New Info Surfaces in Priest Sex Cases

By Bill Dries
The Daily News
February 10, 2009

Fifteen priests in the Catholic Diocese of Memphis have been accused of sexually abusing children since the diocese was formed in 1971.

That was among the disclosures made in a Circuit Court hearing late last week to set the ground rules for the pending civil trial of a lawsuit against the diocese and the Dominican religious order. The hearing continues Thursday.

In the John Doe lawsuit, a man who was sexually abused by Father Juan Carlos Duran in 2000 while Duran was a priest in Memphis is alleging the diocese and the Dominicans should have known Duran was a danger to children. Duran, who is no longer a priest and is believed to be living in Bolivia, is also a defendant in the suit.

The man’s parents reported the abuse to church officials in 2000 when he was 14 years old. He filed the civil lawsuit in 2004 when he turned 18. It was one of the first two civil lawsuits filed against the diocese accusing Memphis priests of child sexual abuse.

The disclosures made in last week’s preliminary hearing by attorneys for the defendants are a preview of what a jury might hear.

Open, not shut

Attorneys for the diocese and the Dominicans wanted Judge Charles O. McPherson to continue the practice of closing the hearings because of discussions about those priests. The closed hearings prior to the trial had been the practice of Judge Rita Stotts, who died from complications of cancer Jan. 2. McPherson is serving as interim judge in Division 4 following Stotts’ death last month.

McPherson denied the request to close Friday’s hearing to the public. He also ruled child sexual abuse allegations against other priests can be used in the trial.

The allegations at trial are expected to involve at least three other priests. One was named in Friday’s hearing and Brook Lathram, attorney for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, referred to the other two by numbers.

‘Sexual struggles’

“Priest No. 2” was accused of sexually abusing children by other Memphis priests in 1967, four years before the Diocese of Memphis was established. In 1967, Memphis and the rest of West Tennessee were part of the Diocese of Nashville.

Bishop William Lawrence Adrian told Priest No. 2 that he would resign as a priest or be transferred, Lathram told the court. The priest chose a transfer and was sent out of Memphis with no warning to the other places he went. The Diocese of Memphis continued to pay household bills for him, and in the 1980s even gave him a letter of good standing. The unidentified priest has since died.

The second priest, identified as “Priest No. 3,” took a leave from the priesthood in the 1970s because of “sexual struggles,” Lathram said. He was reinstated as a priest in the early 1980s with help from the diocese.

By 1985, he had admitted abusing 12 different boys after the parent of one of them complained to church officials. Latham said the man remains a priest today and occasionally serves communion, but has no official contact with children.

The third priest is Father Daniel DuPree, who is one of the six priests named in civil lawsuits filed in Circuit Court since 2004. The DuPree lawsuit is on appeal by attorneys Gary K. Smith and Karen Campbell after the state Appeals Court threw the lawsuit out on grounds the victim waited too long to file it. The diocese is being sued in the John Doe lawsuit by a man who claims DuPree abused him in the 1980s while the man was a student at Christian Brothers High School.

Lathram said DuPree sexually abused “multiple victims.”

“I know it was more than ten,” he told McPherson.

Dupree confessed, Latham said, in a “graphic,” lengthy and detailed letter to church officials and was removed from the priesthood.

Trial by fire

Smith and Campbell, representing John Doe, say other allegations against other priests will show church leaders in Memphis were following a long-established pattern of protecting the priests and avoiding the problem.

“You cannot judge this case in isolation,” Smith said. “They had an epidemic of predator priests.”

Lathram described Duran as “a despicable, disgusting human being” who “lured this boy into lewd behavior.” But he added that introducing evidence of other incidents by other priests would move the trial away from a central issue and focus.

“They want to try the Catholic Church,” he said of Smith and Campbell. “It would convert a simple negligence case … into one where the jury gets to look at our mishandling of other priests.”

‘Just what we needed’

Duran had been kicked out of the Franciscan order for child sexual abuse before becoming a Dominican priest, and Franciscan superiors had warned the Dominicans. The Dominicans did not mention Duran’s problem to diocesan officials in Memphis in the late 1990s, conceded Steve Vescovo, attorney for the Dominicans.

“The Diocese badly needed a priest who spoke Spanish,” Lathram said in court. “And we were told he was just what we needed.”

Diocese of Memphis Deacon Chuck Wells asked for a letter of good standing from the Dominican order but never got it, and never followed through on what was then a requirement for a priest of any order to work in the diocese.

“They will offer absolutely no explanation for why they didn’t get the letter,” Smith argued. “They knew what the answer would be if they asked.”

But Lathram said Duran’s Dominican superiors wrote letters of good standing to the archdiocese of Miami and the diocese of St. Louis, knowing in both instances of Duran’s sexual behavior.

Wells not following up to get such a letter for the Memphis Diocese was “a negligent act,” Lathram conceded.

“It’s clear that the letter of good standing would have been sent,” he said. “But that could not have possibly caused this young man’s injuries.”

Vescovo told McPherson that Duran sexually abused the teenager for approximately five weeks starting the first week of January 2000. Vescovo said Duran “constantly” told the boy he wanted to perform oral sex on him and that it would help the boy in his relationships with girls.

The boy’s mother found out and reported the abuse to a Spanish-speaking attorney who went with her to diocesan officials. They in turn notified Duran’s Dominican superiors. Duran was immediately suspended by Memphis diocesan officials.

The Dominicans sent him to a “treatment center” in Baltimore. He returned, and, according to his superior in the order, unsuccessfully sought other assignments before leaving the priesthood.

No one – neither the family nor the diocese nor Duran’s Dominican superiors – ever reported the incident to law enforcement authorities.

McPherson is serving in Division 4 until Gov. Phil Bredesen appoints a successor to Stotts. The trial, which could last several weeks, is tentatively set to begin Feb. 23.

If Bredesen makes his appointment just before or during the trial, McPherson said he could be granted status as a general judge to continue presiding over the jury trial to its conclusion.


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