After Child Abuse Accusations, Catholic Priests Often Simply Vanish

By William Wan and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post
December 2, 2010

[A priest's letter. Part 1]

[A priest's letter. Part 2]

[A priest's letter. Part 3]

David Fortwengler was an altar boy at St. Columba's in Oxon Hill when he was molested by a priest in the 1960s. The man who abused him, Robert J. Petrella, is one of the most-accused priests in the Washington Archdiocese, was expelled from the priesthood and was convicted in court twice in Prince George's County.

Ten years after the clergy sex abuse scandal first exploded in the United States, lawsuits have been settled, reports issued, policies overhauled. But even as the crisis has shifted to Europe and the Vatican prepares to issue new guidelines on how to handle sex abuse cases, something glaring is missing in this country: the accused priests.

Although the vast majority were removed from ministry long ago - barred from celebrating Mass in public, administering the sacraments, wearing their clerical collars or presenting themselves as priests - church officials say they have no way to monitor where the men are now. Nor do they keep official data on how many were defrocked, or stripped of their priestly status; how many were imprisoned or placed on sex-offender lists; how many are working; and how many are dead.

The priests themselves have largely vanished from public view. Their fates are often a mystery to their victims, their parishioners and even their own lawyers.

Independently compiling data about what happened to the men is nearly impossible. Reports by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops show that at least 5,768 priests were accused from 1950 to 2009. Although the church deems most of the allegations credible, the vast majority have never been proved, and many of the priests have never been publicly identified.

The same is true in the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington, where local church officials put the tally of accused priests at 42 without naming all of them. (At least five additional men who belong to religious orders have been accused in the Washington Archdiocese.)

But a comprehensive list of names does not exist. Victims' groups often disagree with church officials on who should be included and maintain their own lists.

The Washington Post was able to identify 31 priests accused in the Washington area and locate nine who are still alive. All declined to talk about their cases or their lives, but court documents and interviews with those around them offer glimpses. The outcomes vary so much that they defy sweeping generalizations about the way the allegations were handled by the church or the courts.

Many of the cases never made it into criminal court because the alleged abuse occurred decades earlier and fell beyond local statutes of limitations or made evidence difficult to gather. Sometimes the accusers did not want to press charges. But least 11 men were sentenced to prison, and at least five were sued in civil court. Seven are dead, including Monsignor William Reinecke, longtime chancellor of the Arlington Diocese, who shot himself after a former altar boy confronted him following Mass. At least 10 were defrocked by the Vatican. Four of those convicted on criminal charges wound up on sex-offender registries.

Some of the accused priests have been able to retire with church pensions and benefits; others were cut off. Yet many have never stopped seeing themselves as priests, even when the pope has forbidden them from wearing their collars or acting as clergy.

Edward Hartel is one of them. He has continued to celebrate a private Mass most days at his home in Chevy Chase, where he lives on a church pension, said Joseph W. Jacques, a friend and former parishioner at the Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville.

Hartel was acquitted by a judge of groping an altar boy in the 1970s. But Washington Archdiocese officials maintained that he had admitted to the misconduct in private - an assertion he denied - and refused to return him to the ministry.

"I'm a retired priest now," Hartel, 74, said in a brief telephone interview. "That's the status. That's where we stand."

David Fortwengler still has the letter he received in April 2007 saying that the priest who once molested him at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oxon Hill was no longer being supervised by probation officers.

Robert J. Petrella has been accused by at least 25 men of molesting them when they were boys, church officials said. He has been convicted twice of abuse charges in Prince George's County - in 1997 and 2002. Yet his name does not appear on any sex-offender registry: He was prosecuted under the Maryland laws in effect at the time his crimes were committed, long before such registries existed, said Prince George's Assistant State's Attorney Renee Battle-Brooks.

The Washington Archdiocese, which removed Petrella from the ministry in1989 after two decades and seven parishes, defrocked him in 2002. Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said she isn't sure where Petrella is, and his attorney, William Brennan, declined to comment.

During a recent visit to his old church, David Fortwengler said he still wrestles with the effects of his childhood abuse by a priest. The last time he was at the Oxon Hill church, he said, was with a detective in 2002 after he filed a report.

The person who has tracked the former priest most closely in recent years is Fortwengler, who was an11-year-old altar boy at St. Columba when Petrella molested him in 1968.

"I got that sick feeling in my stomach again," Fortwengler said of learning that Petrella's probation was coming to an end.

Petrella, who did not respond to phone calls and letters, had gone unmonitored for long stretches before. For several years after he was removed from the ministry, he eked out a living on Maryland's Eastern Shore, crabbing and selling groceries, according to court documents.

That outcome is fairly typical for priests caught up in the abuse scandal, said Joe Maher, co-founder of Opus Bono Sacerdotti, the country's main advocacy group for accused priests.

Maher, a former software consultant, founded the group in 2002, after a case unfolded in his parish against a priest whom Maher believed was innocent. He says that priests have been mistreated in the church's rush to fix a broken system and that even guilty clergy deserve compassion.

"The Catholic Church is all about redemption and hope, so we have to live that on Earth," said Maher, who regularly circulates e-mails from priests in dire financial straits. If they work, it's usually at menial jobs that don't require background checks or resumes.

"For the love of God, please help me, a poor priest!" read the subject line of a missive from "Father T.," who described spending last winter sleeping "on the kitchen floor with the oven on low" because he couldn't afford to pay for heat.

Petrella, whom the archdiocese sent for psychiatric treatment at least three times in the 1970s and '80s after abuse allegations, didn't face criminal charges until 1997. After being convicted of battery, he served one week in jail before persuading a Prince George's judge to release him so he could care for his ill mother.

His release required him to be in a home-detention program in Pennsylvania under supervised probation for three years. Yet it came out in court documents years later that probation authorities there were never supervising him; Petrella was sending his own monthly reports to officials in Maryland.

Kathryn Barrett-Gaines alleges that Russell Dillard, former pastor of St. Augustine's in the District, kissed and fondled her when she was a teen. Barrett-Gaines, now a professor who teaches African history at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, reads to primary school children in Kampala, Uganda.

In 2002, after Fortwengler and two more victims came forward with allegations, Petrella was arrested again and pleaded guilty to three counts of unnatural or perverted sex practices. This time, he served nine months and was released on the probation that ended three years ago.

Fortwengler, a 53-year-old contractor who lives in South Carolina, frequently took a breath and choked back tears as he described the way Petrella had destroyed his life and his faith.

As a child, "I realized all that stuff about God living in the church, priests being God's representative, that your parents can protect you - I realized all those things weren't true," he said. Years later, he developed post-traumatic stress disorder, which he believes helped kill his marriage.

Haunted by the idea of Petrella going unnoticed, Fortwengler located him in 2008 in the North Arlington, N.J., home where the former priest had grown up. He was living there with his mother, neighbors said. He sometimes took walks carrying a Bible and wore a clerical collar when he appeared for a neighborhood condolence call, they said.

"In order to protect your children, the whereabouts of dangerous predators like Petrella must be disclosed," read the flier Fortwengler took door to door.

Since then, neighbors have kept a close eye on Petrella, 72. They noticed when he took the street number off his home and changed his license plate from a New Jersey tag to a Maryland tag, said Kasim Dubur, a contractor who lives four houses away.

Dubur, who has a 7-year-old daughter, said he tries to get in Petrella's line of vision when he pulls his car out of the garage.

"I try to make sure he knows - 'I'm still watching you,' " Dubur said.

A photo from 2002 shows Russell L. Dillard, a former priest at St. Augustine's Catholic Church, who was suspended after two women came forward alleging that he sexually abused them when they were teens. He was later defrocked, or stripped of his priestly status, but never criminally charged. He now has a job advising people trying to get health care.

'Serious challenges' to monitoring

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops conference, said there is only so much that can be done to keep track of accused priests once they are no longer connected with the church.

"There is a lot of concern, but there are limits to what we can do legally," she said. "We have no authority over them. Once they're gone, they're gone."

She and others said the church has made enormous strides on the issue of clergy sexual abuse over the past 10 years - reporting priests who have abused children to authorities, releasing an annual survey on the number of accusations, devoting staff and resources to training and background checks, and removing priests even when police can't or won't press criminal charges.

But it's up to the individual dioceses how, or whether, they keep tabs on priests who are removed from the ministry or defrocked after sex-related allegations, Walsh said.

In recent years, at least two archdioceses - Chicago and Detroit - have hired staff to monitor priests who have been removed from the ministry to prevent further abuses. But such measures remain rare.

In Washington and Arlington, there is no active effort to do so, local church officials said.

Only one priest in the area is being directly supervised by church authorities: James Finan, 78, who pleaded guilty to molesting a boy at a Kensington church decades ago and who has been living in church retirement homes since the mid-1990s.

"Our authority over them ends when they're laicized and no longer priests," Gibbs said. "Even if they're not laicized, they have the choice of walking away. They are adults. We're not a police force. We don't run prisons. We don't have mechanisms in a legal sense for controlling them."

The legal system is much better positioned to offer ongoing scrutiny, she said. "That's why it's best if someone reports abuse immediately and that it's brought to authorities, because then there's a legal path to follow for investigating, proving and monitoring."

The lack of information about the fate of accused priests is troubling to victims' advocates, who have long questioned the church's commitment to transparency.

Terence McKiernan, a director of, a Web archive that tracks accused priests to counter what it calls "the secrecy of the bishops," said men who have abused children could do so again.

"Even if [an accused priest] is working in a Radio Shack and just hobnobbing with the boys who are hobbyists, he's a danger, and the church almost always knows more about these men than you and I ever will," McKiernan said. "The church bears ongoing responsibility for the behavior of these people," even when they are removed from the ministry or defrocked.

His group is devoting more attention to chronicling where accused priests have wound up. It monitors news media coverage for where they are and plans to add a section for "current location" in its data base.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said he thinks the church has a greater responsibility to track offenders than do public school systems, youth sports leagues or other organizations that work with children.

After Russell L. Dillard was accused of sexual abuse in 2002, parishioners from his St. Augustine Catholic Church carried signs supporting him to a Palm Sunday service in Meridian Hill Park.

The church has a systemic history of "betraying" its duty to protect children, said Finkelhor, who has been cited by the U.S. bishops as an expert on child abuse. The church is a global organization with resources that a typical public school system doesn't have. And priests have an authority "far greater than teachers and coaches," he said.

Finkelhor said it's not easy for the church to monitor priests, though: "They don't have strong hooks that allow them to stay in contact. I do think there would be some some value in having a list of publicized people who may have been risky. But I can also see there are serious challenges to such a thing."

Where is Father Buckner?

Often clergy sexual abuse cases drag on for years, and the men at the center of them simply vanish.

Three years have passed since the Rev. Christopher Buckner was placed on paid leave from St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly after an allegation of "inappropriate conduct with a minor," according to a news release issued at the time by the Arlington Diocese. The case has remained under investigation, with no official word from the diocese on what happened.

The silence prompted Buckner's parishioners and friends to create a blog to pray for him and to share any scraps of knowledge about his case. More than 40 people posted messages in the first month after Buckner was suspended. They told about his nurturing their faith, introducing them to their spouses, leading them on life-changing visits to the Holy Land.

Before the blog was taken down this summer, many posts came as pleas for updates or sightings: "Where is Fr. Buckner?"

Letters and e-mails to the priest went unanswered. According to the Arlington Diocese, Buckner, 58, no longer lives in the St. Veronica rectory. Like other priests with unresolved allegations, he is responsible for making "alternate living arrangements," said diocese spokeswoman Joelle Shea. His case was reported to sheriff's departments in Stafford and Spotsylvania counties but went nowhere because the accuser did not want to pursue charges.

Elise Forrester, a former parishioner who posted on the blog, said she has spotted Buckner once since his suspension - a brief encounter in the parking lot of St. Veronica. "He just seemed kind of sad and quiet," she said. "You could sense the loss in his life."

She and others expressed frustration at how little information they have received about Buckner's situation.

"A lot of these fathers just disappear," said one blog poster, Mary Ann Kreitzer, who now lives in the Shenandoah Valley. "There's a secrecy in the diocese, and the people never find out what happened."

'Still well loved' by some

Russell L. Dillard leaves his Washington parish, St. Augustine's Catholic Church, in 2002 surrounded by supportive parishioners. Shelore C. Williams, right, was the principal at the parish school.

Not all accused priests spend years in limbo. Some, such as Russell Dillard, are removed immediately.

Dillard, now 62, was a faith adviser to former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and pastor of St. Augustine's in Northwest Washington, the city's oldest black Catholic congregation, in 2002 when two sisters accused him of kissing and fondling them when they were teens. He was suspended within days of the allegations, removed from the ministry five months later and eventually defrocked.

No criminal or civil charges were leveled against him.

After he was defrocked, Dillard received a master's degree in social work from Catholic University and now has a job advising people trying to get health care, friends said. At one point, they said, he was engaged, but he didn't marry.

Kathryn Barrett-Gaines, 45, one of the sisters who accused Dillard, said she was "floored" to hear about his new position serving others. "This is not some hot shot job, and he loves to be the hot shot," she said.

"I don't think he's evil. He just doesn't have empathy, which is why he shouldn't be a priest," said Barrett-Gaines, a history professor at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore and a member of her parish council. "I'm just glad he's not a teacher or a doctor."

Dillard remains a practicing Catholic. He comes to post-worship coffee hour a few Sundays a month at St. Martin of Tours in the District, parishioners there say.

"He is still well loved," said Octavia Jackson, who was married by Dillard in 1990. "Those who come around him, talk with him, don't have ill feelings or will about the allegations. Those who did believe [the accusations] just don't say anything."

'I ask you to shred the letter'

The priest's address is listed on a public sex-offender registry, but the Rev. Aaron J. Cote looked shocked when he answered a midday knock on his motel room door. Shirtless and unshaven, the beefy former youth minister apparently wasn't getting many visitors at the Gaithersburg Motel 6 where he lives.

Five years ago, Cote, 59, was known as the "cool" youth pastor, who drove a motorcycle and made teens - primarily boys - want to come to church. These days, he's a convicted sex offender with no job and little contact with anyone besides his probation officer.

A fellow priest alleged in a 2007 deposition that he had complained to Cote's religious order, the Dominicans, about Cote's conduct around young men as far back as the 1980s - an assertion that the order never confirmed or denied. But Cote wasn't suspended until 2005, when Brandon Rains, a former altar boy at Mother Seton Parish in Germantown, filed a lawsuit.

In a deposition videotaped for the civil case that eventually cost the Dominicans $1.2 million, Rains's attorney asked Cote question after explicit question. Did you masturbate in front of the victim and encourage him to? How many youths did you do that to? You showed pornography to a number of youths did you not?

Standing at center in front of news microphones in 2005, Mary Grant, a regional director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, talks about a civil lawsuit filed against the Rev. Aaron J. Cote, a former youth pastor at Mother Seton parish in Germantown. Beside her, other SNAP members hold photos of the plaintiff, Brandon Rains, who was molested by Cote when Rains was an altar boy at Mother Seton.

Dozens of times Cote, wearing a clerical collar and wire-rimmed glasses, offered the same answer through pursed lips: "I refuse to answer the question on the grounds that it may incriminate me."

In July 2009, Cote was convicted of a third-degree sexual offense and given five years of supervised probation. At the time, he was living at the Dominican residence in New York City, but, according to prosecutors, probation officials there didn't want to supervise him, and he was sent back to Maryland, where the abuse had occurred.

Probation workers tried to get him housed and treated at the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, a psychiatric facility that specializes in clergy, but prosecutors said he was rejected because he refused to admit to the abuse.

Officials with the Montgomery County state's attorney's office said Cote's plea deal required him to be supervised by the Dominicans.

But the Rev. Brian Mulcahy, vicar provincial of the Dominican office in New York City, said the state of Maryland was responsible for overseeing Cote. The order helps Cote with living expenses, and he is still a priest, but he can never return to active ministry. He has periodic phone contact with a Dominican priest in New York, "but other than that, nothing," Mulcahy said.

A probation officer, who would not comment, has "multiple" phone and in-person contacts with Cote each month, according to Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, who described Cote's supervision as "pretty intensive."

But Cote's rootless lifestyle alarms Rains's mother, Toni McMorrow.

"Imagine renting the room next door" at the Motel 6, said McMorrow, who now lives in Florida with her husband and son, who is 23 and recently married.

The Rev. Aaron J. Cote was a youth pastor at Mother Seton Parish in Germantown. Brandon Rains alleges that when he was an altar boy at Mother Seton, he was molested by Cote. Cote was suspended after Rains sued in 2005. In 2009, Cote was convicted of third-degree sexual offense and given probation. He now lives in a Gaithersburg motel.

After Cote was sentenced last November, he wrote a letter to his Dominican brothers saying he was innocent. He agreed to the plea deal, he wrote, because his attorney advised him that a jury would probably believe his accuser.

"As I came to learn, in these kinds of cases . . . it's not about the truth, it's about perceptions," Cote wrote. He ended the letter with a disparaging reference to his victim, calling Rains "this drug addict."

Rains's mother said it was an obvious attempt to discredit her son, although she acknowledged that he "resorted to self-medication to survive in the midst of sexual trauma."

The letter was distributed to the other Dominicans, accompanied by a warning. "I ask you to shred the letter once it has been read by the community," reads the cover letter by Mulcahy.

Mulcahy said he distributed the letter because Cote "asked for the ability to address the brothers." The letter was meant to be "an internal matter," he said.

Mulcahy said he hoped Cote would only temporarily be living alone at a motel. "It's not an ideal situation," Mulcahy said, "where he is so isolated."

On this day at the Motel 6, Cote had just walked from the road, across the parking lot and straight to his room. He refused to provide any answers about his life.

"No, no, I've got nothing to say," the priest said, shaking his head. He looked at the floor as he spoke. Then he shut the door.

A 1995 photo shows Edward Hartel, who was acquitted of abuse but removed from ministry over allegations of groping an altar boy in the 1970's. The Washington Archdiocese maintains Hartel had admitted to the misconduct in private, but Hartel denies the accusations and continues to celebrate Mass privately at his Chevy Chase home, a friend says.


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