The Bishop's Justice
In the Lafayette Diocese, priests who abuse are judged on a distinction critics find outrageous: Were the victims teens, or children?

By Linda Graham Caleca and Richard D. Walton
Indianapolis Star
February 17, 1997

[See links to all the articles in this series from the Indianapolis Star.]

Priests accused of sexual abuse or misconduct in the Lafayette Diocese face neither a judge nor jury.

They answer to a bishop.

And William L. Higi's system of justice is ill-defined, infuriating to victims – and, some fear, dangerously misguided.

Higi's law is based on a maze of church canons, state statutes and psychological theories still under wide debate.

In Their Court: The fates of sexually abusive priests are in the hands of Bishop William Higi (left) and his vicar general, the Rev. Robert Sell. Basing their decisions largely on victims' ages, the men call their approach responsible. Detractors call it wrongheaded and risky. Staff Photo / D. Todd Moore.

Instead of prison, perpetrators go to therapy. What happens next may depend less on the trauma they inflicted than on their victims' ages.

Molest a young child, Higi says, and you're finished as a priest.

But abuse a teen and there are options. With counseling, you may return to the ministry. In practice, though, abusers have slipped out of town and begun new lives outside the priesthood.

Child molesters cannot be cured, Higi explains, but men who prey on teens can.

His second-in-command takes that belief a surprising step further.

Some teens, Vicar General Rev. Robert Sell suggests, might be partly responsible for their own abuse. Unlike "innocent" children, he says, teens can "consent" to sexual acts.

As young as 13, says Sell, who investigates the diocese's abuse cases, there can be "an element of consent, as well as an element of understanding of what is morally right and wrong."

The bishop doesn't go that far. He dismisses as irrelevant the idea of consenting teens. Yet Higi calls it "consenting" when priests have sex with young adults – even parishioners. He lets those priests return to the pulpit after therapy.

Critics call this system of discipline offensive and wrongheaded.

It misses the larger point – that priests have promised to refrain from sexual relationships altogether, says the Rev. Melvin Bennett of St. Bernard Church in Crawfordsville.

Instead of worrying about victims' ages, Bennett says, church officials should be talking to priests about "living a celibate life and living a chaste life.

"And being men of prayer."

If the diocese's approach is misguided, it is also convenient.

While no one suggests that Higi and Sell devised the system for expediency, it does allow them to cast a terrible problem in the best light.

In a Roman Catholic diocese long plagued by accusations of sexual abuse and misconduct, only a fraction of the accused preyed on young children; more abused teens. So Higi and Sell can downplay the bulk of the offenses and truthfully tell the public their pedophiles are few.

The diocese can justify its more lenient treatment of abusers of teens because those offenders are not, as Sell puts it, "the extreme predator" a pedophile is.

Consider the cases of Monsignor Arthur Sego and the Rev. Ron Voss – both longtime friends of the bishop.

Sego, who sexually abused girls, lives a restricted life in a rest home on Higi's orders. He cannot come and go without supervision.

In contrast, Voss, who was accused of abusing eight male teenagers, is a free man in Haiti. He resigned the priesthood in 1993.

"The man just doesn't understand (sexual) boundaries," Higi says of abusers such as Voss.

"There are many people in this country who engage in this ... older people that get involved with younger people."

Infuriating Distinction

Angry victims say comments like that minimize the pain caused by Voss and other predators of vulnerable teens. They say these abuses were no less horrific – and the perpetrators no less guilty.

A grief-stricken mother, who says her son was victimized by Voss at age 13 or 14, can hardly believe that Higi draws a line between children and adolescents.

She says her son died a traumatized young man after Voss sexually abused him years earlier.

That central Indiana woman asked that her name not be used, but wanted the bishop to remember that Voss did a terrible wrong.

He hurt children, she reminds Higi. "It's child molest."

Under Indiana law, the age of consent is 16. Sexual acts with children under 14 are felonies, whether the victim is willing or not.

Yet priests who ignored those laws went not to court, but to Higi. Diocese officials insist they followed the law by reporting child abuse to authorities. That could not be confirmed because those reports are confidential. But no criminal prosecutions are known to have resulted.

In place of the legal system, the church becomes the law. Higi insists that he acts promptly and responsibly.

He stresses that any priest guilty of sexual abuse or misconduct has committed a wrong. But he sees degrees of wrong and believes that any man who is not a dangerous pedophile stands a chance of rehabilitation.

This is how Higi and Sell explain it:
• Pedophiles, who prey on children under age 13, can never again function as priests. They suffer a severe and lasting psychological disorder.
• Ephebophiles, who are attracted to teen-agers, can learn to control those sexual urges with therapy. They may be allowed to return to some form of God's work.

No abusers of teens currently are in the Lafayette Diocese. Only after rehabilitation, Sell says, could any return in the future.

Abusers, though, don't always fall into a clear category.

The Rev. Ken Bohlinger says he hardly knew – or cared – whether the boys he sexually abused were 9, 10, 12 or 14.

Asks Bohlinger, a former Anderson priest: "Are you an alcoholic just for beer? Are you an alcoholic just for wine? Are you an alcoholic just for the hard stuff?"

"I'm attracted to children, period."

Psychological debate

Higi did not pull his system of discipline out of thin air. He says it is rooted in psychological research and expert opinions.

One noted expert is the Rev. Canice Connors, the immediate past president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md.

Connors concedes that experts who talk about teen abusers can sound like they are trying to "excuse" the behavior. Far from it, he says, ephebophiles must be held accountable.

Still, Connors believes a pedophile is a "much sicker person." Cures are rare, he says, for molesters who are obsessed with a child's smooth skin, hairless body and small genitals.

Those who abuse teens suffer more from low self-esteem, Connors says. They just can't believe that any adult would be interested in them. With therapy, many can learn to control their urges and, under supervision, return to some type of ministry.

Easier said than done, counters Fort Wayne psychologist John Newbauer.

Normally, he said, men attracted to teens can be treated by helping them focus instead on healthy relationships with adults.

But for priests pledged to celibacy, Newbauer said, there is "nowhere to go with their sexual fantasies."

Curing either abusers of children or teens is difficult, stresses Dr. Fred Berlin of Baltimore who sees little distinction between pedophiles and ephebophiles.

"I wouldn't use the word cure with any of these people," said Berlin of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma. "Both are serious circumstances."

Berlin urged church officials to remember that teens are very much like young children. Maturity levels do not always match ages, he says.

So it is wrong "to be debating the age of consent among children."

As an advisor to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Berlin sees bishops struggling to understand these issues. He advises them to deal honestly with the community and to "err on the side of public safety."

With Voss, critics charge, Higi did not.

Voss held onto his priesthood for five years after he first was accused in 1988 of sexually abusing a teen-ager. He went to therapy and moved to Haiti.

Higi calls the former priest a "success story for rehabilitation." Noting that Voss regularly sees a therapist, the bishop says there is no reason to worry about Voss' sexual behavior today.

Berlin worries anyway.

Voss comes in contact with young Haitians; he works with parishes and has also taught English.

A man with Voss' history should "not be somewhere else where vulnerable youngsters can be victimized by him," Berlin said.

"Kids are just as important in Haiti as they are in a hometown of Indiana."

Salvation of souls

Muncie was the Rev. Raymond Wieber's town.

Even though Wieber, of St. Lawrence Church, was accused of repeatedly abusing a teen-age altar boy, Vicar General Sell says the diocese considered bringing the priest back after his therapy.

"It was our hope that he would come back to some type of ministry," says Sell.

Sell, who was a friend of Wieber's, notes that the "salvation of souls" is a supreme law of the church and an important goal in these cases.

He says Wieber might have been allowed to minister at a nursing or retirement home, a place teens didn't frequent.

In 1993, before Wieber's fate could be decided, the priest died of cancer.

That officials even considered returning him to ministry outrages Phyllis Marlowe. A devout Catholic from Muncie, she says it's "just enough to make me quit the church."

For years, Marlowe suspected Wieber's abuses. She lived behind St. Lawrence and heard accounts of sexual acts from teens who visited Wieber's church or rectory. When she complained to Bishop Raymond Gallagher, he told her Wieber had been to therapy and no longer posed a problem.

Years later when Higi was bishop, Marlowe complained again, this time about Wieber abusing the altar boy. She learned of the abuse long after Wieber preyed on the youth, who was one of 10 children in a family whose father had died. Marlowe, the mother's friend, said Wieber exploited the tragedy.

Higi immediately sent Wieber to therapy, but death ended his ministry.

"He was finally removed." said Marlowe, the Delaware County recorder. "God did it."

Although it is possible for priests who abuse teens to return to ministry under Higi's system, the fate of child molesters is more certain. Their careers in the priesthood are finished, the diocese says.

Though Sego, like the others, escaped prosecution and prison, he did receive some punishment from Higi.

At the rest home. Higi says, Sego is essentially under "house arrest." The bishop's voice flared with anger as he spoke of Sego, his former second-in-command.

"I think house arrest is a good term because it is very difficult for him to be where he is," Higi said. "He is not free to come and go at will."

In an interview, Sego said he had no idea why the bishop treated him more harshly than all the other accused priests. But he disputes that his home is a jail.

"I am in a very quiet, beautiful rest home out in the woods," Sego said. "We are just out in the country, and you can't see anywhere but up."

Sego is lonely, though, and wants to come home to his family in Indiana. But he depends on the church financially, and he must do as his bishop asks. At least for the time being, Sego says, Higi won't let him return.

Pedophiles, Higi says, will never be tolerated in his diocese. "Even one case of pedophilia," he said, holding a finger in the air, "is abhorrent to everything we stand for."

When asked for a breakdown of how many priests in his diocese abused children and how many abused teens, Higi refused to say, calling it privileged information.

Yet Higi clearly is frustrated that critics have "lumped this whole thing together and said that a tremendous percentage of Catholic clergy are pedophiles. It simply isn't true."

In the Lafayette Diocese, Sego has been identified as a pedophile. Yet he did not limit himself to children; he also admits to fondling young pregnant women. Bohlinger may or may not be a pedophile; he says he can't remember what his therapists told him about that. The ages of his young victims mattered little to Bohlinger, who no longer functions as a priest and says he has not abused anyone since 1986.

At least three other priests were accused by teen-agers or mostly teens; they are Voss, Wieber and the late Rev. Donald Tracey.

What is a "child?"

Church officials take pains to distinguish a Sego from a Voss.

During interviews with The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News, Sell repeatedly corrected reporters who used the words "children" or "minors" when talking about adolescent victims. The vicar general balked at answering questions until reporters used the word "teenagers."

So sharp is the line drawn that the panel set up by Higi to review sexual misconduct cases was created expressly to protect children. Accusations involving teens have not been routinely sent to the Diocesan Review Board, Sell says.

Sell explains that teens and young adults are of a "different mind-set." They can "give consent" and understand the kind of "relationship" they are having.

In fact, he says, some teens are the sexual aggressors.

"The teen-ager might seek to act out in some fashion an expression of emotion or of attachment or of desire towards the minister," Sell says. He adds that priests must gently stop those advances, but, "unfortunately, with the human condition, some of our priests did not."

Sell adds that he's not suggesting that any teen "has led a priest to stray." It is the priest, he says, who has chosen to commit a wrong.

Asked when a child becomes a teen, Sell says about age 13. But when asked again to define a "minor," Sell said the age can depend on the speed of puberty. For girls, he says, it can happen about age 12: for boys, about 14.

Yet the diocese's own written protocols for handling sexual misconduct cases clearly defines a minor as anyone under 18.

If this system for deciding the fates of priest perpetrators seems confusing or inconsistent, Higi insists it is not. Yet he won't explain, calling the details of his decisions confidential.

Higi won't even specify what happened to each accused priest. In a scolding written response to questions from The Star and The News – questions sent to the bishop after he abruptly cut off interviews – he wrote that "whether they resigned or were fired or were granted restricted retirement is basically irrelevant."

He also wouldn't elaborate on Sell's references to teens who "consent." Higi wrote: "'Consent' as used in the context of your question is irrelevant."

A matter of trust

Higi is neither a lawyer nor a psychologist, but in this northcentral Indiana diocese, his word is law. He has no superior in this country; his boss is Pope John Paul II in Rome.

The bishop wants the public to trust his judgment. He says, with emotion, that he is doing his "damedest to address this thing."

"How do you capture the pain of this thing?" the bishop asks.

Pain turns to anger for some victims when they hear church officials misstating their ages, making them appear older than they were at the time of their abuse.

Sell, for example, puts the ages of Ron Voss' victims at 16, 17 or 18. But the mother of the young man who died years after being molested by Voss insists her son was 13 or 14 when the abuse occurred. Other Voss victims were known to be 15.

Sego has insisted that accuser Linda Schrader was 17 when he had her undress and dance for him.

"No way, no!" shouts Schrader, who says she was closer to 11 or 12 and "naive as naive can come."

"I didn't even say the word 'sex,'" she says. "Didn't read it, didn't hear it, didn't see it, didn't know it."

Anyone under 18 is clearly a child in the eyes of David Wilson, a social worker who runs the diocese's victims' assistance office in Kokomo. Wilson stresses that his office is not involved in investigating or disciplining accused priests. To him, it doesn't make any difference whether victims are 5 or 15.

"They are all children," says Wilson. "They are all hurting persons. And I am here to help them."
That's the correct response, priests say.

Higi needs to worry about the victims – "who they are, where they are, what their problems are, if they need any help," said one priest who asked not to be identified. Are they "angry, bitter? What healing has taken place?"

Victims and accused priests alike deserve a fair and open process, says Father Bennett of Crawfordsville.

But Higi, he says, "is in absolute control of this issue and has been from the very beginning and will be for the foreseeable future. And this is at his own insistence."

That, Bennett says, is part of the problem.

It clearly is, says Indianapolis attorney Robert Weddle, who has represented Sego victim Angela Mitchell in a failed lawsuit. Mitchell filed her claim after the statute of limitations ran out.

Cases go nowhere

Weddle is angry because he believes neither Higi nor the late Bishop Gallagher reported abuse cases to authorities. By law, suspicions of child abuse must be disclosed to Child Protective Services or to police.

The attorney says he canvassed seven central Indiana police departments, none of which had heard from the diocese. One officer, Weddle says, laughed at him for asking whether the church promptly reports child abuse.

Yet Higi, Sell and Wilson insist they carefully follow the law, promptly calling child protective officials.

No one knows why, or will say why, such reports never resulted in action.

The cases drop into a bureaucratic black hole where no one is responsible: Child welfare officials say they can't confirm whether they ever got a report, police say they did not receive any reports, and prosecutors say they cannot act until one of the two other agencies does.

"I have been in this office for 16 years and have never heard of a case against a priest," says Tippecanoe County Prosecutor Jerry Bean, who prosecutes cases in Lafayette, the city where the bishop lives and works.

In this diocese, Weddle says, Higi is the law.

"He controls everything. What he says goes."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.