Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal Widens in Military

By Matt Kelley
The Arizona Republic [Washington DC]
October 12, 2003

WASHINGTON - Even as the Catholic Church has tried to put its sex abuse scandal behind it with fresh policies and investigations, new accusations have surfaced in the past year against 11 current or former priests who served as chaplains in the military.

The new claims bring to more than two dozen the number of Catholic military chaplains accused of sexual abuse, according to an Associated Press review of church, military and court records.

Among the latest to be accused is Navy Cmdr. Brian Bjorklund, who had his priestly powers suspended by the Detroit Archdiocese in July because of a credible allegation that he abused a child before he joined the Navy. Bjorklund has been suspended as a chaplain at the Naval Air Station in Lemoore, Calif.

He is one of at least eight Catholic chaplains accused of sexual misconduct before joining the military, the AP review found. Church and court records show that Catholic officials knew, but did not tell the military, about the misdeeds of at least two priests before they became chaplains.

Victims' advocates say those cases suggest church leaders may have knowingly endangered military personnel and their families by sending problem priests to the Army, Navy or Air Force. Church officials deny doing that.

Bjorklund did not return several telephone messages left at his home near the California naval base.

Of more than 25 military priests accused of sexual misconduct in the past three decades, at least 19 have been punished by military, civilian or church authorities, the AP review found. They include priests sent to prison for raping children, priests found guilty of abuse by juries in lawsuits or priests removed from their posts by the military or the church.

Other priests have avoided jail by agreeing to quit the military rather than face prosecution. In 1992, for example, Roberto DeOtero resigned from the Navy after admitting he molested a boy at the Marine base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., court records show.

Two other former altar boys are suing DeOtero and the Catholic Diocese of Hawaii, saying DeOtero molested them before he joined the Navy in 1987. DeOtero declined comment when contacted at his father's home in California.

The Catholic Church has been rocked by revelations that hundreds of priests have sexually abused parishioners and that church leaders often shifted abusive priests from assignment to assignment to cover up the assaults. One option for church officials was to send priests into the military, where about 900 of the more than 5,500 chaplains are Roman Catholic priests.

The military relies on the Catholic Church and other religious organizations to check the backgrounds of potential chaplains and certify they are morally and ecclesiastically fit for the job.

Priests serving in the military technically answer to the bishop in the diocese where they worked before joining the service. While the military determines chaplains' assignments, promotions and discipline, the military archdiocese is liaison between the Catholic Church and the military.

Sexual misconduct by military chaplains is not unique to the Catholic Church. A 1999 Navy study obtained by the AP, for example, found that 19 chaplains from 12 denominations had been punished for sexual misconduct between 1994 and 1999.

But the problem seems particularly acute among Catholics. Five of the 19 punished Navy chaplains were Catholic priests, the most of any denomination. And three of the four senior officers punished for misconduct were Catholic, that internal Navy report said.

In all, the military has disciplined, discharged or jailed at least 13 Catholic chaplains for sexual misconduct during the past 25 years, records show.

Victims' advocates say the Catholic Church had a pattern of sending problem priests into the military, either in an attempt to straighten them out or cover up their abuses.

"I think the military is particularly attractive for a bishop in that situation," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "The priest ends up far away from the diocese, so the bishop can say they took the father out of active ministry and say he's no longer in the diocese."

Church officials deny knowingly sending abusive priests into the military.


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