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  Letter Warned of Priest's Past
Grand Rapids' Bishop, in 1958, Failed to Heed the Warning

Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
June 8, 2003

Despite warnings from a New Hampshire bishop that he was unfit to be a priest, the Rev. John Thomas Sullivan was taken into the Grand Rapids Catholic Diocese in 1958 to continue a horrific history of sexual abuse, recently released records show.

Forty-five years later, the diocese still is paying for its failure to heed warnings that other bishops heeded. And so are the late priest's local victims, which may number nine women or more, diocese leaders acknowledge.

Sullivan's abuses in Grand Rapids cost the diocese $500,000 in a 1994 settlement with three sisters. Since The Press revealed Sullivan's abuse of the sisters and their settlement last year, six more women have claimed Sullivan abused them during his two-year stay here, diocesan officials say.

One of those additional six women says she received $35,000 for counseling costs. Newly revealed details of Sullivan's abuse trail, and of the diocese's willingness to take him in despite extraordinary warnings not to, shocked and angered her.

"I'm glad that it's coming out," said Rosemary, 55, a Jenison woman who asked her last name not be used. "And yet I feel sad and angry too that the Catholics now are not allowing themselves to absorb what really happened to these little girls.

"I realize there's a shortage of priests, but look at the damage they did by taking (Sullivan)."

The diocese acknowledged last year that former Bishop Allen Babcock accepted Sullivan even though he knew the priest had a record of abuse. But details of Sullivan's many abuses, and of former Manchester, N.H., Bishop Matthew Brady's detailed and repeated warnings to other bishops not to take him, are revealed in documents made public recently by the New Hampshire attorney general.

Brady's efforts were remarkable for the time, and show that at least some church officials were aware that abusive priests were difficult if not impossible to cure. Brady began a campaign to make sure Sullivan didn't work as a priest again, writing at least 15 letters to bishops warning them not to let Sullivan into a parish.

"That was highly unusual," said the Rev. David O'Leary, a moral theology professor at Tufts University. "It would be very extraordinary that Bishop Brady went to those lengths."

Diocesan officials say they can't explain why Babcock admitted Sullivan despite Brady's warnings. Babcock died in 1969.

"That was just a tragic decision," diocesan spokeswoman Mary Haarman said. "We don't know why it happened, but we can say it wouldn't happen today."

Policies adopted by U.S. bishops last year require priests to be removed for even one proven act of sexual abuse of a minor. Locally, seven priests have either been removed or resigned since the abuse scandal broke early last year. The diocese also has revised its sexual-abuse policy and set up a new panel to oversee the policy and investigate allegations.

Babcock later dismissed Sullivan as a "psychopath," according to the New Hampshire records. But the priest went on to several other dioceses before being stripped of his priestly privileges after abusing yet another girl. Sullivan died in 1999.

Diocesan officials say they don't know whether Bishop Babcock tried to warn other bishops away from Sullivan after he left Grand Rapids. But they have said they didn't know of his misconduct here until the three sisters came forward in 1993.

The Sullivan files are contained in 9,000 pages of documents disclosed in March after a grand jury investigation into how the Diocese of Manchester handled abuse allegations.

The records illuminate Sullivan's previously sketchy history. News organizations including The Associated Press, The Washington Post and The Arizona Republic have combed through the files and reported Sullivan's trail of abuse.

They show a string of allegations following him through half a dozen states after his ordination in 1942. Among the findings:

-- In 1949, Sullivan acknowledged he had fathered a baby with a teenage girl who had been hospitalized after an attempted abortion, and paid to support the child until she married.

-- Three years later he was suspended after stalking a nursing student and attempting suicide.

-- He was suspended again in 1956 following another alleged pregnancy and an illegal abortion. This one involved a criminal investigation in Massachusetts that was hushed up to avoid scandal, according to church memos.

-- In 1957, Brady, the Manchester bishop, asked a New Mexico treatment facility to help Sullivan so he could resume his duties. But the director of the Via Coeli facility said priests such as Sullivan were incurable, adding, "a new diocese means only green pastures."

Brady then gave Sullivan a choice of being confined to the treatment facility or leaving the priesthood. Sullivan instead sought work in other dioceses. But in letters written in 1957 and 1958, Brady told other bishops that "my conscience will not allow me to recommend him to any bishop."

Still, many bishops in need of priests pressed for more details. After receiving them, most changed in their minds.

Not in Grand Rapids.

Sullivan arrived here in 1958, serving for two years at Holy Spirit and St. Jude parishes in Grand Rapids and at St. Patrick in Grand Haven, before leaving in 1960 to continue his abuses elsewhere for more than 20 years.

Diocesan officials acknowledged last year that former Grand Rapids Bishop Babcock received a letter from Brady warning him of Sullivan's record. The letter mentioned Sullivan's fathering a child, his attempted suicide and his violation of the Mann Act, a federal law against taking a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, diocesan lawyer John Tully said.

But in a letter back to the Manchester bishop, Babcock said he had interviewed Sullivan and "felt he was sincere in his desire to turn (over) a new leaf," Tully has said.

Unfortunately, for at least nine girls, the treatment center's assessment of Sullivan as incurable proved correct.

At Holy Spirit on Grand Rapids' West Side, his victims included the three sisters who in 1994 were awarded the $500,000 settlement plus $61,000 for counseling costs.

Another was Rosemary, the woman who received $35,000 last year, along with reimbursement for up to two years of continuing counseling and medication.

Five other women contacted the diocese following the April 2002 Press report of the 1994 settlement. All were offered assistance, but only one besides Rosemary accepted it, said Haarman, the diocesan spokeswoman. The total amount the diocese provided for both women is no more than $40,000, Haarman said.

Some of the women did not even give their last names and simply wanted to report what happened, she added.

But for the three sisters at Holy Spirit, the trauma inflicted by Sullivan was enough for them to speak out decades later.

They say Sullivan performed repeated sexual acts on them, including rape, over a five-year period when they were between ages 7 and 12. He even continued to molest them after he left the diocese and returned to visit their parents, with whom he was friends, they say.

Though all too familiar with Sullivan's sickness, one of the sisters was still shocked by the newly revealed details.

"I always suspected he had this long history," said Fran Heinemann, 58, of Saugatuck. "But then to have it verified, it was just unbelievable.

"He was never brought to justice and he got away with it. It makes you feel so devalued that nobody stood up for you."

Of Brady's warnings to other bishops, she said it was "disheartening ... to see that Bishop Babcock said, 'Despite all this, I'm just going to ahead with this guy anyway.' "

Heinemann also was "astonished by how many states he hit." Sullivan also worked in Wisconsin, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona after leaving Grand Rapids.

It's unclear whether Babcock tried to steer other bishops away from Sullivan after he left Grand Rapids. According to Tully, a letter Babcock wrote to the Manchester Diocese in 1960 said, "There were indications of danger in his conduct with children." Yet, Tully said Babcock also wrote that Sullivan "appeared to be sincere in his efforts to amend for his past."

The bishop was wrong again. Sullivan claimed more victims in other states, and retired in 1981 after pleading no contest to attempted sexual abuse of a minor girl in Bullhead City, Ariz. Even after retiring and returning to New Hampshire, he was stripped of his faculties at age 66 for allegedly abusing a 13-year-old girl.

When Tully and a lawyer for the three sisters interviewed him prior to the 1994 settlement, he was living in a retirement residence in San Diego. They found him unrepentant.

"He was a manipulator. He was not a nice man," said James Wernstrom, who represented the three sisters. "I would call him evil."

For another of the sisters, the recent revelations fired her resolve that the Grand Rapids Diocese never allow such predators into its parishes again.

"If it inspires anything for me, it's like, 'My God, take the opportunity now to re-examine what happened.' I hope something's learned from all this," said Mary, 52, of Douglas, who asked her last name not be used.

She credited the local diocese and Bishop Robert Rose for making good strides in recent years.

"I think they've done a pretty good job of validating the issue, paying attention to it and taking it seriously," she said.

The diocese in March named the eight members of a review board charged with investigating sexual abuse claims and overseeing a revised abuse policy, in keeping with the U.S. bishops' directives.

Yet for all the Catholic Church's efforts to stem the abuse crisis -- which saw more than 400 accused priests resign, retire or removed last year -- the pain inflicted decades ago remains a daily reality for many victims.

Rosemary, the Jenison woman abused by Sullivan, said she has battled depression since he fondled her several times when she was 10.

"We went to confession every two weeks," recalled the divorced mother of two. "Father Sullivan would call me outside the church building, and molest me (in back of the church) while my grandma's inside praying for her penance and her sins."

She remembers crying in class, and contemplating suicide but being afraid she would go to hell.

"I was really messed up for years with overwhelming guilt. I just felt like a worthless, sinful person."

She still struggles with guilt today, knowing she was not responsible for what happened to her. She goes to counseling, takes anti-depressants and suffers from chronic pain she suspects is stress related. A nurse, she is currently out of a job.

Rosemary said she had already contacted the diocese before the article on the $500,000 settlement appeared last year. She said she was dissatisfied with the diocese's response, and contacted Wernstrom, the attorney, after seeing his name in the story.

With his help, she got the diocese to pay $35,000 to reimburse her for past counseling expenses associated with the abuse. She estimated she has spent more than $50,000 on counseling, medication and insurance.

Wernstrom said he has little doubt she was abused by Sullivan and that some of her psychological problems are a result of it.

Though she long ago left the Catholic Church, Rosemary is finding spiritual renewal at a Protestant church and with a Christian counselor.

"I truly feel like I'm finally finding a God that is a loving God," she said.

She is glad the Catholic Church has taken steps to prevent priests from doing what Father Sullivan did to her. She appreciates that she is getting help from the diocese to work through the pain, 40 years later.

But she also knows the church can never give her the thing she wants most.

"I would give them back every penny of their money," she said, "if they could give me back a childhood."

 
 

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