Details of local abuse in Catholic Church remain guarded

By Gabriel Tynes
Lagniappe Mobile
September 12, 2018

As a wave of new revelations concerning sexual abuse by priests in other parts of the country has come to light, questions about the Archdiocese of Mobile’s past remain mostly in the shadows. Whether churchwide calls for openness and even confession will be heeded here remains to be seen, but there is little doubt there is newfound interest worldwide in how the Catholic Church has handled sexual abuse over the years.

It’s been 16 years since reports of child sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston peeled back the curtains on a much broader problem in the Catholic Church, exposing abusive priests and complicit senior church officials nationwide. In response, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) adopted the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which, among other things, recommends immediately removing any accused priest from ministry pending an investigation and reporting all allegations of abuse involving clergy to civil authorities.

Subsequent reports commissioned by the same organization determined allegations of abuse in the church have fallen since peaking in the early 1970s. Its most recent numbers implicate 6,721 church officials in allegations of abuse from 1950-2016, representing at least 18,565 victims.

Still, new cases are frequently reported. According to the USCCB, during a 12-month period between 2016 and 2017, 654 adults came forward with 695 new allegations. Twenty-four new allegations came from minors.

But as last month’s sprawling Pennsylvania grand jury report demonstrates, much of the abuse, whether protected by statutes of limitation or not, remains hidden in church archives. The report, which documents more than 1,000 child victims of 300 abusive priests, concludes “priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”

The report prompted responses from Catholic leaders around the country and even sparked discord within the hierarchy. The attorneys general of New York, Illinois, Nebraska, Missouri, New Mexico and Kentucky have since announced their own independent investigations, but Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall told Lagniappe this week his own office would only convene a grand jury if new allegations were made to local authorities.

“Technically we don’t have the authority to issue a criminal subpoena absent a grand jury,” Marshall said. “Really, what is important, to the extent there have been criminal acts, for those to be disclosed through notification of law enforcement, which then allows that grand jury process to be activated. The real impetus for us to be engaged in a broader investigation will be if there are disclosures that have otherwise not been investigated in the past.”

Roughly 170,000 Alabamians identify as Catholic, according to the U.S. Census.

In 2004, two years after the sex abuse scandal broke, the Archdiocese of Mobile released its first and last comprehensive report on allegations within its own network, acknowledging 13 of its priests had been accused of sexual abuse of minors since 1950, with a total of 18 victims. The archdiocese also reported more than $700,000 had been paid in legal settlements, fees, victim assistance and other related expenses.

But only one person — Nicholas Paul “Brother Vic” Bendillo — has ever been prosecuted for sex abuse crimes in the archdiocese. A second, deacon Robert Nouwen, was convicted of possession of child pornography in 2013 but was not charged for the rapes of two children, which he admitted to federal prosecutors.

Late last week, Archbishop Thomas Rodi said at least three accusations against local priests have been made since he became archbishop in 2008, two of which were deemed credible. One was Nouwen, the other was Father James Havens, who resigned from St. Vincent de Paul in 2013 after being accused of an improper relationship with a female minor in 1989. Havens was removed from active ministry and died earlier this year.

In a statement recognizing the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Rodi said he has been “faithful to the zero tolerance called for in the 2002 Charter,” noting “priests and deacons who have credible accusations of abuse of minors are not re-assigned elsewhere and are not allowed to exercise any ministry.”

While he pledged to continue to “cooperate fully” with legal authorities on new cases, Rodi didn’t say the church would open its records to past abuse as some are demanding.

Call to confession

In an email to members, national Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson wrote the Catholic fraternal service organization should work for “repentance, reform and rebuilding the church.”

Anderson states further that the clerical sexual abuse issue should be dealt with at the highest levels of the church and priests who “refuse to live according to their promises of celibacy should be removed from public ministry.”

“Reform must include many good ideas that have been proposed, such as a full and complete investigation of sexual abuse led by an independent commission that includes laity; complete transparency by the Catholic hierarchy into all matters of criminal sexual misconduct, past or future; an expansion of the zero tolerance policy to include sexual activity, or misconduct by clerics including bishops and by seminarians; and a call for faithfulness by all members of the clergy, including bishops,” Anderson wrote. “There must also be an independent ethics hotline for the reporting of criminal and other conduct at odds with Catholic teaching on the clerical state of life and there must be protections against retaliation.”

But Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said those moves may not go far enough.

In fact, Lennon said, the group is calling for two actions. First, the group would like each state’s attorney general to investigate each diocese and produce a grand jury report similar to the one released recently in Pennsylvania, Lennon said. He believes this action could reveal thousands more victims.

“The scope of the problem is mind-boggling,’ he said. “We can’t trust the church to investigate itself. It takes a whole community, or legal action.”

Lennon said SNAP would also like the U.S. Department of Justice to initiate a national investigation.

As a victim of clergy sex abuse himself, Lennon knows firsthand what it can do and why investigating the church is so important.

“It kills childhoods,” Lennon said of clerical sex abuse. “I struggle with my abuse every day.”

Bendillo was a longtime teacher and academic adviser at McGill-Toolen High School when he was charged with two counts of sexual abuse with former students in the 1990s. Bendillo convinced students they had a sexual disorder and encouraged them to submit to him for treatment. Multiple plaintiffs eventually came forward with accusations dating to the late 1960s, and Bendillo was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

At the same time, then-District Attorney John Tyson Jr. was investigating several priests in the archdiocese. He admitted to local media that, based on tips, he was specifically targeting Eugene Smith, Arthur Schrenger, Barry Ryan and J. Alexander Sherlock. The archdiocese corroborated the reports and admitted it was cooperating.

In 2003, then Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb announced he had removed Schrenger from the priesthood after Schrenger confirmed two instances of misconduct with minors prior to 1985. Between 1975 and 1987, Schrenger had served at several Mobile-area parishes including Little Flower, St. Dominic, McGill-Toolen, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Agatha Catholic Church in Bay Minette.

Parishioners of St. Peter Catholic Church in Montgomery were shocked when Lipscomb traveled there in February 2003 to announce Sherlock had been placed on leave. Lipscomb said he first heard a complaint about Sherlock in 1997 regarding abuse that took place in the 1970s. Sherlock later admitted to at least three incidents of sexually abusing male minors.

According to news accounts at the time, some parishioners were outraged to find out Sherlock had been moved to their church by Lipscomb, who told them that day about three long past instances of abuse admitted to by Sherlock. Lipscomb said a fourth more recent accusation had come to his attention, prompting him to remove Sherlock.

As an active priest, Sherlock accepted assignments at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, taught at McGill-Toolen High School, was later assigned to St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Chickasaw, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Mobile, Saint Pius X and finally to St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Montgomery in the summer of 1997. He died in 2005.

Barry Ryan and Eugene Smith were never charged, according to sources, although neither is listed in the archdiocese’s current directories. Tyson did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Today, only one of the accused priests acknowledged by the Archdiocese of Mobile continues to minister.

In 2013 Father Johnny Savoie, a pastor at St. Pius X Catholic Church, was accused of having an improper relationship with a male minor. Rodi noted that Savoie self-reported and denied the allegation. The Baldwin County District Attorney’s office said no charges were filed due to the age of the alleged victim and the “nature of the allegations.”

Still others have been implicated. Timothy Wayne Evans was placed on administrative leave amid accusations of abuse at Christ the King in Daphne in 2000. He was subsequently moved to Monroeville and St. Margaret’s in Bayou La Batre. Patrick L. Nicholson, who served in the archdiocese in the 1970s, was alleged to have abused a 15-year-old girl.

Father Norman Rogge spent three years in the archdiocese at St. Ignatius from 1979 to 1981. Afterward, Rogge was bounced around the Southeastern U.S. and  twice convicted of crimes involving a minor — once in 1967 in Florida for touching a 14-year-old boy’s penis, and again in 1985 in Louisiana for mastubating in front of an 11-year-old boy and attempting to have the boy perform oral sex on him.

Civil lawsuits named Father Cordell Lang of McGill-Toolen and Father Nelson B. Ziter as abusers. Both cases were subsequently dismissed citing statutes of limitations, but Archie Lamb, an attorney who represented both plaintiffs, said it wasn’t for lack of evidence.

“I’m not happy with the outcomes,” Lamb said, noting that minors claiming negligence at the time only had a two-year window to file complaints after becoming adults.

“It’s like you’re banging your head against a brick wall,” he said.

But for criminal cases, the statute of limitations was eliminated in 1987 for certain felonies involving the use of violence or threat to use violence,  sex offenses if the victim is under 16 or if serious physical injury was caused.

Lamb said he didn’t have immediate access to records in the lawsuits, but according to a deposition obtained by the Mobile Press-Register in 2003, Lipscomb said he “could count on one hand” the times he had dealt with sex abuse allegations during his time as archbishop: “Where I have found cause, I have removed priests from a pastoral assignment,” he said in 1995, while also defending the accused.

“If I were investigating this from scratch, I would want to know something of what the 14-year-old brought to the situation prior to that,” Lipscomb said. “Is he totally innocent, unspoiled and pure, or is he somebody who in his own way may have invited or even initiated these kind of … I would not know those things until I knew more of the characteristics.”

But Lipscomb also admitted he had received earlier complaints of abuse about one clergyman years before taking action.

Further data from the USCCB indicates 5.8 percent of all priests nationwide from 1950-2016 have been accused of abuse. The Archdiocese of Mobile reported having 126 priests in its 2017 annual report, but there are no readily available records to determine how many priests have served in the archdiocese over a 66-year span.

In his statement about the Pennsylvania report, Rodi used far more favorable figures from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which state only four credible allegations of abuse were reported nationwide last year.

“Four credible accusations against priests in 2017 is four too many,” Rodi wrote, but “these statistics, however encouraging, excuse nothing.”

Rodi went on to call for answers to the unanswered questions in the Pennsylvania report, including accusations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and the implications of omitting bishops from the 2002 Charter.

Noting “we seek good and wholesome guys to be our future priests,” Rodi also admitted “our clergy will not be perfect … So let us keep one another in prayer that the action which is taken, and action must be taken, will address the sin in our midst which has so deeply harmed its victims and all of us.”

Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich encouraged all victims of abuse to report it to local law enforcement agencies or her office, regardless of when it took place. She said she could not comment on whether any investigations of the Catholic Church were currently underway, but “if there is a member of the public that in any way, shape or form is aware of any illegal conduct in the Catholic Church or any church, we urge you to please come forward.”


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.