Years Later, Priests Cases Unresolved
Accused of Sex Abuse, They Await Vatican Action

By David Briggs
Plain Dealer [Cleveland]
May 26, 2007

Fourteen Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing minors remain in administrative limbo more than five years after some of them were suspended by the Cleveland Catholic Diocese.

The priests, living from Medina and Barberton to Bradenton, Fla., are among hundreds of U.S. priests awaiting Vatican action that will determine the next step. In the end, the men could be declared innocent, or defrocked, though there is a wide range of possibilities in between.

The suspended priests receive their salaries - $26,340 for clerics with 20 years' experience - and hospitalization but may not "exercise any public acts of priestly ministry," according to the diocese. Some have obtained jobs. Others are not working.

The diocese does not monitor the priests.

The diocese said its options for watching suspended priests are limited.

"The diocese has no legal authority to restrict the freedom of those who are on administrative leave or those who have left the priesthood," the church said in a written response to questions.

But advocates for children said the church has a moral responsibility to track the suspended priests, some of whom have multiple accusations against them.

"In a perverse and ironic way, the bishops sometimes treat abusive priests like abuse victims," said David Clohessy, spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "They essentially want to throw money at them and hope they keep quiet."

In June 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that no priest who committed even one act of sexual abuse of a minor could return to ministry. Since the spring of 2002, the Cleveland diocese has placed 19 priests on leave after finding sufficient evidence to support allegations of sexual abuse of a minor.

Two, the Revs. Donald Rooney and Joseph Romansky, have died. The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered that three - the Revs. Alan Bruening, Joseph Lang and Edward Rupp - be removed from ministry.

The cases of the 14 other men remain before the Vatican congregation. An official at the congregation said staff are not authorized to release statistics about priests accused of sex abuse.

Neither diocesan officials nor the suspended priests can say when action will be taken. The Rev. Raymond Bartnikowski, 69, who met with Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon in September about his case, said there is "no sign of when or if" it will be resolved.

The issue is so sensitive that many priests would speak only on condition of anonymity. Many suspended priests have been advised by their lawyers not to talk. Priests in active ministry are concerned that any expression of support for their suspended colleagues could be interpreted as a lack of compassion for victims.

Some active priests are upset at the delay. One longtime priest said it is "morally unconscionable" for the church to take so long to resolve the cases. Another asked, "Where is due process?"

The Rev. Richard Vega, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said priests are concerned that the U.S. bishops did not protect clergy rights in its one-strike-and-you're-out policy.

"Many priests believe we got sold down the river," he said.

Records searches and interviews with some suspended priests and their friends show they have taken divergent paths.

Many have remained in the area, living with friends or relatives. One said he would "come back in a second."

One active Cleveland priest said he invites a suspended friend to lunch every month. The friend agrees but then backs out, too depressed to leave his house.

Being on suspension for five years is like death, the Cleveland priest said. "There's no life one way or the other," he said. "They would just love to know where they stand, and they don't."

Other suspended priests, in their 80s or having moved out of state, would be less likely to come back, their friends say.

The Rev. Russell Banner, 70, lives with his sister in Bradenton, Fla., said his Cleveland attorney, William Danko.

"He went to Florida for health reasons. Winters here were rough on him. So he's recovering from respiratory problems," Danko said. Banner is not seeking reinstatement.

The Rev. Brendan McNulty, 58, the former pastor of SS. Philip and James on Cleveland's West Side, lives with his mother in the city.

McNulty said he has had "no personal interaction" with the diocese since he was suspended in 2003.

When he runs into people he has worked with over the years, and they tell him how wonderful he was as a pastor and ask him when is he coming back, "you kind of want to meet their expectations."

But he also thinks of all the people who suffered from clergy sexual abuse.

"I feel a little bit like Peter did after he denied Christ at the crucifixion. How could you ever presume things could be as they were?" he said.

McNulty said he has applied to resign from the priesthood.

The wait can also be torturous for abuse victims.

"When the perpetrator is still on the payroll, still can call himself father, still has a wing named in his honor, it's very tough for survivors to move on and feel he won't be around kids again," Clohessy said.

There are several possible outcomes for a priest accused of abuse. He can be found innocent and returned to ministry. The church also can defrock him, allow him to enter a private life "of prayer and penance" at a church retirement home or retreat center, or let him resign or retire from the priesthood after reaching what amounts to a settlement regarding future pay and pension and health benefits.

No outcome, however, should allow dioceses to cut ties with abusive clergy, say groups representing priests, victims and lay Catholics. They say the church has a responsibility to provide counseling and lifelong care in supervised settings for abusers.

Research on sexual abusers shows many have difficulty admitting they could commit such acts.

The Rev. Neil Conway, 71, who has been retired on disability for some two decades, said that even after a minor was found in his bed, it took him several months in a treatment center to break through the shame and the guilt and the shock at what he had done.

Conway is in touch with several of the suspended priests and says some of the men see themselves as victims of a major injustice.

"Counseling has to be for the rest of their lives," said Conway, who praised the Cleveland diocese for paying for his continuing counseling.

The problem in the church's dealings with abusive priests is secrecy, Conway and others say.

The church originally tried to hide the issue of clergy abuse and even now is concerned that any mention of the issue will revive old scars. Yet keeping suspended priests at arm's length works against healing those individuals and protecting the community, some church critics say.

"Most of the priests are in limbo, just hanging out there," Conway said. "It is every man for himself," he said.


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