2 Accused Abusers Isolated

By Brett J. Blackledge and Greg Garrison
Birmingham News [Cullman AL]
July 6, 2003

CULLMAN Mostly confined to their rooms at St. Bernard's Abbey, two 81-year-old priests accused of long-ago sexual abuse perform their daily prayers, secluded from the 115 teenagers who attend high school here.

Abbot Cletus Meagher, spiritual leader of the monastery since 1995, said he hopes the sequestered Benedictine monks pray for the people they are accused of abusing: a man who says that, as a young student in 1960, he was forced to have sex with one priest, and a woman who says she was raped by another in 1971 when she was visiting as an aspiring nun.

The allegations horrify Meagher, but he says he has no reason to doubt them. "It just shouldn't happen," he said.

But it did, said Michael Coode, a 63-year-old retired deputy sheriff from Nashville.

Coode told Meagher in 1996 that Benedictine monk Roger Lott began sexually molesting him when he was an altar boy in Nashville in the late 1950s. He said he believed Lott followed him to St. Bernard when Coode was a freshman at the now-defunct college.

The abuse continued there, Coode said, until the day he finally fought Lott off.

"I remember being unclothed," Coode wrote in a letter to Lott that he read to the old priest during a 1996 face-to-face meeting. "I remember you trying to kiss me ... I even remember your beard."

It was a "most unpleasant" meeting in 1996 between the two, said Meagher, who arranged and witnessed it. Lott never denied Coode's allegations, but said during the meeting that he was an alcoholic and didn't remember any of it, Meagher said.

Last year, Meagher learned of a 1971 incident at St. Bernard's involving another priest. He said a Tennessee woman told him that former St. Bernard's librarian Ignatius Kane raped her during a weekend retreat.

Meagher said he has arranged counseling for her and is helping as much as he can. "I don't have a reason not to believe her," he said. He declined to identify the woman, who prefers to remain anonymous.

These are painful and horrible stories, Meagher said. But he must deal with the victims and the priests and the impact it all has on this abbey founded in 1891 by monks sent to minister to German-speaking settlers in north Alabama.

"It should be holy ground, a place of encounter with God," he said. "And for something less than that to happen is unacceptable."

Letter to parents:

Last August, Meagher sent a letter to parents of St. Bernard Preparatory School students acknowledging Coode's allegations of past abuse.

"I believe that the allegations are credible and I would like to express my sincere apology and profound sorrow in my own name and on behalf of St. Bernard Abbey for the suffering that Mr. Coode has had to endure," Meagher wrote.

"While we cannot undo the past, we will work to ensure that such abuse does not happen in the future," the letter said. "Any abuse, especially sexual abuse of a minor, is inexcusable, and will not be tolerated by St. Bernard Abbey and Preparatory School."

The news about Coode's allegations was troubling to St. Bernard parents, said Terri Davis of Cullman, whose daughter and son attend the prep school. But it didn't shake their faith in St. Bernard or the monks who watch their children.

"We are all just so aware of what a great school environment this is for our kids," Davis said. "The abbot has taken care of this in a way that this really seems to be a problem that is not ours, but is the abbot's."

Davis said she talked to her children after receiving Meagher's letter. They knew Lott as "a very old man who is very sick," she said.

"They can't say that they've met him, but they know who he is," Davis said. "And that sort of makes me feel the abbot is doing what he thinks is best."

Coode said he is pleased with Meagher's actions. But he wants others who may have been victims to know his story. He wants them to begin to heal as he has.

Therapy, confrontation:

Coode confronted his past after two fellow deputy sheriffs were shot serving warrants. He and his colleagues went to counseling sessions after the shootings. For decades, he had never talked about Lott.

"With the therapist, the abuse almost immediately came up," he said.

Coode later contacted Meagher, told him what happened and said he wanted to confront Lott. "He immediately said, `When and where and at what time?'" Coode said.

Meagher said he took action against Lott in 1996, removing him from the active priesthood. Lott was forced to leave his position as chaplain to the nuns at nearby Sacred Heart Monastery, and was stripped of permission to say Mass and hear confession.

Lott received treatment designed for sexual offenders, Meagher said. When he returned to the abbey, his freedom was limited. He is confined to his living quarters, except for walks to the dining hall or to the chapel to pray with other monks.

He suffers from prostate cancer and heart problems, and receives regular medical attention.

"He's not even allowed to go to places on campus where students might be," Meagher said. "To my knowledge, he's observed that. Many of the kids in essence don't know who Father Roger is."

Brittany Munger, a 2002 graduate and now an Auburn University sophomore, said Meagher told her and other students about Coode's allegations. But she never knew Lott.

"I don't think any of my friends were familiar with him," she said.

Coode said current students are not in any danger. "Everybody's more aware, and the kids are too, I hope," he said.

But Coode said he believes he isn't the only young boy that Lott approached. He said he believes publicity will encourage others to come forward.

Surprised alumni:

The revelations from Coode and the Tennessee woman surprised former St. Bernard students who said they were unaware of the allegations until contacted by The Birmingham News.

"I'm really shocked," said Patrick R. Elam of Birmingham, a 1960 graduate. "I have a lot of fond memories of St. Bernard and the monks. They did a lot for me and other kids."

William Conway, a 1956 graduate from Red Bank, Tenn., said he sees no reason for Coode and other victims to bring up allegations decades later.

"I think the only reason these people wait all these years to talk about it is because they want money," Conway said. He said he never heard about problems with Lott or other priests at the abbey, but he did suffer sexual abuse more than 50 years ago from a Chattanooga priest who has since died.

"I've never talked about it and I'm fine," said Conway, 66, a retired carpenter with seven children and 16 grandchildren. "I see no reason to."

Meagher said he has not notified all St. Bernard alumni about the allegations. In his letter last August, he urged others who have "ever been sexually abused by a monk or employee of St. Bernard Abbey" to contact him.

So far, no one has, he said.

"I have tried in my own way to examine history, what we have on file to corroborate any of these things," Meagher said.

But he and others at the abbey are not investigators, he said. "It's sort of a unique situation, I guess, of us trying to be made to investigate and we're not equipped for that."

No physical threat:

Poor health and age have confined Kane, the other accused priest cared for by the abbey, Meagher said.

Kane, who suffered from polio in his youth, has used a wheelchair for several years and poses no physical threat to anyone. He is not able to perform priestly functions, Meagher said. He has had a stroke and is often disoriented.

"He lives in the infirmary," Meagher said. "He can't get out of bed."

The abbot has been speaking with Kane's accuser, who only recently talked openly with other abuse victims. Some details of her story were published in a Catholic newspaper last year. Kane, however, was not identified in that article. The woman, who is now 54, said in an interview last week that she is not ready to discuss more details at this time.

Meagher declined a request to allow reporters to speak to Lott and Kane. Neither priest would make any formal response to the accusations, he said.

The allegations against the two monks tarnish a great institution that has provided education for many men and women, Meagher said. The accusations, however, forced the abbey to look seriously at the issue.

"The statute of limitations on all these things has run out," he said.

In 1999, St. Bernard's Abbey adopted a policy for dealing with sexual abuse allegations made against priests and other employees. When crimes are alleged, Meagher said, he will call the authorities.

There never appeared to be a need for such a policy before Coode's accusations in 1996, Meagher said. He was uncertain how to handle Coode's case.

"I was feeling my way," he said. "I didn't know exactly what to do. You seek divine guidance in terms of doing what's right. Not what's easiest, but what's right."

Still, Lott continued working with the school after the allegations. Coode protested after learning in 1998 that Lott was serving on the board of directors for St. Bernard school and threatened to make his allegations public.

"I will attempt to convey to the parents and students of St. Bernard prep school my experience and advise them of Father Roger's presence on campus," Coode told the school board in a written statement he read during a January 1999 meeting.

Meagher said the accused priest's continued appointment to the board "was completely inadvertent." Lott, who never had contact with students as a board member, was removed immediately after Coode's objection.

At that point, Coode was satisfied. He began publicizing the case last year in his work with other victims.

The monastery will continue to care for its elderly monks, Meagher said. "We have an obligation to provide for them. We can't just stick them out on the curb."

Meagher said he remains appalled by the idea of fellow priests, who have taken vows of celibacy, abusing young people. He said he tried to understand Coode's suffering.

"It was a painful process for him and a painful process for us," Meagher said. "I hope Mike finds his peace."

"It really tears me up," Coode said. "Every day, it's part of my life."

Meagher said that, as a priest, he views the sexual abuse alleged by Coode and the Tennessee woman as a broader problem of violence and anger in the world a problem that found its way to the otherwise peaceful commune of monks at his abbey.

"It's time for it to stop. The only way to stop the violence is by our example of living the life of Christ," he said. "There's been enough suffering."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.