He says Houston priest sexually abused him when he was 8. Three decades later, he’s suing the Archdiocese

KHOU-TV, Ch. 11 [Houston TX]

March 8, 2024

By Stephen Goin

The alleged victim said Father Dennis Peterson began abusing him in 1995 when he and his father were homeless and they sought help at a Catholic church.

A man who says he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest in Houston is coming forward after nearly three decades. He’s filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, claiming they failed to protect him. 

The man, who spoke with us on the condition that we protect his identity, said he wants justice and closure. 

“It basically destroyed my life, it destroyed me in a million ways,” he told us.

The alleged victim said the abuse began in 1995 when he was 8 years old and he and his father were homeless. They went to the Saint Francis Cabrini Catholic Church in southeast Houston where he says Father Dennis Peterson befriended them and offered to help.

“In the church, you automatically assume that everybody’s nice and wants to help you,” the man told us. “I would come during the week to him while my father ran the streets and did alcohol and drugs and that’s where it progressed to him giving me money and gifts,” 

After that, he says Peterson started giving him a mixture of communion wine and juice and sexually abusing him.

“To kind of make me impaired and take advantage of me and coerce me into committing sexual acts with him.”

He said the abuse continued for months until his family left Texas. 

In the lawsuit filed this week, the man said the priest’s actions haunted him his entire life but he never told anyone what happened until recently.

“I turned to alcohol and drugs,” he told us. “Stress, anxiety, panic attacks, just a lot of things that I never got counseling for and never dealt with.”

In 2019, Peterson was named in a list of 42 Houston-area priests with “credible accusations” of sexual abuse of a minor.

After the list was made public, KHOU 11 Investigates spoke with another man who believes Peterson was the reason his brother took his own life at the age of 30. That man told us his brother was also sexually abused by the priest when he was a child. 

Peterson faced lawsuits in 1999 and 2005. He and the archdiocese denied the allegations but they settled out of court both times.

“They try to sweep things under the rug,” Peterson’s latest accuser told us.

In 2005, the priest was laicized, meaning he lost his clerical status. He died two years later. 

Throughout his career in Houston, Peterson was assigned to nearly 10 churches. He also served as chaplain for the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center for some time.

“They continued to allow him access to children in posting after posting,” Maureen Farrell with the law firm that filed the lawsuit told us. “The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston has a responsibility to account for their repeated negligent disregard for the safety of children.”

Farrell said a 2019 revision to sex abuse law in Texas made it possible for the lawsuit to go forward.

“Now, people have 30 years after their 18th birthday to report abuse they suffered as children, she said. “Before it was only 15 years. That amendment recognizes there is often a long gap between when a child is abused and when they gain the strength to report it.”

Peterson’s accuser said he only gathered the courage to come forward after both of his parents passed because he never told them about the abuse. 

Now, he wants Archdiocese leaders to accept responsibility.

“I guess it’s another chapter of my life that I want to put behind me. I don’t want to walk around with this baggage anymore. I want justice and I want closure,” the alleged victim said. “I want other victims to hear this story and know that they can come forward.”

We reached out to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston about the lawsuit but they said they don’t comment on pending litigation.

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