Capitol Hill Pastor Faces Child Sex Case
Priest Suspended After Second Allegation
By Alan Cooperman and Caryle Murphy
July 12, 2002
The pastor of a historic Capitol Hill parish that serves many Roman Catholic members of Congress was placed on leave yesterday after a Washington area man accused him of sexual abuse in the early 1970s, the second such allegation against the priest.
Both of his accusers have told police and officials of the Archdiocese of Washington that they were molested more than 25 years ago by the Rev. Paul E. Lavin. One man was 8 years old and the other was 16 at the time of the alleged abuse.
Lavin, 58, said yesterday that he "absolutely, categorically" denies the allegations.
He is the second Washington area priest placed on leave this year and the first suspended since the nation's Catholic bishops voted in Dallas last month for a zero-tolerance policy toward child sexual abuse. Under the policy, any priest who has sexually abused a minor, no matter how long ago, must be permanently removed from ministry.
Lavin, ordained in 1969, has had a distinguished career, much of it in youth ministry. He founded a Catholic youth retreat program in Maryland in 1970, became a chaplain at American University in 1979 and was named pastor of Mother Seton Parish in Germantown in 1987. Lavin has been pastor of St. Joseph's on Capitol Hill since 1991.
Michael Mollish, 40, of Ellicott City, said he reported being abused to the archdiocese and Prince George's County police nearly five years ago and was bitterly disappointed when no action was taken against Lavin.
"As someone who was an altar boy for eight years and whose brother was a priest, I took it pretty hard when they didn't do anything," Mollish said.
The archdiocese placed Lavin on leave the day after a second accuser, George Kresslein, 45, of Annandale came forward. Kresslein said he filed a report with the Pittston, Pa., police department last month and described his alleged abuse to a church official for the first time Wednesday in a 30-minute meeting with Auxiliary Bishop Kevin J. Farrell.
Under archdiocesan policy, Lavin will not be allowed to engage in any ministry while the archdiocese investigates the new complaint. If Lavin contests the charges, removing him could be a lengthy process involving judgments by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, a lay review board and the Vatican.
Prosecutors in Pennsylvania declined to comment on the case.
Archdiocesan spokeswoman Susan Gibbs confirmed that the first complaint was made in 1997 but said that neither the police nor the archdiocese's review board was able to substantiate it.
"We followed our policy. We reported it to the authorities, we sent the [priest] for an evaluation, we reviewed his [personnel] file and we consulted our review board," she said. "And, as is known, the authorities . . . did not charge him, and the review board's recommendation was 'return to ministry' because there was no evidence."
Capt. Andy Ellis, spokesman for the Prince George's police department, said its child abuse unit investigated Mollish's allegation but the state's attorney's office declined to file charges.
"We had no physical evidence to corroborate the victim's allegations," Ellis said. "We had a victim's word against a priest's word, and that's a tough situation to be in, especially with a case that happened over 20 years ago."
But Ellis noted that the case is still open because there is no statute of limitations on criminal child abuse in Maryland. In March, police approached the archdiocese with a request to speak to Lavin about the accusation, but the priest declined to be interviewed, Ellis said.
Mollish said yesterday that police were too deferential to Lavin. "If you get a $ 75 traffic ticket, they don't let you off that easy," he said.
Mollish, a computer database technician with five children, said he grew up in a devout family that belonged to Mount Calvary Parish in Forestville, where Lavin was a young priest. "He used to spend Christmas with us, vacations. I thought he was my friend. I looked up to him," Mollish recalled.
One day in the winter of 1970, when he was 8 years old, Mollish said, Lavin took him to a Christian bookstore in Baltimore. On the drive home, the priest began talking about "young men's underwear," Mollish said. Then, he said, Lavin reached over and unzipped his pants.
"He just started massaging me. . . . It lasted maybe a half-hour, while he was driving," Mollish said. "He was a friend of my brother's, a friend of my mother's. Who was I going to tell?"
Kresslein, a self-employed accountant, said he was a 16-year-old junior at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville in 1973 when Lavin, the school's chaplain, offered to take him to visit a seminary in Pennsylvania. At the time, Kresslein said, he was interested in going into the priesthood -- an ambition that was shattered by his experience with Lavin.
According to Kresslein, Lavin picked him up in a white Ford LTD -- the same car described by Mollish -- and the priest joked that the initials stood for "Lavin Travels Delightfully." They drove to Pittston, where they stayed overnight at the home of Lavin's grandmother. When it was time for bed, Kresslein said, Lavin asked for a hug, then pulled Kresslein into bed and started caressing him. "He wanted me to perform oral sex on him, and I did not. I could not. I was just frozen," Kresslein said.
The next day, they toured Saint Pius X Seminary in Dalton, Pa. On the ride home, Kresslein said, Lavin "undid my pants and started fondling me again. That probably lasted about half an hour. And when he finished, he said he was disappointed in me that I allowed him to do that."
Both Mollish and Kresslein said they bear deep scars from the abuse. Mollish said he drank heavily for years and never talked about the molestation until his wife asked him in 1997 why he could not completely trust anyone.
Kresslein said he believes that his abuse "pushed me back further in the closet" and kept him from accepting his homosexuality until after he had been married for 12 years. "If anyone was wronged by this, it was my ex-wife," he said.
Kresslein said he decided to report the abuse to police and the archdiocese after being contacted this year by Mollish's older brother, John, a former priest. John Mollish, 55, has accused Lavin of making unwanted sexual advances toward him when he was in his early twenties.
Neither Kresslein nor the Mollishes have filed a civil lawsuit against Lavin or the archdiocese. But when the Mollishes approached the archdiocese in 1997, their lawyer asked for a $ 3 million settlement. John Mollish said this week that they made that claim only to "show that we were serious" and that their primary goal was to have Lavin removed.
The diocese placed Lavin on leave on the same day McCarrick announced the appointment of a nine-member child protection advisory board to monitor the Washington Archdiocese's sexual abuse policy, assess its victim assistance efforts and recommend improvements.
The volunteer board, many of whose members are not Catholic, is chaired by Shay Bilchik, a former prosecutor and president of the Child Welfare League of America, a child welfare advocacy group. Members include a former police investigator of child abuse offenses, an educator, a judge, a pediatrician and a priest.
McCarrick said the new level of oversight demonstrates that the archdiocese is "going the extra mile." He said he also will soon appoint a full-time victim assistance coordinator.
Until yesterday, the sexual abuse scandal reverberating across the country had left Washington relatively unscathed. The only other priest accused of abuse this year is Msgr. Russell L. Dillard, who was suspended in March as pastor of St. Augustine Church in Northwest Washington after two women said he inappropriately touched them as teenagers.
Lavin's suspension was a shock to worshipers at St. Joseph's.
"This is devastating," said Joe Jones. "I think he's a wonderful guy -- he's giving, he's caring."
Jones, who has been active in the parish of 500 families since 1997, said the church is frequented by legislators, including Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). According to the church's Web site, Robert F. Kennedy prayed at St. Joseph's after his brother's assassination in 1963.
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