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  Bishop Admits Mistake

By Ziva Branstetter
Tulsa World [Oklahoma]
July 31, 2002

Bishop Edward Slattery of the Tulsa Diocese discusses with reporters Tuesday allegations of improper behavior on the part of a priest and the bishop's response to the situation. JOE IVERSON / Tulsa World

Allegations of improper conduct by priest mishandled Bishop Edward Slattery acknowledged Tuesday that he made a "mistake" in the way he handled allegations of improper conduct by Tulsa priest Ken Lewis.

Tulsa police have formed a task force to investigate reports by multiple victims who claim that a Tulsa priest sexually molested them in the mid-1990s.

Police declined to name the priest but said they are investigating whether church officials committed a crime because they failed to report allegations to authorities.

Slattery said the Tulsa Diocese is also conducting its own investigation into separate allegations by a 16-year-old Pryor girl. The girl told the Tulsa World that another priest molested her on several occasions.

That priest, the Rev. John Jangam, was excommunicated and hastily returned to India, and church officials failed to notify Pryor police.

The World has learned that Jangam sent a letter to at least one parishioner after returning to India, claiming that he was running an orphanage and continuing to claim that he was a priest.

In the Lewis case, Slattery said he learned of allegations of misconduct in October 1994 and that he immediately relieved Lewis of his duties as associate pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church, 1347 E. 49th St.

"We discovered that there had been several incidents of questionable behavior with young boys, including over-familiarity and a failure to recognize acceptable boundaries," Slattery said.

Lewis was sent to a psychiatric facility for evaluation and later returned to Tulsa.

"After much discussion with Father Lewis, and after I was certain that he understood and accepted the conditions which I imposed, I brought him back into active ministry as an associate pastor at Holy Family Cathedral."

Lewis was assigned to Sacred Heart Church in Fairfax and served at St. Joseph Church in Cleveland, Okla., St. John's Church in Pawnee and St. Joseph Church in Hominy. In June 2001, he was appointed pastor of St. John's Catholic Church in McAlester.

Slattery said he recently began a formal investigation of the allegations "in light of the climate leading up to the bishops' June meeting in Dallas." During that meeting, U.S. Roman Catholic bishops met to discuss sexual abuse by priests and approved a "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

During their investigation in June, Slattery said church officials learned "new information ... of additional incidents of disturbing behavior and the exercise of poor judgment on Father Lewis' part" while he was a pastor at St. Mary's. But Slattery said the new information was not reported to police.

When asked to respond to reports that Lewis had improperly touched boys in a bedroom, Slattery responded: "A lot of things happened in the bedroom." He said one incident involved Lewis lying in bed with a boy who was fully clothed.

"When I had all the information at hand reviewed by our diocesan attorney, his advice to me was that the facts did not appear to show any act which would have violated Oklahoma statutes. However, it was clear to me that Father Lewis' continued active ministry as a priest had been seriously compromised," Slattery said.

He said Lewis "decided to resign his position ... and depart the active ministry."

Slattery said that in retrospect, he would have handled the case differently.

"If I had the information then which I have now, I would not have allowed Father Lewis to have returned to active ministry in 1995. That was a mistake."

Tulsa Police Sgt. Wayne Allen said church officials "are not in a position to determine what is a crime and what is not a crime."

"The statutes are very specific in that physical sexual abuse or neglect shall be reported promptly to the county office of the Department of Human Services," Allen said. "If you don't report it, you are guilty of a misdemeanor crime."

Allen said police have formed a task force to investigate allegations of sexual molestation involving a Tulsa priest.

"The young man that reported this allegation was a juvenile at the time in Tulsa, and he is reporting a sexual molestation by a priest," Allen said.

Since that person contacted police, additional people claiming to be victims have also come forward. Tulsa Police Sgt. Gary Stansill said police plan to interview "multiple victims" Wednesday regarding their allegations that they were sexually molested by a Tulsa priest.

A key issue in the probe will be the statute of limitations. The statute states that a charge of sexual molestation must be filed within seven years after the "discovery" of a crime.

District Attorney Tim Harris said that has been interpreted to mean when the acts were discovered by a responsible adult or a child mature enough to realize what had occurred. A church employee reported the allegations involving Lewis to church officials in 1994.

When Lewis returned to the ministry, Slattery said he imposed two restrictions: "The first was that his priestly ministry would be monitored by the diocese. The second was that he was to avoid any suggestion of over-familiarity. ... In practice, this included a general prohibition of being alone with children."

When asked whether Lewis had ever violated that restriction, Slattery at first said Lewis had not, then said he had by attending a diocese youth camp in June. Later Tuesday, the diocese issued a clarification stating that an additional restriction had been imposed on Lewis, prohibiting him from staying overnight at activities with children.

"When Father Lewis participated in the Diocesan Youth Camp this June, he did not stay overnight and was not alone with children. He was present with several other priests to hear the confessions of the campers but this was done in the open air," the clarification states.

The Lewis case is one of two involving allegations of sexual misconduct by priests in the Tulsa diocese. The Tulsa World reported Tuesday that a 16- year-old Pryor girl claims that she was repeatedly molested three years ago by a priest at St. Mark's Catholic Church in Pryor.

Slattery said he was unaware of the girl's allegations until he read them in the newspaper. He said the priest, Jangam, was excommunicated and returned to India for an unrelated reason.

Another church official said Jangam was excommunicated because he revealed what the girl had told him in confession.

But Tuesday the girl stood by her story that church officials were aware of the abuse and urged her not to report it.

"I told my mom that he had hugged me in a very uncomfortable way and that he had kissed me in his bedroom on his bed and that I was lying down." She said her stepfather contacted another priest, who reported the matter to Monsignor Dennis Dorney, vicar general of the Tulsa Diocese.

"They advised us so many times over and over again, 'Don't say anything until he is gone, because it would hurt the church.' "

Slattery said the church will investigate the matter. When asked whether it would be reported to police, he said: "Of course we would cooperate with police."

Pryor Police Chief Dennis Nichols said authorities were not aware of the allegations.

"It's something that we would have looked into if they contacted us."

Church officials sent a letter July 2 to the girl's family offering to pay for her counseling.

"As we told you, we did write to his former bishop and urged him to try to prevent the man from working with children or youth if indeed he knows where he lives in that vast country," states the letter from Edward Maillet, former Tulsa diocese chancellor.

In fact, a member of a Wagoner Catholic church, Holy Cross, said he received a letter from Jangam in December soliciting funds for an orphanage.

Charles Sturm said he and his wife received the letter Dec. 13. It states: "As you know I am running one orphanage for the street children. There are presently 35 children. These children are picked up from surrounding villages. ... To provide better future for these street children I keep them with me and educate them."

The letter asks for a pledge of $35 per month.

"My main aim is overall rehabilitation by providing food, proper clothing, education, medical care and love and affection. I plan to give everything, whatever they lost at home, especially love."

Sturm said he told church officials in December about the letter.

"I got the impression at church that was probably not a good idea" to send Jangam money, he said. Sturm said the letter contained Jangam's address and phone number.

 
 

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