Molester Was Church Volunteer

By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
August 2, 1997

DALLAS _ An admitted child molester has supervised Catholic altar boys in Southern California and Dallas for much of the last two decades, government records and interviews show.

Officials at St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the White Rock-area parish where convicted felon Dennis Jost volunteered with altar boys last year, acknowledged that they did not investigate his past.

He was removed after a few months because of what Vicar General Glenn "Duffy" Gardner called a "miracle": A parishioner deemed some behavior suspicious, found evidence of a federal conviction and alerted the pastor.

Dallas diocese officials don't require criminal background checks of all prospective volunteers and have no plans to do so, Monsignor Gardner said.

"I don't know if we can ever do it. It's very costly," he said shortly before jurors in the Rudolph "Rudy" Kos case hit the Dallas Catholic Diocese with the largest clergy-abuse judgment in history.

Days after the verdict, Monsignor Gardner said that he stood by his position. Bishop Charles V. Grahmann continued his practice of not taking reporters' questions.

Last Sunday, the bishop told worshipers in nearby Corsicana, Texas: "I promise that I will do everything possible to make sure this never, ever happens again." During the trial, he testified that the diocese now responds to any hint that abuse may have occurred.

But more is needed to stop known pedophiles in the first place, said Mike Daniel, the parent who helped expose Jost at St. Bernard. His church said it now conducts criminal background checks, but most others in the diocese don't.

Jost "doesn't need a loophole," Daniel said. "There's no net."

Long before Jost showed up at the Dallas church in late 1995, some priests in California's San Bernardino Diocese knew of accusations against him but apparently did not notify authorities, according to interviews and records.

A spokesman for that diocese declined to comment on most of the findings. The Rev. Howard Lincoln did acknowledge that his diocese sent no warning to church officials in Dallas, where Jost was known to have taken some of his California victims and where he served probation after his 1993 sentencing.

Jost, in a brief telephone conversation, denied attending St. Bernard or having the California conviction _ even though court records show he pleaded guilty. He did not return repeated follow-up calls to the address he has listed near Gus Thomasson and Garland roads in Far East Dallas.

The story starts in California in December 1977, when Jost _ who liked to wear religious vestments over a skunk tattoo and the words "Nobody Loves Me" _ took a 12-year-old boy home after Sunday Mass.

He promised that they'd decorate his Christmas tree and watch football on TV. Instead, he got the boy drunk, fondled him and performed oral sex, according to a San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department report.

According to the report:

_Jost expressed surprise when an officer showed up to arrest him, "due to his being advised by the priest at St. Peter and St. Paul's church on the phone that ... if he would leave the area by this Friday, the sheriff's office would not press charges ... and to this he stated he was going to leave ... ."

_Jost told the officer "that approximately 10 years ago, he attempted to get help for his problem, but the psychiatrist would not help him. He has felt that maybe God could help him, that was why he has been so involved in the church's activities ... Suspect advised responding officer that he knows he has a problem, and he wants ... help, and he hopes that maybe by being caught, God has worked his way, and maybe now he will be helped."

_The officer "was advised by victim's father that he and his wife had gone to St. Peter and St. Paul's church and contacted the priest, who advised them they were making the incident too big, and not to pursue it. Victim's father related that the priest advised them he would contact (Jost) and suggest he leave the area, but (the victim's father) told the priest he was still going to report the incident."

Father Lincoln, the San Bernardino diocese spokesman, would not identify the pastor, who was not named in the report. He did confirm that the priest later was promoted to monsignor and has since retired.

After pleading no contest to assault and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, Jost was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to register as a sex offender in California.

Reports of good behavior got him released from supervision almost a year early, and his case was dismissed. By 1982, he had applied to be the foster parent of a 15-year-old boy, state of California records show.

The youth, described as a fourth cousin with a juvenile theft record, was living with Jost at the time of the application. A judge had placed the boy there _ apparently unaware of Jost's past, a social services worker wrote.

The Rev. Bernard Waltos, then at Queen of Angels Church in the San Bernardino diocese, wrote to state authorities in support of Jost's application. So did a youth ministry director, social services records show.

Father Waltos wrote that he'd known Jost for more than two years and had worked closely with him at church: "He has always made himself available to the needs of the community and has sought out ways of integrating the younger people into the life of our church ... Recently he has taken on the responsibility of training acolytes (those who assist at worship services) and given it a new direction."

After social services investigators flagged his record, Jost wrote a statement in his own defense. The letter recalled the molestation as happening after he'd been drinking, "and a boy I knew came over. One thing led to another and we had sex."

Jost, who has long earned his living as a salesman, described the aftermath of the case this way:

"In counseling, I got to know myself better and learned I wasn't a bad person ... I have also gone through a conversion in the Catholic Church. I went to church before, but never really knew God ... Now I have a personal relationship with him.

"I feel my past was a mistake I made and I turned my life around and feel I can help ... (the foster child) turn his life around. Since he has been in my home he has changed a great deal. His 18-year-old brother is also here and both are doing well."

The 15-year-old boy's mother also backed Jost, writing that "whatever was in his past is done. He has ... become very religious and has high moral standards."

But after several months, authorities rejected all the pleas and removed the juvenile from Jost's home, records show.

Father Waltos _ widely known as Father Bernie _ remained friends with Jost. They ended up for a time at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Riverside, Calif., where a police report says Jost was accused of propositioning a boy about 15 years old in 1987.

Another priest dismissed Jost from his volunteer post supervising altar servers. There's no indication criminal charges were filed.

Jost then returned to Queen of Angels in Riverside, as Father Waltos had done earlier. A priest at St. Thomas "advised me that he had made Father Bernie aware of what had occurred" in 1987, a police officer wrote in a 1991 report on another investigation of Jost. "Father Bernie advised me that he could not remember the explanation that he was given."

The 1991 inquiry started when Dale Rea went to Riverside police and said she thought her son, then 18, had been abused since becoming a Queen of Angels' altar boy at age 15 or 16. He'd mysteriously become withdrawn, she said in an interview, but she didn't voice her fears until discovering a note talking about suicide and asking to be buried with the video of "Dead Poets Society."

The movie choice was loaded with meaning: It featured the suicide of a boys' school student _ and it was what Rea's son later told police he'd been watching at the rectory when Jost first plied him with alcohol and molested him.

(The 1991 police report relates the son's memory of the attack this way: "He became light-headed ... and all of a sudden Dennis was on top of him, taking off his clothes. He tried to move Dennis off of him, but Dennis was much larger than he, and he could not.")

Rea said that after finding the burial instructions, she couldn't locate her son or Jost, and asked Father Waltos where they might be. They were in Dallas, it turned out, visiting Jost's relatives.

Father Waltos, Rea said, was both distraught and self-centered when she told him she'd reported her suspicions of abuse.

"He just put his hands to his face and said, 'Oh, Rea, what are people going to think of me?"'

The priest, who parishioners and an FBI agent said suffered from an AIDS-related cancer, testified against his longtime friend before dying. Jost was convicted on a federal charge _ stemming from a previous out-of-state trip _ of transporting a child across state lines for sexual purposes.

Meanwhile, Rea's son sued the diocese, Queen of Angels, Father Waltos and Jost. He received an undisclosed amount in a confidential settlement with the diocese, and won a judgment against Jost that remains unpaid, Rea said.

Church leaders, the mother said, made it possible for Jost to molest an untold number of Southern California boys over at least a decade and a half.

"They full well knew and chose to do nothing," Rea said. "I told them, 'That makes you no better."'

Catharine Hougland, whose four sons were altar boys at Queen of Angels, said Jost victimized her family, too. She said she asked a priest why the man hadn't been blacklisted as a volunteer long ago, given all that was known about him.

"He said, 'It's against the process of forgiveness. Our hands are completely tied."'

Her response then: "Are you sure it's not a matter of 'If we admit it, then we're responsible'?"

And her conclusion today: "Holy men have turned their backs on evil."

Rea and Hougland said they fear that Jost may have struck again in Dallas, where St. Bernard parishioners said he suddenly appeared in late 1995, wearing vestments on the altar and lavishing attention on boys.

One incident in particular sticks in the mind of Daniel, the parishioner who went on to investigate Jost's background: At a Friday fish fry in early 1996, "he came up behind a boy and put one arm on his shoulder and the other around his stomach," then pulled him close in "a very inappropriate type of hug."

Daniel, a Dallas lawyer, learned that a Los Angeles federal judge had sentenced Jost in 1993 to six months' confinement and 2 years' probation for transporting Rea's son across state lines for sexual purposes. Jost had been allowed to serve his probation in Dallas, under orders that he not participate in youth programs.

The Rev. Gus Melito, pastor of St. Bernard, said he acted immediately when shown evidence of the conviction. He removed Jost and notified police, Child Protective Services and diocese officials, he said.

"I was naive, perhaps," said Father Melito, adding that he'd not known Jost previously. "It's an embarrassment."

His parish now investigates all prospective volunteers and employees for possible criminal records, he said. Church officials said only one other parish in the Dallas diocese _ St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Plano _ does the same.

The diocese education office runs criminal-background checks on full-time employees and recommends that each Catholic school do the same for its volunteers. Many, but not all, have complied, said the Rev. Leonard Callahan, school superintendent.

Some other school systems, including the Dallas Independent School District, said they investigate all volunteers. So do some youth organizations such as sports leagues.

"More and more leagues are going to it, and they're finding out it works," the commissioner of Garland Amateur Baseball, Billy Goodgame, told "The Dallas Morning News" in June. "We've had potential coaches drop out just because we do the searches."

Monsignor Gardner, the diocese's No. 2 official, said that screening offers no guarantees.

Father Melito's warning about Jost, he said, was sent by e-mail or fax to all churches in the nine-county Dallas diocese. The diocese includes Dallas, Collin, Kaufman, Rockwall and Ellis counties in the immediate area, but not Tarrant and Denton counties.

No record of the warning could be located in recent days, church officials said.

So far, no Dallas-area victims have surfaced. Nor, in recent days, has Jost.

Daniel said it's "appalling" that church leaders still aren't willing to require background checks. Jost, he said, "is at a Catholic church somewhere, there's no doubt in my mind. He's probably in this diocese."

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