Foreign-Born Priests Ease Shortage But Pose Accountability Challenge

By Mark Wrolstad
Dallas Morning News
June 14, 2002

Inside the Catholic crisis, the known and alleged abuse by one segment of the clergy - in Texas alone - forms its own indictment.

A priest imprisoned for preying on boys in rural San Antonio parishes.

A seminary student accused of fondling a young boy in San Angelo but allowed to leave the country.

A priest charged with sexually assaulting a girl in Tyler; freed on bail by churchgoers, he disappeared.

A pastor who pleaded guilty to molesting a girl in his South Dallas parish; he'll be deported when he gets out of prison.

The offenders had more in common than their positions with the Catholic Church. They are among the thousands of men who have come from foreign countries to serve the faithful in the United States and make new lives here.

Foreign-born priests have been a critical answer to another growing crisis in the church: the shortage of priests throughout much of the world.

But with American bishops considering a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual abusers and many dioceses instituting criminal background checks and stricter standards for employment, people inside and outside the church have raised concerns about a lack of screening and controls in a system that imports large numbers of foreign priests.

Most international priests - as they are often called - fulfill their duties and deserve their parishioners' trust. But according to victims' advocates, pre-immigration background checks are lax and inconsistent, priests are inadequately monitored and, if accusations arise, their foreign origins can afford them an escape beyond the reach of American justice.

The same can hold true in reverse, they said, when American priests are sent abroad. Some critics suspect that members of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States and other countries have deliberately exported and reassigned problem priests while withholding histories of alleged sexual misconduct from their peers and parishioners.

Nationwide, foreign-born priests have been implicated in scores of abuse cases - perhaps 200 - though no complete statistics exist.

"There's a significant problem with foreign-born priests," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, who co-wrote a 1985 study of priest sexual abuse for U.S. bishops and has helped hundreds of alleged victims pursue abuse claims. "It's hard to say how many priests are sent to the U.S. because they have a problem with sexual abuse.

"That's chilling, and it's also a true fact. It has happened."

Those who find such machinations unthinkable, he said, need merely look to the daily revelations about accused U.S. priests who were moved to avoid publicity and scandal.

"Honesty and integrity haven't exactly been heavy-duty commodities in this whole mess," said Father Doyle, formerly a Vatican Embassy lawyer in Washington and now a military chaplain in Germany. "Why would a bishop send an offender from one country to another, from one diocese to another, from one parish to another? Because they want to get rid of them."

Putting numbers on that problem is as difficult as figuring out how many priests overall have committed sexual abuse.

There's not even an accurate count of foreign priests in the United States, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Federation of Priests' Councils.

David Early, a spokesman for the conference, said he didn't know if bishops would "single out" foreign priests in their policy discussions this week of clergy sexual misconduct.

Numbers vary

Of the nearly 46,000 priests in the United States, more than 20 percent may be foreign born. Their numbers vary widely by diocese.

In the Dallas Diocese, 30 of 182 active priests are foreign-born, a relatively low percentage.

Near the other end of the scale, the Tyler Diocese in East Texas has 61 foreign-born pastors out of 85.

The Fort Worth Diocese has 33 foreign-born priests - about the same number as Dallas but among the smaller total of 116.

Viewing immigrant priests with specific suspicion would be wrong, said the Rev. Joe Schumacher, the No. 2 official in the Fort Worth Diocese.

"I don't think we can say off the top of our heads that they're a danger. That's guilty until proven innocent," Father Schumacher said. "I would say the whole world has had problems like this, and that's true of every profession."

As for thorough criminal checks, he said, "It's kind of hard to get that out of Rwanda."

Recent cases of native priests in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Australia indicate that abuse is more than an American problem.

Immigrant parishes

Other voices warn that, in the United States, the risks involving foreign-born priests may be magnified because they often serve immigrant parishes that hold a more exalted view of the church hierarchy and stronger loyalty toward it.

"Abuse by foreign priests may be a particularly underreported phenomenon," said David Clohessy, head of the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Because of cultural differences and the added vulnerability of immigrant Catholics, a foreign-born priest probably has greater power over his victim and less chance of being detected.

"Kids are less apt to tell of abuse. Parents are less apt to believe them and less apt to call law enforcement."

That's the scenario described in a lawsuit accusing a priest of sexually abusing four boys in a Chicago family in 1998-99 - in the wake of repeated abuse allegations against him in South America.

Like one-third of the priests in the United States, the Rev. Carlos Peralta is supervised not by a diocese but by one of many independent religious orders - another factor complicating accountability in abuse cases. When police were eventually notified, the priest's order had moved him out of Chicago on his way to Mexico.

"These guys are moved around and let loose on unwary and unsuspecting parishioners," said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who has litigated about 600 clergy sexual abuse cases.

The Peralta lawsuit is one of the first to name the Vatican.

"I became alarmed at the international movement of offender priests, the refusal to remove them [as priests] and the secret record-keeping," Mr. Anderson said, referring to canon law that instructs bishops to keep incriminating material confidential.

Four years ago, he won a $30 million verdict against a California diocese for its handling of the Rev. Oliver O'Grady. The native of Ireland, already accused of molestations, had been moved to another church where he abused two young brothers for a decade.

For generations, Catholic priests immigrated by the thousands to the United States from Ireland.

America's dependence on foreign priests has broadened and deepened during a nearly 40-year downturn in the number of men entering the priesthood. Priests now come in sizable numbers from India, Mexico and South America, Africa, Spain and Poland, Vietnam and the Philippines, in addition to Ireland.

Catholic officials said they've built more safeguards into their foreign hiring procedures, which vary by diocese, and they reject more applicants. Mostly, they ask more questions - usually in writing - of the priest, his bishop and others recommending him.

"It used to be a foreign-born priest would come by the chancery and say, 'I want to stay here and work,'" said Bronson Havard, a spokesman for the Dallas Diocese, which installed a five-member oversight board in 1997 for such hires. "We're much more careful about who we let in."

Tough questions

In addition to more mundane concerns about how a priest would adapt to American culture, dioceses now typically ask if he has shown signs of alcohol or drug abuse or sexual misconduct.

"The bishop would have to outright lie and deceive us," Mr. Havard said.

That has happened, critics said.

"I have a feeling there's an interchange going on," said Sylvia Demarest, a Dallas lawyer who has represented many abuse victims, including some in the landmark Rudy Kos case of five years ago.

"I think we send our problems to other countries, and they send their problems to us.

"These people rarely are caught because they just skip and are never heard from again."

The Tyler Diocese had that experience in 1997 with the Rev. Gustavo Cuello, a priest from Colombia still wanted in connection with a child sexual assault.

Bishop Edmond Carmody, who settled a lawsuit that claimed he ignored warnings about the priest, said officials do their best to check backgrounds and have learned not to move offenders.

"Nothing is foolproof," said the bishop, now in charge of the Corpus Christi Diocese. "We've realized moving a priest from one parish to another opened a new group of victims and ... the damage a bad priest can cause anywhere in the church, the scandal."

'Whatever it takes'

Of nine recent abuse cases in the Dallas Diocese, one involved a foreign priest; Anthony Nwaogu of Nigeria received a five-year sentence for child molestation in 1999.

"That to us was not an example of someone who slipped through the system," Mr. Havard said. "He did not have a history of that."

Father Doyle flatly discounted foreign references. "Are you kidding?" he said. "If they've got a guy who's been an abuser, they're not going to tell anyone."

That street runs both ways, said the Rev. Gary Hayes, a Kentucky priest who founded Survivors of Clergy Abuse Linkup.

"I don't think I'd believe them any more than I'd believe us," Father Hayes said of church officials in the United States and abroad. "Maybe you just monitor the priests very well."

Priests coming to America often must take psychological evaluations.

Steve Rubino, a New Jersey lawyer for abuse victims, said a candidate should be checked out in his home territory.

"Whatever it takes to verify, you do it," he said. "Spend the time. Spend the money."

Bishop Carmody offered another solution: Priests should say their prayers and live their vows.

"The protection of children is our sacred duty," he said. "We must, must, must protect our children."



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