Church Defrocks Local Priest

By Ray Rivera
Seattle Times
October 5, 2004

Zero tolerance - The Archdiocese of Seattle and the Vatican yesterday announced the most severe action possible against a Washington priest since bishops passed a zero-tolerance policy two years ago concerning sexual abuse of minors.

On the recommendation of Seattle Archbishop Alex J. Brunett, the Vatican has issued the most severe penalty possible against the Rev. John Cornelius, defrocking him for a long string of sexual-molestation cases involving boys in the 1970s and '80s.

Known for his charismatic preaching style, Cornelius, 63, was pastor from 1978 to 1996 at Immaculate Conception Church in Seattle's Central Area before he was transferred to an Everett parish. He voluntarily resigned in 2002 as allegations began to surface.

He is believed to be the first Washington priest to be forcefully laicized, as the church calls it, and is among a growing number of priests to be cast out of the ministry since the church's sexual-abuse scandal broke in Boston in 2002 and spread across the nation.

Three other priests within the Seattle Archdiocese have been permanently barred from the ministry in recent months, one step short of defrocking. Those priests can no longer minister or refer to themselves as priests, but they continue to receive financial support and remain under church oversight.

The action against Cornelius goes further, in that he no longer receives living expenses or has any other tie to the church, except that his pension and health-care benefits remain intact, said Greg Magnoni, spokesman for the archdiocese.

The Vatican is reviewing six other Western Washington cases.

The archdiocese began reviewing the cases after U.S. bishops passed a policy two years ago saying priests with a single credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor cannot remain in active ministry.

Magnoni said the rare step of defrocking was taken in Cornelius' case because the cases were "particularly egregious."

"John Cornelius' status as a priest had the potential of dividing the community and undermining the faith and trust in the church," Magnoni said.

At the same time, the defrocking leaves a hole in oversight: It means the church no longer has the authority to monitor him. And he has not been required to register as a sex offender because he has never been charged with a crime, the allegations emerging long after statutes of limitations had expired.

"I certainly hope that this step (the defrocking) provides at least some comfort to his victims," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "That is valuable in and of itself. But the bishop has a moral duty to tell people where he is, warn people about him and make sure he's not around kids."

Magnoni acknowledges that the archdiocese has been troubled by that issue, not only in the Cornelius case but in others where allegations of sexual abuse have been found to be credible.

Magnoni said the church is examining whether its review and actions against priests can ultimately be used by law enforcement to force offenders to register as sex offenders. "We're hoping to work toward some kind of change in the law to be able to do that."

In the cases of the three other priests who were barred from the ministry, the archdiocese recommended the less-severe punishment in part so that it could continue to monitor them. Among those cases is that of James McGreal, generally considered the most notorious offender in the archdiocese.

Magnoni said that didn't appear to be an option in Cornelius' case because he was not adhering to some of the conditions he had agreed to when he resigned, including being readily available to a case monitor and no longer referring to himself as a priest.

Cornelius, who Magnoni said was still in Seattle up to the time of yesterday's announcement, could not be reached for comment. The Rev. David Diebel, the church lawyer who represented him during the Vatican proceedings, declined comment.

In theological terms, Catholics believe that once a priest is ordained, he undergoes an intrinsic change that's permanent. That's why the church considers defrocking an extreme measure.

In essence, it undoes a sacrament, a spiritual promise with God like that of baptism or, in this case, ordination. The only way a priest can become "laicized" is by the priest himself voluntarily requesting laicization of the Vatican or by a superior petitioning the Vatican for it. Both are often long and cumbersome processes.

Cornelius resigned his pastoral assignment in May 2002 after Brunett said he would be removed from the ministry. At the time, Cornelius apologized for the pain he caused his accusers and the church but stopped short of admitting to the numerous sexual-molestation charges lodged against him. He has been the subject of at least five sexual-abuse lawsuits in King County.

Cornelius was placed on leave from Immaculate Conception Church in Everett in April 2002 after being accused for the second time in six years of molesting teenage boys in the 1970s and up to 1985.

In the weeks that followed, more than a dozen men came forward with allegations of past abuse by Cornelius, dating to his time in seminary.


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