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  DA Says Diocese Won't Be Charged Bishop Pleased after Grand Jury Finds Abuse Claims Handled Properly

By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
June 28, 2005

Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill announced Monday that he will not bring charges against local Catholic leaders over their handling of sexual misconduct allegations.

A special grand jury impaneled in February "has found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of the diocese or its officials," the district attorney said in a news release.

Mr. Hill would say little about the five-month investigation, citing state laws on grand jury secrecy.

"We conducted a very thorough and intensive investigation," he said through spokeswoman Rachel Horton.

Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann, who recently testified before the grand jury, said the announcement vindicates church leadership.

"I am pleased that the investigation has been concluded and the findings confirm our position that there has been no wrongdoing by the Diocese of Dallas or its officials in reporting cases of child abuse," he said, according to a bulletin posted Monday evening on the diocesan newspaper's Web site.

Diocese officials did not respond to interview requests. They previously have said that they learned their lesson from a series of lawsuits in the 1990s that accused them of concealing abuse and that cost the diocese more than $30 million in payments to victims.

Diocesan leaders have stressed that all church staff members and volunteers who work with children now undergo background checks and "safe environment" training designed to prevent abuse.

"The Dallas Catholic Diocese and Bishop Charles Grahmann have been unjustly maligned by critics," church attorney Jim Burnham told the diocesan newspaper in March.

The district attorney's office is continuing its prosecution of the Rev. Matthew Bagert, a Grand Prairie priest whose February arrest on child pornography charges helped trigger the broader investigation.

Father Bagert was not asked to testify before the special grand jury, said his attorney, Patrick McLain.

"I think there's still the possibility that this thing could rear its head again," the lawyer said, referring to prosecutors' broader investigation. "I know they haven't gotten to the bottom of things.

"I don't know whether they're interested in looking into the conduct of others, whether they're related to Father Matt or not."

Mr. McLain, who is Catholic and a former federal prosecutor, expressed dismay at the management of his denomination.

"There's just a lot of rot," he said. "I don't know if there's anyone interested, outside the Catholic faithful, in cleaning it up."

Father Bagert, 36, is free on bail and has been suspended from ministry. He was arrested in February after the associate pastor he supervised saw images of naked boys - described by authorities as being as young as 4 - on Father Bagert's church computer.

The associate pastor notified diocesan leaders, who alerted Grand Prairie police. A supervisor of that investigation has described the diocese as cooperative.

Shortly after the arrest, a Rockwall priest resigned from his church after some parishioners accused him of protecting a lay aide who was serving probation for indecent exposure.

The priest, the Rev. William "Bill" Richard, had previously worked at a Catholic high school in Dallas, where he was accused in a lawsuit of sexually harassing boys. He denied wrongdoing, and the accusations weren't reported until this year.

The harassment allegations, combined with Father Bagert's arrest, led the district attorney to say he was suspicious of the diocese's 2002 claim that it had no one in ministry with "any indication of violations of state laws relating to minors."

Father Bagert and the Rev. Ramon Alvarez, head priest at Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, helped lead a petition drive supporting Bishop Grahmann in 2003 after lay people criticized the bishop's management of abuse cases and urged him to quit.

 
 

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