Dark Cloud Stalls over the Diocese

Commercial Appeal [Memphis TN]
September 29, 2004

IT SEEMED too good to be true, and as it turned out it was. Memphis appeared to have largely escaped the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic church and so many communities in the United States for more than a decade.

The Memphis diocese has spent about $10,000 for counseling and therapeutic services for victims, but until July, no related lawsuits had been filed here. Now the local diocese is being forced to answer the same questions that have been asked in so many other cities in a sad refrain: How much did local church officials know about sexual abuse among their clergy and what did they do about it?

Questions about misconduct by the clergy and coverups are nothing new for Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Boston, even Bemidji, Minn., and Pueblo, Colo.

The church has paid out millions in court settlements, legal expenses and medical treatment. Insurance policies have been canceled. Priests have opted out of confession and youth activities to protect themselves. Debates have raged over such issues as the celibate lifestyle and recovered memories.

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops have created a nationwide policy for investigating and preventing the sexual abuse of minors by priests. Pope John Paul II apologized to victims in 2001.

Documents released in 2002 stemming from 84 civil lawsuits against Boston priest John Geoghan - constantly on the move from one parish to another for 30 years - suggested that his archdiocese may have been, as the New York Times reported, "more preoccupied with avoiding a scandal involving a pedophile priest than making sure he had no further contact with children."

It is against that backdrop that officials of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis have had to respond to accusations that the storm has not bypassed Memphis after all.

Diocese attorneys have acknowledged in connection with a lawsuit that former Dominican friar Juan Carlos Duran exposed himself to a teenage boy here four years ago.

Duran, now believed to be residing in Bolivia, was assigned to Memphis at the time.

The admission comes in documents filed in Shelby County Circuit Court as part of a civil lawsuit claiming an unnamed teenager was sexually abused by Duran.

Duran also is charged in St. Louis with sodomizing a boy there sometime between 1999 and 2002.

The lawsuit also alleges church officials helped Duran leave the Memphis area to avoid scandal and liability. Church officials deny the accusation and insist that Duran was in St. Louis prior to his assignment to Memphis, rather than after, as it had been alleged.

According to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, Duran also is the target of a federal investigation for another allegation of child sexual abuse.

According to church officials, Duran was sent to Maryland for "psychological counseling" after he admitted exposing himself to the boy in Memphis. Beyond that, nothing has been publicly revealed about his activity or movements.

The local diocese also is operating under a cloud created by another lawsuit filed by twin brothers Blain and Blair Chambers who say they were abused in 1980 by another Memphis priest, Rev. Richard Mickey, when they were students at Bishop Byrne High School and he was a teacher and counselor.

The brothers say that repressed memories of sexual abuse surfaced for the first time when they took a fishing trip in July 2003. Mick ey denied the allegations and diocesan officials have assured parishioners and the public that "the diocese has responded and acted appropriately to any accusation."

That is the central question to any litigation in which the diocese is named. The extent to which the public accepts its answer depends on how forthcoming officials are in revealing how they have dealt with abusive members of the clergy, how well they have followed up on their treatment and what the diocese has done to help victims cope with any ensuing trauma.

The less information people have, the more they will assume, and given the track record of diocese officials in Chicago, Boston and elsewhere, assumptions can be harsh indeed.


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