Diocese Faces DA Inquiry Handling of Abuse Claims Targeted; Church Pledges Cooperation
By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
February 8, 2005
Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill is launching a broad criminal investigation of how Catholic Bishop Charles Grahmann and his staff have handled allegations of sexual misconduct, officials confirmed Monday.
The goal is to determine whether the Dallas Diocese "has received any allegations of abuse by members of the clergy that have not subsequently been reported to law enforcement," said Rachel Horton, a spokeswoman for Mr. Hill.
She said two recent disclosures made prosecutors suspicious of the diocese's written insistence, in 2002, that it had no one in the ministry with "any indication of violations of state laws relating to minors."
First, a Rockwall pastor who announced his resignation Sunday had been accused in sworn statements in the early 1990s of sexually harassing boys at jobs in Dallas and Plano, The Dallas Morning News reported Monday. Accusers said they saw no sign that the diocese investigated the allegations or reported them to state authorities.
And last week, Grand Prairie police arrested a pastor on charges of possessing child pornography. The bishop's spokesman, Bronson Havard, has said the diocese first got evidence of the priest's possible misconduct a few weeks ago and promptly notified police.
Mr. Havard initially limited his comment Monday evening to this e-mail message: "We welcome the DA's help and will cooperate fully with him."
Later, the diocesan newspaper he edits, Texas Catholic, said the district attorney is investigating allegations made by journalists who are "strident critics" of the church.
The criminal investigation "will show the diocese has fully complied with the law," according to Texas Catholic's online edition.
The Rockwall and Grand Prairie priests have declined to comment.
The Dallas Diocese joins a list of about a dozen dioceses nationwide that have faced investigations into whether they covered up abuse. From Boston to St. Louis to Los Angeles, in recent years prosecutors have impaneled grand juries, subpoenaed church records and deposed religious leaders.
Those inquiries have not led to prosecutions of any Catholic bishops who were still running dioceses. Some investigations ground to a halt because complaints were too old to prosecute; others led to charges against individual priests.
In late 2003, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati pleaded no contest to five misdemeanor counts of failing to report abuse in the late 1970s and early 1980s - when a previous bishop was in power.
Elsewhere, the dioceses of Manchester, N.H., and Phoenix struck deals to avert charges in exchange for providing access to church files and pledging specific reforms.
SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the Dallas investigation is the first to be triggered by revelations about clergymen who remained on duty after U.S. bishops adopted national "zero tolerance" reforms in 2002.
"It's groundbreaking," SNAP leader David Clohessy said. "So many prosecutors want to believe the church has learned its lesson."
The district attorney's office said it would not limit its investigation to the Rockwall and Grand Prairie cases.
Allegations about the diocese's handling of the Rockwall priest might be too old to prosecute, said Ms. Horton, the spokeswoman for Mr. Hill.
She would not discuss how prosecutors might proceed, beyond saying that a grand jury could be involved.
"Obviously, the local police departments are the primary investigative agencies in Dallas County, and we would encourage any victim of crime to report to the police," a prepared statement from Ms. Horton said.
"We would urge any victim of abuse by any member of the clergy to report the matter directly to police," the statement said. "We would also ask that anyone who has reported such abuse to the church in the past, that was not subsequently reported to authorities, to come forward."
Ms. Horton particularly asked for help with the ongoing Grand Prairie police investigation of the Rev. Matthew Bagert, whom the bishop has suspended as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church.
"We would ask that parents of any children who may have had contact with this priest to talk to their children, and, if any misconduct is revealed, report it to police immediately," her statement said.
Police say they found pictures of naked boys as young as 4 in Father Bagert's possession. Bishop Grahmann tearfully asked Grand Prairie parishioners Sunday to forgive the priest.
National church policy bars anyone who has abused children from ministry. It defines abuse as "behavior by which an adult uses a minor as an object of sexual gratification," even if there is no physical contact or force.
The district attorney's office launched its investigation after a prominent critic of Bishop Grahmann posted online messages demanding action Monday morning.
"When will the district attorney finally get off his duff and investigate ...?" D magazine publisher Wick Allison wrote on his publication's blog.
Mr. Hill already had staff members researching a possible investigation when Mr. Allison began commenting, Ms. Horton said.
Well-connected lay Catholics allied with Mr. Allison ran a petition drive two years ago that sought, unsuccessfully, to force the bishop from office. Some priests, including Father Bagert, led a counter-petition movement.
Mr. Allison's frustration was echoed Monday night by Cliff Allen, who alerted Bishop Grahmann's predecessor in 1989 that a priest was having boys spend the night with him. That priest, Rudy Kos, stayed on duty under Bishop Grahmann until 1992.
Mr. Hill's investigation "is only about five years too late," Mr. Allen said. "Better late than never, I guess."
Bishop Grahmann has barred about 10 priests from ministry because of sexual abuse. Some of them were allowed to resign from their churches without parishioners' being told why. The diocese and its insurers have paid tens of millions of dollars to settle cover-up claims.
The district attorney's office has prosecuted and sent to prison two of those men: Mr. Kos, who has since been expelled from the priesthood, and the Rev. Emeh "Anthony" Nwaogu.
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