How Did Abusive Priests Get in the Church?

By Phyllis Zagano
Religion News Service
July 18, 2007

Another day, another multimillion-dollar Catholic sex scandal settlement.

This time the script plays out in Los Angeles. There are victims and lawyers, the accused and the convicted, one cardinal archbishop and one judge.

Who are they? Who has cost the Roman Catholic Church all 1 billion of us so much?

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles struck a $660 million deal with most of the interested parties. The Cardinal apologized, the victims' representatives settled, and the story will fade a bit until the records are unsealed.

We need to know about these creeps. They were our deacons, priests and religious brothers. How did they get into a system that is supposed to care for the helpless and give voice to the voiceless?

Who ordained Arturo Ahumada, a deacon convicted in 2002 of sexual battery of a boy, and sentenced to a year in jail? Who gave priestly faculties to Honesto Bayranta Bismonte, a priest convicted in 2003 of misdemeanor battery of teenage girls, sentenced to 2 years probation? Who assigned Gerald B. Fessard, a priest convicted in 1987 of battery on a child? He got three years probation.

How did they get inside the system and how did they stay in it? Did their pastors not know? Did their episcopal vicars not know? Did their cardinal not know?

My first day of high school, the most important thing passed down by sophomores on the bus was the name of the local priest who preyed on teenaged girls. No one will ever convince me that that priest was not known to the diocesan bishop. If a bus full of high school girls knew, who did not?

That was many years ago, when a priest's sudden transfer was credited to health or family emergency. They even spread the word that priests were sent to "studies" but always in New Mexico or Maryland, where centers for abuser priests grew and flourished.

Back in Los Angeles, there was Richard Allen Henry, a priest convicted and placed on leave in 1991; he abused four different boys and got an 8-year prison sentence. And there was Stephen C. Hernandez, a priest sentenced to three years probation.

These men were convicted. They are not "alleged abusers" of "alleged victims." They are men who promised obedience to their ordaining bishop and his successors, who publicly lived lives we thought pledged to Christ and the church. I sit 3,000 miles away. I had never heard of any of them. But I am quite sure that if I walked into an altar boy outing, or somehow eavesdropped on a group of high school girls while these men were on the prowl, I would learn all about them well before their trials.

I would have heard about Lawrence Joseph Lovell, a Claretian priest twice convicted of abusing boys. And Carlos Rene Rodriguez, a Vincentian priest who got 8 years in prison. Who could have missed Donald Patrick Roemer, convicted in 1981 of molesting three boys; he was committed to a mental hospital for two years and given 10 years probation.

Cardinal Mahony and the other bishops have apologized for everything they could think of except for just one thing: what they did not do. They have not apologized for their ineffective oversight of their dioceses in this respect. How could they not have known?

The abuse victims perhaps received some closure through the work of their attorneys. The spotlight of the news media shines now on convicted Los Angeles abusers all the more: John Anthony Salazar-Jimenez, Audon Serratos, Carl Anthony Schipper, Michael Edwin Wempe and John W. Wishard.

There are 247 Los Angeles abusers listed on, a Web site that tracks legal, diocesan and news reports of abusive priests. There are now 508 Los Angeles claimants who have received their due.

But the rest of us, the billion of us around the world, are victims too. We are waiting for Cardinal Mahony and his fellow bishops to admit their roles. It is not enough to apologize for "what has happened"; it is time for bishops to apologize for what they did and did not do.

(Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and the author of several books in Catholic Studies.)


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