Judge Imposes Prison on Catholic Deacon for Child Porn; Cites Secret Abuse History
By Brendan Kirby
May 20, 2013
|St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church is located along Three Notch Road in Tillman's Corner.|
Decades of a secret past of child sexual abuse caught up with a former Catholic deacon this morning, with a federal judge sentencing him to almost six years in prison on a child pornography charge.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service tracked down Robert L. Nouwen from a Canadian company’s customer list, but by then, he already had destroyed the movies he had ordered for $188. A search of his home and computer did not turn up any child pornography.
Had Nouwen not admitted to agents that he had bought the movies, the investigation likely would have ended there, defense attorney Gordon Armstrong said.
In addition, Armstrong said, the 82-year-old Mobile man may well have received much more lenient punishment had he not come forward with numerous instances of sexual abuse against young boys.
“It started with him,” he told Chief U.S. District Judge William Steele. “It started with his own admissions.”
Given that, Nouwen’s history of contributions to the community and his advanced age, Armstrong sought probation or home confinement. But Steele said he had to take into account the defendant’s prior conduct, no matter how old.
“The past is never really the past when it comes to sexual abuse of children,” he said, noting a “pretty severe history of child sexual abuse over a pretty significant period of time.”
Steele imposed a sentence at the low end of advisory guidelines – five years and 10 months in prison, followed by lifetime supervision by the U.S. Probation Office – as called for by the defendant’s plea agreement.
“I will give him the benefit of that bargain, but nothing more,” the judge said.
Nouwen was deacon at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Tillman’s Corner, the same parish whose priest earlier this month coincidentally but unrelatedly became the subject of a sexual abuse complaint. Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi placed the Rev. James Havens on administrative leave.
Armstrong said his client lost his position with the church and has had to move because his former address was prohibited for people on the sex offender registration list.
“He’s been humiliated. He’s been publicly shamed,” he said. “He’s been cut off from his church.”
Armstrong said Nouwen’s past sexual misconduct sprung from his own troubled upbringing. He said his client’s mother died when he was 5; an alcoholic father pushed him off on a grandmother, who put him in an orphanage when he was 12. Armstrong said Nouwen, himself, suffered sexual abuse there.
Armstrong said Nouwen took it upon himself to seek counseling in his 40s and lived more than 30 years as a productive member of society, visiting shut-ins and performing other acts of charity.
“Those (sexual) acts in my past are things that have been in my mind,” said Nouwen, looking frail and struggling to hear as he sat before the judge. “If there was anything I could do to turn them around, I would.”
Armstrong said his client ordered the videos during the same year he was struggling with the death of his wife of 47 years. He said four of the titles were mainstream movies available on Amazon.com. One starred Robert De Niro. One had Burt Lancaster.
The other three DVDs, which the company advertised as “naturist films,” depicted young boys in sexual poses.
“It is certainly not as bad as what we’ve seen,” Armstrong said. “It’s not as bad as has been prosecuted in other cases.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Murphy agreed but argued the judge should not allow the defendant to continue to escape justice as he has during acts of abuse committed in various parts of the country.
“The defendant does not stand before you with no history. … He leaves behind him a trail of tears, people who he has abused,” she said. “Imagine what he’s done to all these children. .. There was victim after victim after victim.”
Murphy noted that by the defendant’s own admission, that includes a young boy he raped before returning him to an orphanage that the child later ran away from. It also includes a relative who Nouwen molested when the child was between the ages and 5 and 15, she said.
Murphy faulted Nouwen’s church, the school he worked for, the Boy Scouts and the U.S. Army.
“Every institution that has had the opportunity to stop this defendant failed,” she said.
Notwithstanding Nouwen’s proactive admissions, Steele said he was troubled by the defendant’s history and particularly by the conflict between his own minimizing statements regarding his abuse of the male relative and that victim’s description to investigators.
“None of this is a result of some sort of irresistible impulse,” the judge said. “This is all controlled.”