides rehabilitation and is confident the programs work.

But St. Anthony's would not hire another with a history of child sexual abuse, he said.

"When a bishop tells you everything is OK, you go along with that," he said.

Standard among most hospital hiring policies is a criminal record check, and that holds for chaplains, nurses and clerks. Those checks usually don't turn up settlements of civil lawsuits. Most of the formal allegations of sexual abuse by priests have been filed as lawsuits, not criminal charges.

The Rev. Hal Morris, supervising chaplain at St. Louis Children's Hospital, said applicants still must fill out forms that ask whether they ever have been involved in lawsuits or have ever been accused of child abuse.

"Lying about it is fraud," Morris said. "We rely upon a broad-based series of interviews. I personally check out their credentials with their denominations."

Morris, a Methodist minister, is one of two full-time ministers at Children's. The other is a Presbyterian minister. Two Catholic priests who work throughout the Washington University Medical Center complex, which includes Barnes-Jewish Hospital, also serve at Children's.

Despite Christian teaching on forgiveness and personal redemption, Morris said he never would hire anyone who had a history of child abuse. "I must be tenacious in protecting our children," he said.

Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital, the area's other large children's hospital, has eight chaplains on staff. Seven of the eight are Catholics, and the other is a Baptist minister. The staff includes a nun but has no priest, said Neil Kiesel, spokesman for SSM Health Care, which runs Cardinal Glennon.

When hiring priests, he said, SSM hospitals check with the archdiocese here or the home diocese of the applicant. Despite the disagreement over the hiring of Lenczycki at DePaul, an SSM hospital, Kiesel said he considered the policy sound.

DePaul and St. Anthony's treat adults, not children.

There was a time when the Archdiocese of St. Louis considered assignments to adult hospitals a prudent line of work for priests who had sexually abused young people. A prime example is the Rev. Joseph Lessard, 75, who admitted in an interview in March that he had abused boys earlier in his career.

Lessard said he went for treatment of sexual disorder in New Mexico in 1979 and returned here to work at St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles and then, in 1984, Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. Morris said Lessard occasionally ministered to patients at Children's before he retired from chaplaincy in 1993.

Jim Orso, archdiocesan spokesman, said the archdiocese would not assign to a hospital a priest who had abused a child because children visit patients. He said that follows the policy of not assigning those priests near children.

In a statement March 17 regarding Lessard, Archbishop Justin Rigali said, "The assignments of Father Joseph Lessard were made according to the common psychological and professional practice of the time, which we now know to have been inadequate and, by current standards, unacceptable."

In Belleville, where the Catholic diocese has removed 14 priests over allegations of sexual abuse since the mid-1990s, St. Elizabeth's Hospital takes comfort in the local zero-tolerance policy. "That gives us some assurance that our chaplains are in good standing," said spokesman Tom Vernier.

Ken Potzman, director of pastoral services at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur, said the hospital only hired priests from the Archdiocese of St. Louis. That practice, he said, provides some "insulation (from) hiring an unknown."

Potzman said he questioned the ability of priests with histories of sexual abuse to minister in any form, "but particularly in a hospital setting."

Christy Thompson, spokeswoman for St. Joseph Hospital of Kirkwood, said administrators would review their hiring policy for chaplains. The hospital now uses the same process in hiring priests as it does with any other employee, she said.

 
 

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