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  N.O. Left in Dark about Priest
Texans Didn't Comply on Disclosure Request

By Bruce Nolan
The Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA]
May 7, 2002

Texas church officials who in 1994 sent a Holy Cross priest to work in New Orleans did not reveal then that he had a history of sexual abuse involving young people, even though local officials asked, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans said Monday.

"But whether, if fully informed, then-Archbishop Francis Schulte would have denied a job to the Rev. C. Richard Nowery is uncertain, said the Rev. William Maestri, an archdiocesan spokesman.

"I guess we'll never know, since we were never given the information to begin with," Maestri said.

Schulte's successor, Archbishop Alfred Hughes, on April 29 suspended Nowery, the popular pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, after learning that Nowery had been accused of two instances of sexual misconduct in Austin, Texas, in 1981 and 1986 and received treatment.

The suspension was disclosed to Nowery's parishioners on Saturday and Sunday.

Meanwhile, a judge on Monday ordered Boston's archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, to be deposed on Wednesday in the case of 86 people who say they were abused by the pedophile priest John J. Geoghan.

Nowery's case highlights one of several issues bishops will be dealing with in Dallas next month when they meet to hammer out a comprehensive national policy on managing complaints of sexual abuse by priests.

The most controversial element seems to be whether they can agree on what to do about priests who engaged in a single instance of abuse long ago, but who apparently have learned to control themselves since then, perhaps with the aid of psychological treatment.

Other elements will include whether to adopt a binding policy on when to notify criminal authorities after a complaint is received, how to involve lay people in decision-making, and how to standardize information-sharing about priests among dioceses.

Now, the leaders of religious orders and bishops share information about priests on the basis of voluntary guidelines they developed jointly in November 1993.

The sharing is important when a religious order's priest is sent to a new assignment under a local archbishop, as happened when Nowery's superiors moved him from Texas in 1994 and sent him to work for Schulte at Sacred Heart, a New Orleans parish that Holy Cross priests have administered for years.

Nowery's superiors in the Southern Province of the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Austin prepared two documents describing Nowery's career to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Maestri said.

In one, following a suggested protocol in national use, Nowery's superiors assured Schulte there were no "untreated" sexual issues involving Nowery's ministry, Maestri said.

But New Orleans had developed a more specific protocol for its own use about the same time asking leaders of religious orders sending priests to New Orleans to disclose whether they had been involved in any allegations involving sexual misconduct -- whether or not they led to treatment, Maestri said.

"The archbishop didn't want them to parse their response. He wanted to know whether there had been any allegations," Maestri said.

But, in their second document, Nowery's superiors "filled out our local protocol using the same standards they had applied to the national protocol," Maestri said.

So, he said, local church officials did not learn of the allegations against Nowery until recently. In February, Hughes asked the leaders of all religious orders supplying clergy to New Orleans to provide all details of alleged sexual misconduct. The request yielded the old complaints that Hughes acted on.

The Rev. John Korcsmar, the leader of the Southern Province of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, said in an interview Monday he was not the provincial when Nowery was sent to New Orleans and could not speak directly about what the order's officials told Schulte.

"My understanding is the overriding concern was, 'Are our people fit for ministry,' and that's the assurance our provincial at the time gave, since he had the information from the psychologists and others," Korcsmar said.

As a practical matter, Hughes' suspension of Nowery would seem to indicate that the new archbishop belongs in the one-strike-you're-out camp that would bar a priest from ministry after sexual impropriety with youths even in the distant past.

But Hughes probably will go to the Dallas meeting with an open mind on that issue, Maestri said.

"Right now the archdiocesan practice is that if any past allegations that are credible come to light, a priest will be put on administrative leave.

"Beyond that, he wants to listen to the thoughts and discussion of other bishops as they try to create a national policy. I'd say the best way to characterize his thinking at this point is to say it's still in process."

One element of the Nowery suspension remained unclear Monday: Hughes apparently decided to suspend him without presenting his case to an independent lay review board led by former Attorney General William Guste.

Maestri said Monday he could not explain why the board had been bypassed, but promised that the archdiocese will present a written explanation in the interest of precision.

Archdiocesan officials announced in February they would cull the personnel files of every active religious order and diocesan priest in the archdiocese and refer every "credible" complaint of sexual abuse to Guste's committee.

The committee would recommend to Hughes, among other things, whether to share the complaint with criminal authorities, and whether to suspend the priest or take other action against him.

The committee has been meeting regularly for several weeks and apparently will make a single report on all of its cases to Hughes, Maestri has said.

 
 

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