Church Reaction to Priest's Abuse of Boy Pains Parents

By Pat Doyle
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
July 25, 1992

A 1980 assault led to criminal charges against the priest, Dennis A. Puhl. The case provides a look at how, in that era, the church seemed more concerned about deflecting inquiries than helping a victim of molestation.

After a priest molested their son in a rectory in Cloquet, Minn., Charles and Beverly Anderson expected help from the Catholic Church. Instead, they said, the institution appeared more concerned with its image and fighting a lawsuit than with healing a wounded family.

Among other things, the bishop claimed confessional privilege to block inquiries on whether he knew that the priest had had sexual liaisons with boys at a parish in Virginia, Minn., before he became pastor at Cloquet.

And the Andersons said the bishop showed up at their home soon after the priest was arrested to suggest that they drop criminal charges.

"I was angry at the priest but could see he was sick," Charles Anderson said. "But I was angrier at the bishop for covering up, shuffling [the priest] around and putting him in a parish where he'd have contacts with kids."

The church's behavior in the case is significant because it occurred in the early 1980s, only a few years before dioceses around the nation began writing policies calling for more openness. And unlike so many cases kept under wraps for decades, the Anderson case provides a closer look at the church's response to sexual misconduct by the clergy.

That's because the 16-year-old Anderson boy reported the assault immediately to police, creating court documents open to public scrutiny. The priest, Dennis A. Puhl, then 33, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree sexual assault and was sentenced to five years probation and ordered to undergo psychological treatment. In contrast, former priest James R. Porter was only recently accused of molesting at least 80 people in New England, Minnesota and New Mexico in the 1960s and early '70s, but the public record is sketchier.

In the Anderson case, the church averted potentially worse publicity by paying the victim an undisclosed amount of money to settle a civil suit before it went to trial. The Andersons' son has moved from Cloquet, and his parents have asked that he not be identified by his first name.

The experience has left the Andersons, once devout, regular churchgoers, bitter and disillusioned. They say their son has been permanently scarred by the episode.

"We were lay ministers, on the education committee of the church," Beverly Anderson said. "I've never been in a Catholic church since."

According to court records, the family's ordeal began Sept. 8, 1980, when the 16-year-old boy went to the parish residence of St. Casimir's Church in Cloquet to discuss confirmation training with Puhl. After a short discussion, he and Puhl shared a can of pop. As the boy was getting ready to leave, he said, Puhl blocked his way, made sexual advances and pulled him down to the floor, where he forced him to submit to sexual acts.

In his statement to police, the boy said he resisted Puhl, but "I've been brought up with religion and I don't really know how to hit a priest."

After the assault, he left the rectory and went to the police. "He was crying and moaning," said Carlton County dispatcher Lynn Parnin in a prepared statement.

"I just took advantage of him," Puhl admitted to police later that night. He told investigators that he had had sexual problems with the congregation on his previous assignment at the parish in Virginia, and was seeing a psychiatrist. He has since left the priesthood.

Barbara Anderson said that within weeks after Puhl's arrest, Bishop Paul Anderson of the Diocese of Duluth came to her home. At first she was relieved. "I thought he was coming to see our child who was molested, but that wasn't on his mind.

"He said we would be degraded if this was all brought out. He said, 'Just think about the damage this could do to your family.' He said the [National] Enquirer would come and take pictures."

Bishop Anderson died in 1987. The Rev. Bill Fournier, a spokesman for the Diocese of Duluth, said the bishop "looked at his priests as family. Perhaps he erred by not always making tough decisions. He cared for his priests, and whether that care was such that it blinded him to care for other people, I don't know."

The Anderson family later sued Puhl and the church, alleging that the bishop was negligent in allowing Puhl to serve at St. Casimir's. The complaint said the bishop knew or should have known that Puhl had a propensity toward sexual assaults.

Puhl, in a deposition, said he had sex with five boys who were members of the Virginia parish while he was co-pastor there in the 1970s. A critical question in determining negligence was whether the bishop knew about those problems before transferring Puhl to St. Casimir's in Cloquet, where Puhl became pastor.

But Puhl and the bishop cited confessional privilege, a right protected by state law, to deflect further inquiries on the subject. However, in a deposition, the bishop acknowledged that Puhl came to him in 1977 in a nonconfessional setting and "told me he was going to a doctor."

The lawyer representing the Andersons asked, "Did he tell you why he was going to a doctor?"

"No," the bishop said.

However, the bishop's answer didn't include any conversations he might have had with Puhl that the bishop considered "confessional." And defining a confession was open to interpretation. The bishop said he might consider a conversation to be a confession even if it were outside a confessional and neither party used the word. In any event, a conversation that he interpreted as a confession would be privileged. Moreover, the bishop said he couldn't use a priest's confession to pedophilia as justification to transfer him away from children.

Fournier, the diocese spokesman, said bishops have been warned more recently to avoid "getting into positions where you are bound by confessional secrecy. We didn't know as much in those days as we do now."

He said it's possible that the bishop never asked Puhl in 1977 why he was going to a doctor, and that Puhl was too embarrassed to volunteer the information. "It's not beyond the realm of possibility that Dennis Puhl said I have a problem and need help . . . and that the bishop said, 'Go, I don't want to know.' "

But Fournier said times have changed. "Nowadays, we will ask. Lawsuits have forced us to be more vigilant."


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