Archbishop Criticized for Friendship with Child Abuser

By Noaki Schwartz
Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
September 4, 2002

Every Christmas, while visiting his family home in New Orleans, Miami Archbishop John Favalora sets off on a pilgrimage. From the black-trim house where he grew up, past the halls where he graduated seminary, he heads north to the rolling pinelands near the Arkansas line where one of his dearest friends awaits -- at the David Wade Correctional Center.

The Rev. Robert Melancon is serving a life sentence for raping an 8-year-old altar boy.

"We've known each other for 48 years," Favalora said in a recent interview. "I never did a great deal of soul searching about it. Is it true? Is it not true? Did it happen? Did it not happen? Is his conviction proper? I did not think that my friendship with him should be jeopardized by any of that. The friendship remains."

The ever-growing sex scandal in the Catholic Church strikes a deeply personal note for the archdiocese's leader and top decision maker. Favalora stands by his relationship with a convicted child molester even as critics accuse him of failing to reach out to alleged victims.

The archbishop has maintained a hard-line position against abusers in his own archdiocese, but his normally resonant voice trembled with emotion as he reminisced about his old friend Melancon, their days in seminary and their travels together.

The archbishop says the distinction is clear: One is his friend; one is his work.

"Long ago I determined that his guilt or innocence was a question for the justice system," Favalora said. "My relations with him go beyond that. Here is someone who is deeply in troubled, whose life, along with that of his family, was uprooted."

Favalora addressed his enduring relationship with Melancon, who was convicted in 1996, in a recent archdiocese newspaper column. He said the friendship has not affected his responsibilities with accused priests and victims in his own archdiocese, which has been sued 14 times this year. If anything, Favalora contends that Melancon's case has allowed him to "experience up close the suffering of the victims and their relatives."

Favalora's actions speak louder, said David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and others who just learned about the relationship. Favalora has never visited his friend's victim. He does not call him.

"You can't get more outlandish than saying: 'I learned about victims from a perpetrator,'" Clohessy said. "This sends a clear signal to anyone victimized in the Miami Archdiocese: Go to the police, prosecutors and civil attorneys but don't expect to get compassion from the archdiocese."

Church officials say their attorneys are advising the archbishop against meeting with those suing the archdiocese. Still, almost three months after the Dallas bishop's conference in June, the archdiocese has yet to appoint the mandated coordinator to offer pastoral care to victims.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta acknowledged that perhaps the archdiocese could be doing more to attend to victims' spiritual needs, but said the archbishop "is making strong, decisive decisions."

"The strongest action showing the archbishop's concern for the victims is placing priests on administrative leave," she said.

Friends and the church

Favalora said he learned early on that the most important things in life are his friends and the church. The archbishop still drives to his family home in New Orleans twice a year in July and December to reconnect with friends.

"The church has been my mother in a sense," Favalora said. "And friends ... they help me as a churchman to remember who I am and where I come from."

Favalora grew up the only child of an Italian grocer and a Cajun homemaker in a deeply religious household where his father read Scriptures every night. He told his parents at age 7 that he wanted to become a priest.

His parents wept as they dropped off their only son, 19 years old at the time, for his first day at St. Joseph Seminary in 1954.

The young seminarian became a leader among the estimated 55 students, well-liked for his jovial personality and admired for his unflappable demeanor, said 36-year friend John G. Vlazny, archbishop in Portland, Ore. While everyone else got nervous about exams, Favalora, or "Fav" as he was called by some, was always calm.

After graduating from the seminary in 1958 and getting a degree in theology at Pontifical Gregorian University in Italy, Favalora gained a reputation for upholding orthodox Roman Catholic doctrine during his work as a priest in New Orleans. When the liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s threatened the church's conservative values, New Orleans Archbishop Phil Hannan knew where to turn.

"It was a time of revolt," Hannan recalled. "I needed someone level-headed and judicious. ... He cannot be panicked into making a decision. He'll resist pressure."

Favalora rose through the ranks, eventually becoming bishop of the Diocese of Alexandria, La., in 1986. Three years later, Favalora was ordained bishop of St. Petersburg in Florida. He was appointed to a special national committee on clergy sexual abuse in 1993.

Prepared for scandal

In 1995, shortly after Favalora was tapped to be Miami archbishop, he faced an event that he said prepared him for dealing with scandal in his own archdiocese years later. His close friend from seminary was accused and convicted of child abuse.

Melancon was accused of fondling a 6-year-old and sodomizing him two years later. At the time, the priest hoped to join the archbishop for a holiday in Rome for the summer. Instead, he was sent for psychiatric evaluation in Pennsylvania, then lived for several weeks at the archbishop's New Orleans family home, according to reports in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Six years after that conviction, as Melancon appeals his case for a second time, the Miami archbishop struggles with allegations of abuse in his own archdiocese.

Publicly, the archbishop has taken a tough stance against convicted child abusers. In June, he stood alongside the nation's other bishops in opposing second chances for priests guilty of molesting minors in the past. He also invited victims to report abuse to the archdiocese, turned over information to state prosecutors on priests going back to the 1950s and admitted the church has been "irresponsible" with children.

"I'm a priest for 40 years, and it's been the most difficult time in my life as a priest," Favalora said. "It's painful, painful for everybody."

Favalora has met with priests in his archdiocese, those the church calls his spiritual "sons," and has told them that "we've all experienced suffering, which the Lord told us is a cross we have to carry."

Little spiritual help

However, critics say the archbishop does not empathize with the cries of the people to whom his church is supposed to offer solace. Attorneys for alleged victims say the only spiritual comfort their clients have received from the archbishop are promises in speeches to pray for them.

"It's fine, you could even argue it's admirable, that he stands by a friend. But to do so without reaching out to other victims?" said Clohessy, who called Favalora one of the least sensitive bishops in the nation. "I just can't imagine Jesus Christ hiding behind his lawyers and saying 'I'm not going to comfort the afflicted.'"

Another alleged victim, Richard Fiallo, 31, compared suing the archdiocese for sexual abuse to getting into an on-the-job-accident with a corporation that doesn't even check "to see if you're OK." Fiallo's lawsuit claims he was molested by a Miami priest when he was a 12-year-old altar boy.

"Not a word, not a peep, and I'm sure not even a thought, much less a prayer," Fiallo said.

Agosta could recall only one recent occasion when the archbishop met with an alleged victim who is not suing the church but said that "no one has requested a meeting, either." She added that the archdiocese is "moving forward" with getting a support system together for victims.

The archdiocese is also being criticized for the aggressive legal tactics it is using to deal with the 14 lawsuits that recently have been filed against the archdiocese. Attorney Jeff Herman, who heads the National Foundation for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse and represents eight plaintiffs in cases against the church, says the archdiocese "attacks victims," making it difficult to come forward.

In recent months the archdiocese has turned down offers to settle complaints and attempted to have new lawsuits dismissed. It also is trying to force some anonymous plaintiffs to publicly identify themselves, a tactic attorneys say is aimed at intimidating alleged victims into withdrawing their suits.

"I'm not saying they don't have a right to defend themselves, but all they've been doing is reaching out to priests," said Miami attorney Joel Magolnick, who represents four plaintiffs. "They're worried about priests and what the Vatican will say, and they don't have the same concern for the victims. This isn't commercial litigation but heinous acts against minors."

Class reunion break

As the crisis continued to roil in his own archdiocese, Favalora took a break in April to go to his ordination class's annual reunion.

They took time to remember Melancon, who started the event. For the past six years, the group has prayed for its brother, who likely will spend the rest of his life in prison.

"Everyone," Favalora concluded, "no matter what the circumstances, is entitled to experience the healing touch of Jesus."


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