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  In Haiti, American Ex-Priest Maintains Access to Youth

By Brooks Egerton and Brendan Case
Dallas Morning News
February 25, 2005

DALLAS _ An American questioned this week in connection with a massive jailbreak in Haiti is an admitted child molester whom the Vatican removed from the priesthood.

Ron Voss sought his own expulsion in 1997, and got it a year later. His petition, according to his former Diocese of Lafayette, Ind., included this admission: "My sins are too numerous to detail, but the most grievous gather around the sexual abuse of many adolescent boys, including some minors."

Yet the defrocking hasn't kept him out of Catholic Church work or away from children. Clergy and lay leaders, some knowing of his past, have helped Voss continue a powerful ministry he began in the early 1990s in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

He has long been a leader in the Parish Twinning Program of the Americas, through which hundreds of Catholic congregations around the United States assist needy ones in Haiti. The Nashville, Tenn.-based charity says it has facilitated aid to Haitian parishes that serve more than 2 million people, about a quarter of the Caribbean nation's population.

The Nashville Diocese, facing questions from clergy-abuse activists and The Dallas Morning News, recently asked twinning program executive Theresa Patterson to cut ties with Voss.

Meanwhile, Haitian police twice this week detained Voss for questioning in connection with a jailbreak Saturday in which about 500 prisoners escaped.

Haiti's justice minister, Bernard Gousse, was quoted Thursday as saying that "people planned this operation" at a twinning program office in the capital of Port-au-Prince. But he later told The News that "it's too early to jump to conclusions."

Voss' allies defended him and denounced the detentions as illegal.

Detroit Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who was visiting Voss when police first detained him Wednesday, told The Miami Herald: "For them to make this charge is so bizarre."

The U.S. Embassy in Haiti issued a statement saying that Ambassador James Foley had spoken with Gousse "to underscore the U.S. government's expectation that due process be accorded to all U.S. citizens arrested in Haiti."

Patterson, the twinning program executive, has declined interview requests. She issued a written statement that said she would advise people to quit using Voss' Visitation House, which provides lodging to U.S. parishioners of all ages on mission trips.

Visitation House also caters to Haitians, offering a clinic, English classes and youth sports programs in which Voss is directly involved.

"I think Ron Voss has done great and heroic work," said William Slavick, a leader in Maine of the Catholic antiwar group Pax Christi. He said he had visited Haiti, learned about the abuse from Patterson and feared Voss would be killed if this history became widely known.

Patterson's written statement said "all outreach projects of Ron Voss are done completely independent from our program." It said he has no current position in the program; previously, he was listed as a board member and as Haiti coordinator.

The Lafayette Diocese says it fully briefed Patterson years ago on Voss' past. Yet in a 2003 e-mail to Paul Kendrick, a leader of the national watchdog group BishopAccountability.org, she wrote: "He was not accused of molesting adolescent boys."

Kendrick and SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, say church support has helped Voss maintain access to youth, who are particularly vulnerable in Haiti because of extreme poverty.

Voss has been well connected in Haiti, where he moved in the 1980s about the time his Indiana victims first began to emerge. His work was endorsed by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide _ another former priest _ who was deposed in a rebel uprising last year.

In a brief telephone interview last month, Voss said he was dealing with his sexual disorder on a "confidential and personal and psychological basis."

"I feel pretty good about the way we've handled it," he said.

Voss, who was never criminally charged, ended the interview after being asked whether he had apologized to his victims.

One accuser, whom the Lafayette Diocese recently paid for some therapy expenses, said his dealings with the church were frustrating.

"There was a lack of humility and concern for victims," he said. "And there was a lack of concern for the kids in Haiti."

 
 

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