Priest Forced to Retire Worked in Hampton

By Michael D. Wamble
Daily Press
August 10, 2002

A priest of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond who was forced to retire Friday because of his sexual abuse of a teenager was once assigned to a Hampton church.

The Rev. John P. Blankenship, chaplain of the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, is the second diocesan priest to be barred from active ministry.

A former pastor of a Charlottesville church, the Rev. Julian Goodman, resigned at the request of the Rev. Walter Sullivan, bishop of the Diocese of Richmond. Goodman sexually abused a seminary student at St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland. The abuse began in 1976 and continued for two years, according to the diocese.

In 1982, Blankenship sexually abused a 14-year-old boy, a statement by diocesan officials said. At the time, Blankenship, 65, was serving as pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in New Bohemia, near Petersburg.

The forced resignations of both priests are the result of the diocese's first steps of applying a so-called "zero tolerance" policy voted upon by U.S. bishops during a meeting held in Dallas in June to address the crisis of priest sexual abusers. Those guidelines, known as The Dallas Charter, call for the removal from active ministry of priests previously identified as abusers.

Prior to the new charter, priests known as sexual abusers in Richmond and other dioceses across the country were sent to psychiatric treatment centers, sometimes returning to ministry following the recommendations of mental health advisers.

Before becoming head of Sacred Heart, Blankenship had been assigned to St. Mary Star of the Sea at Fort Monroe, from 1966 to 1969.

"He ate at my home many times," said Ruby Sansome, a longtime member of the church. "He was everything that a priest represents in my book."

Mel Salnoske, who has been a member of St. Mary's off-and-on since 1963, said she vaguely remembers Blankenship.

"I never heard any rumors about him," Salnoske said. "I didn't hear anything, period. One way or another."

The Rev. Don Michael Hanna, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in York County, remembers Blankenship from his days in Hampton.

"Holy cow," Hanna said after learning of Blankenship's abuse. "I'm surprised about this information about J.P.," he said. "He was very jovial, outgoing and loved by his people. He was a good worker, a hard worker."

While he disagrees with the policy, he understands why changes are happening now.

"There are different norms post-Dallas," Hanna said. "You can't handle these cases with therapy alone."

Instead of zero-tolerance and forced retirements, Hanna said he would like to see forgiveness in cases like those of Blankenship and Goodman. Both priests can neither officiate publicly nor wear the Roman collar, an outward sign of being a cleric.

"I think the church has to be more concerned with the norms of the Gospel and that is a gospel of forgiveness," he said.

"I don't know the wisdom of resurrecting these cases. In the case of Father Goodman, he went through therapy. He followed diocesan policy," the York pastor said. "Is there no forgiveness in the case of sexual sins? If J.P. was doing good work in the prison and he was in a closed environment, then why can't he go on being a priest? I sincerely feel he could."

The Rev. Pasquale J. Apuzzo, a diocesan spokesman, said at a news conference Friday that Sullivan, head of the Richmond Diocese, learned of Blankenship's abuse of the teen in 1988, after the priest had already been assigned as chaplain at the Petersburg correctional facility.

Sullivan immediately put Blankenship on administrative leave, sending the priest, Apuzzo said, to receive psychiatric treatment at St. Luke's Institute in Silver Spring, Md.

Blankenship returned to his chaplaincy because in that ministry "he would have no direct contact with minors."

Apuzzo said that Blankenship's abuse while pastor of New Bohemia, of which he is "sincerely remorseful," is the only reported instance.

"There was no abuse reported during his time at the Fort Monroe church," Apuzzo said during a phone interview after the news conference.

Yet the diocese is likely to report on more cases of sexual abuse in the next few weeks.

A man who lives in Williamsburg, Apuzzo said, is among the possible victims in "a handful of cases" diocesan officials are investigating. The allegation was reported to the Richmond Diocese within the last six months.

That case, according to a diocesan official, has been temporarily stalled due in part to a lack of specifics about the incident brought forth by the alleged victim.

The accused priest, a diocesan official said, does not presently serve in Hampton Roads.

The diocese has reported cases of priests known to be abusers at a pace that's been called "piecemeal."

Some local Catholics have harsher terms to describe the way in which the Richmond Diocese has handled itself in the last two weeks.

Ellen Williams, who attends Church of the Good Shepherd in Smithfield, said there is "almost a circus-like approach to it."

But newly confirmed Catholic Jenny Gracyzk says she isn't worried about the church. Gracyzk, 17, is a member of St. Jerome Catholic Church in Newport News. "These announcements don't shake my faith in the Catholic Church, but it makes me question the actions of people in the church."

WAVY-TV 10 contributed to this report.


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