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  Accused Priest's Future in Limbo
Diocese Handles Old Abuse Allegations under New Rules

By Tara Dooley
Houston Chronicle
February 1, 2004

Less than a year after Roman Catholic bishops set out rules to rid the ranks of sexually abusive clergy, the Diocese of Galveston-Houston moved to reinstate a priest accused of molesting a teenage girl 22 years ago when she was a parishioner at St. John Vianney Catholic Church.

In May, church officials announced that the Rev. Richard Edelin would join the staff of St.

Laurence Catholic Church in Sugar Land.

Only after Edelin's accuser expressed outrage did the diocese reconsider his appointment. It reinvestigated her claims, which diocesan officials settled in 1996 with a $ 5,000 payment and a letter of apology from Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, and determined it could not substantiate her claim of sexual abuse. A Dec. 10, 2003, letter from Fiorenza said Edelin would not serve as a priest until Fiorenza had assurances from counselors that "he poses no danger to young people or to others."

For now, Edelin's status remains in limbo, said diocese chancellor Monsignor Frank H. Rossi.

"He presently does not have faculties nor is he at this time allowed to engage in any pastoral or priestly ministry," Rossi said.

For the woman, the review board's conclusion was "a sham" and has left her concerned that the diocese could someday reassign a priest who she said preyed on her when she was a teen.

It also calls into question the efficacy of the church's new processes and the role that review boards have in determining the validity of accusations.

"Evil happens if good people do nothing," said the woman, who now lives in the Dallas area and who spoke to the Houston Chronicle on the condition that she not be identified. "If someone had stood up for me, maybe someone would have saved me. You just can't sit back when kids are involved."

Nationwide, diocese officials are learning how to handle sex abuse claims within the boundaries set out by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002.

In January, a nationwide audit found that most church leaders are complying with the new rules in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Most dioceses have established review boards, hired victim assistance coordinators and created prevention programs. Auditors found that dioceses were following what was essentially a zero-tolerance policy and removing priests credibly accused of molesting even one time.

The auditors lauded the Diocese of Galveston-Houston for its long commitment to preventing abuse.

In Houston, the 11-member review board is an ecumenical mix of respected professionals including former law enforcement officials, a former judge, psychologists and sex abuse survivors, said J. Michael Solar, a lawyer and chairman of the board.

"The people are public-spirited people who have a general interest in maintaining the integrity of the process," he said.

The woman was 17 and working in youth ministry at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in west Houston. She claimed that her physical contact with Edelin, then a young priest, began as hugs.

Later his hands wandered down to her backside and up her shorts, she said.

He groped her in church offices at night, in confession and on retreats, she said. He once invited her to his bedroom, but she refused, she said.

"I was scared, but part of the fear was that I was causing it," said the woman, who said she had a history of being sexually abused before the church incidents occurred.

Edelin has repeatedly denied the claims, Rossi said. Edelin told Rossi that he "respectfully declines to have any public comment."

Rossi said that the woman's sex abuse complaint was the only one ever filed with the diocese against Edelin.

The settlement in 1996 came after the woman wrote to the Galveston-Houston chancellor demanding an apology and $ 5,000 to help pay the psychiatry and psychotherapy bills she had incurred.

The check came with a confidentiality agreement, which the diocese released her from in January. It also came with a letter dated Feb. 23, 1996, from Fiorenza saying that "for any suffering and pain that he has caused you, I am deeply sorry and offer you my most sincere apology."

The letter assured the woman that Edelin would be told of the complaint and officially suspended from ministry.

For the woman, who said she had spent more than a decade searching for help from Catholic clergy, the apology was a relief.

"I felt closure," she said. "I thought it was the end."

In 1996, the diocese investigation could not confirm the abuse, Rossi said. The money and apology were sent out of concern for the woman, he said.

"It is not an admission that this priest did whatever she was alleging he did," Rossi said.

"But clearly there is pain there. For whatever extent he was an instrument of pain in her life, we are sorry."

At the time of her complaint, Edelin was not serving as a priest for reasons that had nothing to do with sex abuse, Rossi said. He declined to elaborate on those reasons. During those years, Edelin had worked as an auditor, Rossi said.

Edelin asked to come back into ministry at the end of 2002, Rossi said.

Before approving his return, diocese officials had him undergo a series of psychological tests, Rossi said. He was also sent to a treatment center. The diocesan review board examined Edelin's history, including the 1996 accusation, and approved him for ministry, Rossi said.

The woman who filed the complaint was not contacted because diocese officials believed she did not want to hear from them again, Rossi said.

However, when she learned in May that Edelin would be returning to ministry, the woman contacted the diocese and sent an eight-page account of her claim. In September, she met with a four-member panel from the diocesan review board.

She described their questions as adversarial and uninformed. The experience was "an emotional nightmare," she said.

Diocese leaders plan to discuss panel procedures, Rossi said.

�� TIMELINE

1981-82: The Rev. Richard Edelin allegedly molests teenage girl.

1996: Diocese settles out of court.

June 2002: U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops makes new rules about sex abusers.

May 2003: Church officials announce that Edelin will join staff. Woman reiterates claim.

Diocese decides not to let Edelin return.

December 2003: Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza writes that the review board could not substantiate claims of abuse.

 
 

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