Catholics stunned by accused priest list
By Stephanie Innes
Arizona Daily Star
June 25, 2002
Some Tucson Catholics got a shock when they recognized clergy they knew on a list of 15 priests identified by the local diocese as having "credible" accusations of child sexual abuse against them.
But Catholics interviewed Monday said they now feel reassured that the Catholic Diocese of Tucson is no longer engaging in past practices of secrecy that have fueled criticism and anger.
"It was smart, brave and the right thing to do," said Barbara Allen, 46, a local administrator who attends the Benedictine Monastery, 800 N. Country Club Road.
"It confirms they are making changes and trying to be open and honest," said Rachel Duarte, a 45-year-old budget analyst for the city of Tucson and a parishioner at St. Augustine Cathedral, 192 S. Stone Ave.
Bishop Manuel D. Moreno and Coadjutor Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas released the names Friday, on the same day that the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix announced it would ban three priests from the ministry and begin procedures to defrock three more. The Phoenix diocese also set up a committee to examine church records back to 1973 and determine whether any other priests' names should be forwarded to public authorities.
The majority of priests on the Tucson list have not been convicted by the criminal justice system. But the diocese deemed the allegations against them as credible by using a standard that bishops from around the country adopted at their meeting in Dallas this month. That standard defines sexual abuse as any instance when a child is "being used as an object of sexual gratification for an adult."
"A culture of openness is a firm sign of leadership," said Brian Flagg, a 47-year-old parishioner and lector at Santa Cruz Catholic Church, 1220 S. Sixth Ave., who lives and works at Casa Maria Worker House, 401 E. 26th St. "It hurts that the church looks so bad all the time, but what's gone on nationally is outrageous."
Among the Diocese of Tucson names that saddened and surprised local Catholics were those of retired Monsignor John A. Oliver, who in 1967 pleaded guilty in connection with molesting a 14-year-old boy, and the Rev. Robert Thomas, a retired priest who until his suspension in May had been celebrating Mass once per week at Santa Catalina Mission.
"I was really stunned to see Monsignor Oliver on the list. He was very well thought of," said Rosalie Crowe, a retired newspaper writer and parishioner at St. Odilia Catholic Church, 7570 N. Paseo del Norte.
Parishioners who knew Thomas also held him in high regard. Thomas was suspended this year after a review of his personnel files showed he'd pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor while he was a priest for the Diocese of Toledo.
"It's difficult for me to fathom that this event of so long ago merits my being placed on a list of pedophiles and child molesters," Thomas said in a written message to a reporter on Monday. "Such things to me are abhorrent, and my prayer in this current church crisis first and foremost is for the victims of such vile behavior and their families."
Thomas, 70, said his guilty plea was in connection with being arrested in a public restroom where he says he was accosted by a young person with a criminal record. When he moved to Tucson 16 years ago for an arthritic condition, Thomas said he told Moreno about the arrest, and Moreno told him to go ahead with his work as a priest.
"But with the current crisis of trust going on in the church, he felt that, in the light of the bishops' declaration in Dallas, he had to do what he did," Thomas wrote. "When the institution is in danger, the pain of an individual simply cannot be a consideration."
In addition to releasing the 15 names Friday, the diocese offered to provide free assistance to victims. But so far, Moreno and Kicanas have heard very little feedback about the announcement, and the victims' line has had few calls.
The time span related to the priests on the list - their dates of service go back to the late 1950s - and the fact that five of them are now dead could have something to do with the lack of reaction.
"The victims are really, really grateful the bishop is doing this. They just wish he'd done it a long time ago. It's 20 years too late," said attorney Lynne M. Cadigan, who represented 10 men who in January settled with the local diocese in 11 civil actions citing abuse by local clergy. The out-of-court settlement is estimated to be as high as $16 million.
Cadigan added that the victims are happy the diocese is validating their claims.
Thomas, the suspended priest, said he will continue to pray for the church and for the victims.
"I am sorry that many will be scandalized or disillusioned by what happened to me in the past - but ask them to remember that an incident that happened 20 years ago does not take away or diminish the love I feel for the people of this local church," he wrote. "And I hope they, in turn, will keep some good thoughts about me in their hearts."
Crowe hopes the church will make the protection of children a higher priority.