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  Sealed Records Show Cover-Ups
Documents Reveal Church Officials Scripted Plans to Conceal Sexual Abuse in Two Cases

By Tony Saavedra, Rachanee Srisavasdi and Chris Knap
Orange County Register
May 19, 2005

Former Bishop Norman McFarland and other Catholic leaders scripted plans to cover up admitted sexual abuse that led to the resignations of a Placentia pastor and a Mater Dei High School teacher, according to sealed personnel files that are part of a $100 million settlement by the diocese.

For the first time, documents reveal that the Rev. John E. Ruhl and school choir director Thomas Hodgman confessed their misconduct to church officials more than a decade ago. Hodgman for years has publicly claimed innocence, while Ruhl has refused to comment.

In both cases, records show, the church removed the men once they received a public complaint but orchestrated carefully worded plans to hide why they had been dismissed. Both were said to have resigned for personal reasons.

A different story emerges from sealed documents inadvertently given to The Orange County Register, documents that were mixed in with others approved for release by the court. The Register is publishing these papers to give a fuller picture of how the church handled those accused of molestation. "These documents have existed for how long?" said Claudia Vercelloti, head of the Toledo chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Hodgman now teaches at Adrian College in Michigan, near Toledo.

"They have been hiding these records, when they knew what was going on," she said. "They turned a child molester out on another state."

At Mater Dei, employees were given an unsigned script when Hodgman resigned in November 1989 that advised, "the following information should be paraphrased to the students (and, if possible, the parents) of the Mater Dei Choral Program: Mr. Hodgman has resigned ... he expects you to carry on the tradition of musical excellence.

"Mr. Hodgman will always be with the members of the Mater Dei choirs in their music," the script said.

The script said he resigned to further his education.

But records show Hodgman had admitted behind closed doors that he had sex with two female students. One got pregnant and had an abortion.

Secreted away in files were revelations that school officials knew for more than a year that Hodgman dated at least one student but didn't take action until someone complained. In 1988, Hodgman volunteered the relationship to vice principal Lucretia Dominguez, who didn't document that meeting until a reported victim came forward 17 months later.

"Foolishly he dated a senior girl," Dominguez wrote. "No record of this meeting was placed in his personnel file, and it is only at the request of the principal that it is now being documented."

A memo from the Rev. John Weling, then principal of Mater Dei, to McFarland, documents a Nov. 7, 1989 meeting in which Hodgman admitted to having sex with two former students. He said he was unaware that one had obtained an abortion.

The diocese paid $1.6 million to settle one lawsuit naming Hodgman. Calls to Hodgman for comment Wednesday were not returned.

In the case of Ruhl, critics already were calling for his removal from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Placentia because of his "rude" persona, according to news accounts, when the diocese received a report April 16, 1992, that he molested a teenage boy at St. Vincent de Paul seminary in Montebello in 1976-77.

The boy told church officials that Ruhl wrapped the boy's genitals in athletic tape on 10 occasions to keep him from masturbating.

Ruhl was put on administrative leave the day after the boy came forward. Documents show that he admitted to the taping but said it was therapeutic and not sexual in nature. He added it was done only as a last resort on, perhaps, two occasions.

Ruhl, now 68 and living in Chicago, declined to comment Wednesday.

The diocese launched its own investigation, going as far as to hook Ruhl up to a poly graph machine, according to handwritten notes in his personnel file. The results of the lie-detector test are not included in the portion of his file obtained by the Register.

On June 25, 1992, Ruhl resigned and was placed on "inactive leave," with McFarland himself handling the damage control. In previous years, McFarland has kept a low profile in the diocese abuse crisis. Ruhl's personnel files put him front and center.

In handwritten notes, McFarland said that when asked about Ruhl's resignation, he would say, "It is not proper to discuss with them matters of a personal and personnel nature, but that they can be assured that I have worked very closely with Father Ruhl in all of this and I feel I should respect his wishes in the matter."

The notes then added, "I expect him to respond to any inquiries in the same way, that the decision was truly his own. He agreed without any hesitation, saying that he had already paved the way for this by telling people that he didn't feel he could ever go back to St. Joseph's."

Then McFarland wrote that the diocese would hand Ruhl the pink slip to a 1989 Jeep and would consider giving him a stipend until he landed on his feet. Papers show that in 2000 Ruhl was still receiving as much as $10,000 a year in pay and medical benefits from the priests' relief fund.

The problem didn't stop after Ruhl's resignation. In the following years, records show the church received allegations that Ruhl molested two other teenage seminary students in 1970 and 1976, in one case allegedly pushing the head of a boy into his genitals.

The diocese in January settled one $500,000 claim naming Ruhl.

 
 

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