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  Priests' Alleged Victims Call Newark Archbishop Slow to React in Past

By Brian Donohue and David Gibson
Star-Ledger
June 13, 2002

At the forefront of the effort to create a new policy on sexual abuse in Dallas this week, Newark Archbishop John Myers says the church must learn from its past mistakes in handling the issue.

But back in Peoria, Ill., where Myers served as bishop of a sprawling Midwestern diocese for more than a decade, his own record on the issue of sexual abuse is in dispute.

Since taking office eight weeks ago, Myers' successor, Bishop Daniel Jenky, has defrocked eight priests accused of sexual misconduct, including two whose alleged misconduct Myers had been alerted to in the 1990s.

JUDGMENT QUESTIONED

Now, several victims and their families are publicly criticizing Myers for his handling of abuse cases and questioning his fitness to sit on the panel that drafted the policy that will be voted on by the nation's bishops tomorrow.

Myers, they say, failed to defrock a priest who had molested young boys, and dragged his feet on removing another abusive priest until victims went to the media.

Myers, who led the Peoria diocese from 1990 to 2001, defends the way he handled the cases that were brought to his attention, saying he acted promptly to get children out of the reach of abusive priests and to compensate abuse victims.

When he left the diocese last October, three months before the nationwide scandal erupted, Myers says he simply didn't have the information that prompted Jenky to defrock the eight priests.

"We had clear policies and I followed them. I always said to the people there that to the best of my knowledge, no one was on assignment who could be a risk to children, or anyone else," Myers said. "I find out now that was not entirely true. But it was true so far as I knew."

Myers is one of eight bishops on the U.S. Conference of Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse currently meeting in Dallas.

Several others, including Bishop John B. McCormack of New Hampshire and Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City, Mo., have faced even harsher criticism over the handling of cases in their home dioceses.

"Right now it would be very tough to put together a committee of bishops who have either not handled abuse allegations or who have handled them very well," said David Clohessy, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It's pretty disheartening."

While critics have grown more outspoken, Myers also has won high praise for his willingness to settle lawsuits alleging abuse by priests.

Margate attorney Steven Rubino, who has represented scores of plaintiffs in cases nationwide, said he was impressed with Myers' decision to become personally involved in the settlement of a case in which 12 altar boys said they had been abused by a parish priest in Lincoln, Ill.

"He was there. He was engaged. He made a difference," Rubino said.

But until lawyers or the press got involved, some victims say, Myers gave them the cold shoulder.

Michael Emery, a former priest, said he and his family told Myers in a face-to-face meeting in November 1992 that he had been abused by the Revs. Francis Engels and William Harbert when Emery was an altar boy at St. Joseph's parish in Rock Island, Ill., in the 1970s.

UNACCEPTABLE RESPONSE

Emery said he met with Myers and requested that the two priests be removed. He also asked to meet with his abusers in the presence of a therapist, an approach used in therapy for both abusers and victims. None of that, Myers told them, was possible.

"It felt like I was talking to a doorway," Emery said. "He had his position nailed down before we opened our mouth and he didn't budge from it."

Emery, who has never filed a lawsuit or reached a settlement, said he heard nothing for three months. Distraught and frustrated, Emery said, he went to the press on Valentine's Day 1993. The story didn't run until September and caused an uproar among diocesan pastors, and Myers removed Engels and Harbert from service a month later, according to Emery.

Myers said his delay in meeting with Engels' alleged victims was simply a problem in "finding the right date." When Engels' abuses became clear, he said, "he was completely out of ministry. Couldn't wear a collar, couldn't celebrate the sacraments in any way publicly."

Emery says Myers' actions show a callousness that makes him unfit to sit on the Dallas panel.

"I don't trust that type of a person to become one of the architects of a policy of this type," Emery said of the policy being drawn up in Dallas.

After reading about Emery's case in October 1993, Dan Koenigs, 34, of Lincoln, Ill., told Myers that he, too, had been abused by Engels and Harbert in 1980. Myers, Koenigs said, assured him that "neither one of these guys were going to be a priest again."

So the Koenigs family says they were shocked last May when Dan's mother, Theresa, learned from a parish priest that Engels had been reinstated.

"They were going to put him on the altar after they knew he molested boys," Theresa Koenigs said. "They said they thought we were all healed. I felt angry and betrayed and very hurt."

Once again, Koenigs said, it took the threat of publicity for the diocese to take action. Only after she threatened to alert the media did Myers again remove Engels from service, she said.

Monsignor Steven Rohlfs, chancellor in charge of handling sex abuse allegations for the Diocese of Peoria, calls the criticism of Myers "completely unwarranted." Engels was allowed to say Mass at nursing homes and convents and "when one victim complained, he said, 'Fine, he won't do it.'"

Myers, he said, "acted as fast as anybody I know could possibly act."

In at least two cases, Myers was confronted with complaints of misconduct by priests whom Jenky has now decided to remove from the priesthood. Myers defends his handling of both, saying Jenky had more information than he was able to gather during his tenure.

In 1993, a victim accused the Rev. John Anderson of sexual misconduct a decade earlier and asked that he be moved to administrative duties. The allegation did not rise to sexual abuse, Myers said.

Anderson was sent away for treatment and continued in therapy when he returned to Peoria to work at a cemetery, according to Rohlfs.

"I said to them, 'If you think you have been sexually abused, please go to the authorities,'" Myers said. "They just said they would like him out of parish ministry, which I did that very day."

CASES ARE SETTLED

In another case, 12 men came forward in 1997 with allegations against Monsignor Norman Goodman of Holy Family Church in Lincoln, Ill., that he had abused them during their days as altar boys during the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

At first, plaintiff Lance Rainforth said, the group sought no money, but decided to sue only when they were stonewalled.

Eventually, the 12 men sued the diocese and settled for more than $2 million - and an agreement on their part to keep the settlement secret, according to the plaintiffs and attorneys. Two more victims have since reached similar settlements and a third is in negotiations, according to the plaintiffs' attorney, Fred Nesler.

Goodman retired from active ministry after the settlement. But he continued to wear the collar and kept his title. He was not defrocked until last week, a month after Rohlfs said the diocese obtained a "document" with new information on Goodman. Officials would not describe the document or its contents.

"The fact is new information came forward on the Monsignor Goodman case that they found out about a few weeks ago, and that I had no idea about," Myers said.

That contention has several of Goodman's alleged victims seething.

Josh Bruns, 28, said his family and the family of a dozen others met repeatedly with Myers and other church officials to describe years of abuse by Goodman. Even Jenky, they say, never heard the vivid personal accounts they related to Myers.

"For him to say that he always followed policy and acted in a way that kept children safe . . . ," Bruns trailed off. "Well, he had the facts, he had more facts than Bishop Jenky had to defrock Goodman and didn't act on them."

Bruns can't help but dwell on the other things the victims wanted and that Myers never gave them, including an apology and a healing Mass at the parish.

"He said we couldn't have a healing Mass, that the congregation was too volatile," Bruns said. "He just wanted to make sure we were paid off and our mouths were shut."

It is easy now, said Monsignor Eric Powell, for critics to second-guess past decisions made by bishops.

"He (Myers) tried to be conscientious and sincere, especially when he had conflicting reports, and he was in the middle," said Powell, a longtime Myers adviser. "It's a hard place to be and he did the best he could with the lights he had."

 
 

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