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  In California, Fugitive Friar Finds a Haven Franciscans Unwilling to Turn in Canadian Facing '70s Abuse Counts

By Brooks Egerton and Reese Dunklin
Dallas Morning News
July 12, 2004

One in an occassional series

Franciscan friar Gerald Chumik is an admitted child molester. He has been a fugitive from his native Canada for 14 years.

Church and state alike know where he is: living in a picturesque religious complex overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, Calif.

But nobody, it seems, has been willing to order him to go home and face justice.

"We can't ask anybody to do anything they don't want to do," explained the Rev. Mel Jurisich, head of the Franciscan order's Western U.S. region. "The only way we could force his hand is to dismiss him."

And the Franciscans - the world's second-largest Catholic order - don't want to do that. They have a familial obligation to Brother Chumik, they say, and can protect the public from him.

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony could order Brother Chumik to leave his archdiocese, church law experts say. The Franciscans say the cardinal hasn't objected to their arrangement concerning Brother Chumik because they have assured him over the years that the friar is closely monitored.

Cardinal Mahony "is understanding about this," said the Rev. Tom West, who is Father Jurisich's top aide at the Franciscans' regional headquarters in Oakland. "He said, 'Just keep me informed, please,' and that's what we do."

The cardinal's spokesman, however, said that the archdiocese has "no record of or information about" Brother Chumik. The spokesman, Tod Tamberg, did not answer follow-up questions from The Dallas Morning News and said the cardinal wasn't giving interviews because of pending lawsuits alleging abuse cover-ups.

Brother Chumik is one of about 200 Catholic priests, brothers and other religious workers who have escaped sexual abuse allegations by moving abroad, a global investigation by The News has found. About 30 of these men face current criminal charges or investigations, and many remain free with their superiors' blessing.

Cardinal Mahony, echoing Pope John Paul II, declared recently, "There is no room in the priesthood or religious life for someone who has abused a child." But he has drawn criticism for leaving some accused men on duty, saying that evidence against them is lacking. And he has refused to surrender personnel records to plaintiffs' lawyers and prosecutors, citing the priests' privacy rights.

Franciscans surprised

Franciscan leaders said they were surprised to hear that the cardinal's spokesman was disavowing knowledge of Brother Chumik. They noted that the archdiocese employed the friar as a jail chaplain for many years and that church records have shown him living at parish properties.

Brother Chumik, who is retired, declined to discuss his past and the charges against him. He suffers from diabetes and is largely confined to the Franciscans' infirmary, Father West said.

But Brother Chumik said he spends much of his time tending geraniums and rare plants.

"He has quite a nice herb garden," said his immediate superior in Santa Barbara, the Rev. Alberic Smith. "He finds that very fulfilling."

Brother Chumik has been in sex-offender therapy for many years, said Father Smith, adding that he knows of no accusations against the Canadian in California. Father Smith also said he believes his colleague has been open about all his past abuses, which he termed "acting out."

Father West, the regional Franciscan official, said Brother Chumik has admitted having sex with his accuser in the criminal case, but "he perceived him to be of age."

1970s accusations

Brother Chumik stands accused of enticing a boy, at ages 12 and 15, to perform oral sex in the 1970s.

Police in St. John's, capital of the eastern Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, say they began asking church leaders to hand over Brother Chumik shortly after he was charged 14 years ago.

"They were not going to do anything," Sgt. Mark Wall said. "Their attitude was, 'It's up to Chumik.'"

But Franciscan leaders say Canadian authorities have never asked them to return the 69-year-old fugitive.

"In talking to me, they were quite satisfied with the situation he's in here - that he's virtually under house arrest," Father Smith said. "They weren't interested in extradition."

St. John's police inquired about extradition when they filed charges. Local prosecutors told them that the U.S.-Canada extradition treaty at the time didn't cover the alleged crime of gross indecency.

However, the treaty did cover "unlawful sexual acts with or upon children." A U.S. government official told The News that he did not understand the Canadian prosecutors' interpretation of the treaty and failure to seek extradition.

After the newspaper recently inquired about the matter, police sought a new legal opinion. Prosecutor Pam Goulding told The News that the treaty has specifically covered gross indecency since 1991 and that her office was preparing a new opinion about whether Brother Chumik could be forced back to Canada.

The move to California

In the late 1970s, Brother Chumik moved to California from western Canada, where he was based early in his career. He sometimes also worked temporarily in Newfoundland, although the Franciscans had no operations there.

There are conflicting explanations for his international move.

Father Jurisich, the U.S. Franciscan leader, said the personnel records he has provide no reason. He speculated that Brother Chumik might have been seeking a warmer climate.

The Rev. Bob Mokry, who now leads the Franciscans in western Canada, said the brother left home after talking about becoming a hermit.

Father Smith, the Franciscan supervisor in Santa Barbara, initially said that he assumed Brother Chumik had been moved because of abuse complaints and that personnel records wouldn't reflect this. Such concealment routinely "happened back in the 1970s," he said.

After consulting with Brother Chumik, Father Smith relayed another explanation to The News: that the transfer occurred because the Canadian was looking for more chances to work with poor people.

The Franciscans in Canada "didn't have a lot of opportunities for that," Father Smith said.

Life as a jail chaplain

Brother Chumik spent most of his working years in California as a jail chaplain, with a brief stint as a mental hospital chaplain, Franciscan officials said.

"He stressed very strongly the responsibility inmates would have to change their lives," Father Smith said. It's "kind of ironic," he said, that the Canadian fugitive had spent so much time in detention facilities.

Los Angeles, Fresno

Brother Chumik served in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and the Fresno Diocese from 1980 to 1985, then returned to Los Angeles. There, the archdiocese laid him off for financial reasons in 1995, the Franciscans say.

Since then, they say, Brother Chumik has been out of ministry, spending most of his time at a rural retreat house in the Fresno Diocese. He moved back to the Los Angeles Archdiocese last year and lives at the Franciscans' 18th-century mission in Santa Barbara, a well-known tourist attraction and parish church that includes a residence for order members.

St. Anthony's Seminary, a residential high school for boys, once was attached to the mission but closed in 1987. An investigation commissioned by the Franciscans later concluded that 25 percent of the friars who worked there had molested students.

Father Jurisich, the U.S. Franciscan leader who oversees Brother Chumik, was rector of the seminary for several years and has begged forgiveness for the abuse. Like Cardinal Mahony, he has portrayed himself as a reformer on abuse issues.

Brother Chumik is the only fugitive the California Franciscans are housing, Father Jurisich said. All sex offenders who have remained in the order are closely supervised by fellow friars and barred from ministry, he said.

The Franciscans also pay a former probation officer to keep tabs on these men, Father Jurisich said.

Contact by phone

That ex-officer, Gerry Dunn, said he regularly checks up on Brother Chumik by phone, but "I don't do any actual surveillance" or unannounced visits. Mr. Dunn is in Oakland, about 300 miles from Santa Barbara.

He said that he knows Brother Chumik is "a person in flight" from the Canadian authorities but that he doesn't think he's dangerous. The friar, he said, appears to comply with all restrictions - including never leaving the mission unaccompanied and not interacting with parish members or visitors.

Order members say they feel a familial obligation to Brother Chumik and want to keep him close, both to care for his health problems and to protect children.

"I'd like to see this put forward as a success story," said Father Smith. "It's working out for the safety of everyone concerned."

News coverage of friars who have abused in the past sometimes fails to focus on such successes, Father Smith and Father West said.

"We'll find from time to time that if a lot of publicity comes up," Father Smith said, "we have to move someone."

 
 

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