Catholicism and Sexual Abuse

Christian Century
January 27, 1993

The Roman Catholic Church in North America, beset by persistent revelations about the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by its priests and lay workers, has been rocked again in the past several weeks by allegations of sexual misconduct. In late December accusations were made against members of a religious order that runs a seminary school in Wisconsin - accusations that have since led to criminal charges against two men. Charges of sexual molestation were also brought last month against a retired priest now living in Colorado.

And in Illinois a civil lawsuit was filed January 4 by a 22-year-old man who alleges that a priest repeatedly abused him over a span of seven years.

Felony charges have been filed against two Wisconsin friars accused of sexually abusing students at St. Lawrence Seminary, a Capuchin-run rural preparatory high school in Fond du Lac County. County authorities said Brother Thomas Gardipee, 35, was charged with enticing a child for immoral purposes and intimidation of a witness, and Brother John Raniszewski, 40, was charged with second-degree sexual assault. ("Brothers" are lay members of religious orders and take traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but are not ordained priests. "Friar" is the term applied to all members, priests and brothers, of certain orders.)

The student who accused Gardipee of sexual misconduct also said the friar became violent when he learned the student had reported the incident to another adult and later harassed the student by sending him love letters and showing up at his Milwaukee-area home and causing a scene. Gardipee was athletic director at the school until December 17 of last year. Fond du Lac District Attorney Thomas Storm said summons were issued ordering the two friars to appear in court for arraignment January 19.

Most of the allegations against Gardipee and Raniszewski cannot result in charges because of a six-year statute of limitations on most felonies. The students who reported the alleged incidents attended the school between 1972 and 1988. Although the incident involving Raniszewski is six years old, Storm said the clock on the statute stopped when the friar left the state several years ago. Raniszewski currently lives in a Capuchin community in Warren, Michigan.

According to investigative reports in the Milwaukee Journal, at least eight former St. Lawrence students charged that they were sexually abused by staff members while living at the school, yet administrators failed to take any action when informed of the abuse. Not only did their complaints go unanswered, but one priest identified by several of them as a known abuser was promoted to principal of the school in 1977. The priest, bale Leifeld, resigned in 1982 and currently is in a treatment facility.

Allegations were also made that at least two students received $ 4,000 each for counseling in exchange for a promise of silence on the matter. Since the Milwaukee Journal broke the story, others have reported being molested while students at St. Lawrence. Most of the incidents occurred in the 1970s.

The revelations in Wisconsin came less than a week after the Denver-based Rocky Mountain News reported that a lawsuit filed in New Mexico charged that a retired Catholic priest in Denver had sexually molested children across the country for more than three decades. In that case, the lawsuit contends, David A. Holley, 65, assaulted countless children and was able to do so because the church dealt with complaints by transferring him from one parish to another in dioceses around the country.

According to the story, Holley was treated in 1971 for pedophilia (sexual abuse of minors) at the Servants of the Paracelete, a treatment center for priests in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. But he was released several times and worked with children in that state.

Joe Hafermann, 28, of Minneapolis and Mark Sanchez, 35, of Albuquerque maintain that when they were boys Holley molested them repeatedly in the sacristy and parish home at St. Jude Mission Catholic Church in Alamogordo, New Mexico. At the time, in the early 1970s, Holley was on leave from the Worcester, Massachusetts, diocese to undergo treatment in New Mexico.

The practice of shifting a priest accused of abuse from parish to parish is also alleged in a recent law suit filed by attorney Keith Aeschliman on behalf of Joseph Dittrich, 22, of Lockport, Illinois. Dittrich is suing the priest, Lawrence M. Gibbs, and the Joliet diocese for $ 5 million. According to reports in the Chicago Tribune, Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch transferred Gibbs to a parish in Lockport without disclosing earlier complaints about him. The suit, which names both Gibbs and Imesch as defendants, claims that church officials were warned about Gibbs and that police had investigated child-molesting allegations brought against him when he was working at Christ the King Church in Lombard, Illinois.

Aeschliman says parishioners of the Lombard church had written letters to Imesch complaining about Gibbs's behavior. The suit charges that Imesch responded to the letters by quickly moving Gibbs to St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Lockport "where he was placed in charge of the altar boys' training program."

Dittrich claims that he was sexually abused by Gibbs over a seven-year period while the priest was associate pastor at the Lockport church. While Dittrich is the first alleged victim of clergy abuse in the Joliet diocese to allow his identity to be made public, his is the second suit to be filed against a priest in the diocese in less than a month. In the nearby Chicago diocese some 22 priests have been removed from parishes due to sexual-abuse charges made over the past 18 months.

The spate of new charges confirms the hunch of many in the church that the process of bringing this long-hidden scandal to light has not run its course.

They also raise concerns about a serious crisis of credibility and leadership within the Catholic Church. Beyond the harm done to the victims of such incidents, some church leaders, critics say, have further betrayed parishioners' trust by consistently covering up clerical misconduct. Some midwestern diocesan priests admit that they now must take up the difficult task of regaining members' confidence.


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