Molestation of Child by Priest Stirring Furor and Anguish in Seattle Church

By Timothy Egan
The New York Times
June 12, 1988

In a painful acknowledgment of a problem in the Roman Catholic Church, worshipers throughout half the state of Washington have been informed by their Archbishop recently that one of their priests had sexually molested children.

Under orders of Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen, pastors read a letter at Sunday mass May 29 in which one of their fellow priests, the Rev. James McGreal, was identified as a pedophile. They also urged parishioners to come forward if they knew of any incidents involving other priests.

While Archbishop Hunthausen, long considered a maverick on doctrinal and social issues within the church hierarchy, was praised for his candor in issuing the statement, many Catholics in the priest's home parish remain highly critical. They say they should have been told long ago that a priest with a history of pedophilia had been sent to their church.

Priest Removed From Parish

The Rev. George Thomas, Chancellor of the Seattle Archdiocese, says there have been allegations of pedophilia for 20 years against Father McGreal and that he has been in treatment for 10 years. Father Thomas said the priest has since been removed from the parish, St. Theresa's of suburban Federal Way, and has been under criminal investigation, although no charges have been filed.

Father McGreal is the third priest to face action in the archdiocese over allegations of child molestation in the past two months.

Archbishop Hunthausen's letter is the first public acknowledgement of specific allegations. But the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in response to a growing public concern, in February issued a statement saying that any priest accused of pedophilia should be removed from active ministry and the case reported to the civil authorities.

Mark Chopko, general counsel to the bishops, called the Hunthausen letter "an act of courage."

Louisiana and New York Cases

Mr. Chopko said there are no exact figures available on how many Catholic priests have been accused of molesting children, but he said the number of reported incidents is up "due to enhanced sensitivity on the subject."

He said related legal action against the church has also increased and cited two jury verdicts in Louisiana in which families charged sexual abuse by a priest and were awarded $1 million in each case.

Last month in New York City, a priest was indicted on charges of sexually abusing students at a parochial preparatory school in the Bronx. The priest, the Rev. Bernard Lynch, had been the campus chaplain at the school, Mount St. Michael Academy, which is run by the Marist Brothers order.

'Deeper Psychological Impact'

Experts on sexual abuse of children believe the problem is far more widespread than was previously thought and that victims can suffer lifelong psychological scars. "When it's a religious or authority figure, that has a far more significant and deeper psychological impact on the victim," said Lucy Berliner, head of the sexual assault clinic at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center.

Some church observers, while deploring the individual cases, believe that the number of incidents of pedophilia among priests is no higher than among other professional groups. Among these observers is Eugene Kennedy, a professor of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, who said that Catholic seminaries scrutinize applicants more than in any other profession, concentrating on their "motivation for becoming priests, their personal probity and the stability of their sexual identity."

Roman Catholic priests, who are required to take a vow of celibacy, number about 53,000 in the United States.

In January, The National Catholic Reporter, a liberal Catholic weekly, reported "conservatively" that 135 cases of sexual molestation by priests were reported from 1983 to 1986.

'Break the Cycle of Silence'

The furor here has raised questions about the ability of local Catholic officials to treat and discipline sexually abusive priests. "Traditionally, what they've done is cover up and try to minimize the problem," said Ms. Berliner. Ms. Berliner, who is also a professor of social work at the University of Washington, is a member of a church panel appointed to study the problem here.

Some critics of the archdiocese say the removal of Father McGreal from the parish is a move to protect the church from legal liability.

Church officials maintain that is not the case, saying they are acting out of compassion. Archbishop Hunthausen said in his letter that he wanted to "create a new atmosphere based on education and dialogue."

His letter to parishioners also said, "During this past week, many of you have learned about the struggles we have faced concerning Father Jim McGreal, who has undergone extensive treatment for a sexual disorder, eventually identified as pedophilia. I am writing in hopes this situation, as painful as it is, will serve as an opportunity to break the cycle of silence that perpetuates abuse in the human family."

Some parents here say the church has been more concerned with protecting Father McGreal than helping the victims. "This priest had a 20-year history of sexual contact with children, and they still returned him to a parish full of young kids," said Norm Minarsich, a member of the laity of the parish council at St. Theresa's. "The church says they were protecting his confidentiality. I say it was old-boy secrecy."

Parishioners and church leaders say that Father McGreal has admitted that he has a sexual disorder. The priest declined to comment to a reporter about his case.

About two months ago another priest in the Seattle archdiocese, the Rev. Paul Conn, was charged with five felony counts of indecent liberties with minors. Father Conn, 36 years old, has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Father Thomas, the archdiocese chancellor, said in an interview that the church has identified a third priest in the western Washington archdiocese as a pedophile. He said that priest, whose identity was not disclosed, is undergoing treatment.

Three May Be Unfrocked

Reflecting a change in church attitude, Father Thomas said all three priests face "a lifelong, incurable" disorder, and therefore would probably be removed from the priesthood, regardless of the legal outcome of their cases.

Father Thomas said the church "probably made a mistake" by returning Father McGreal to St. Theresa's long after church officials had known about the allegations.

When Father McGreal, a 65-year-old who has been in 12 parishes in this archdiocese since he was ordained in the 1940's, was sent to St. Theresa's last year, parishioners were not told about his background.

As late as 1984, a family had complained to the archdiocese about his behavior, according to church records. Father Thomas said that psychologists who have worked with the priest said he was in "a grooming pattern," in which he was attempting to gain the trust of the family that eventually complained and whose boy he allegedly planned to sexually abuse.

A Disclosure in Broadcast

However, Father Thomas and the Rev. Joe Kramis, St. Theresa's pastor, said the church did not consider the priest a threat because he was undergoing treatment and was under the supervision of Father Kramis.

Earlier this year, some parish members found out about the priest's background and urged his removal. Then, two weeks ago, a woman on a local television talk show said a priest in her parish - she named the location, but not the priest or church - was an active pedophile. The statement set off a wave of rumor and innuendo.

One of the reasons the St. Theresa's priest was identifed last Sunday was to clear the names of other priests throughout the archdiocese, church officials said.

Father Kramis said that, in retrospect, he would have told the parish council about the priest's background and let them decide what to do with him.

"Do you spread the news that a person is a pedophile or try to protect his confidentiality?" said Father Kramis. "A year ago, when I welcomed him into my rectory, I was convinced confidentiality was the best way to go. Now, I would tell the parish council."


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