Suspended Priest's Role Spurs AOL Membership Controversy

By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
November 19, 1998

A storm is raging in cyberspace over suspended Catholic priest Kenneth Roberts, an internationally known spiritual leader who has been accused of sexual abuse.

America Online has continued to list "Father Ken Roberts" as a Catholic discussion leader though Dallas Bishop Charles V. Grahmann ordered him to cease all ministry and not to use the title "Father."

The nation's largest online service also has purged hundreds of messages about recent Dallas Morning News stories on Mr. Roberts, AOL members around the country say.

AOL has refused since Friday to talk to The News about the situation.

The stories showed that the Catholic Diocese of Dallas has paid at least two out-of-court settlements to Mr. Roberts' alleged victims, that he defied a 1995 order to end his public ministry and that Bishop Grahmann suspended him last week from all priestly functions.

Some members have started an online petition that criticizes the purges and demands Mr. Roberts' immediate removal from AOL work.

AOL's Catholic Community Forum staff members, "to their great shame, have allowed Mr. Roberts' message board to continue operation," the petition states. "Moreover they have welcomed posts which present Mr. Roberts as a "saintly man' while summarily deleting any messages that request prayers for his alleged victims as well as those that seek further clarification of the issues involved."

The petition organizers describe themselves as "frequent visitors to the AOL Catholic Community Forum and faithful Roman Catholics." They say they have received no response to their demands, which have been sent to AOL executives, Bishop Grahmann and Catholic Community Forum associates such as Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony.

"We have all been stopped dead," said Catherine Attara, a New Jersey stock trader who has led some of the protests. "I don't know who's behind it. There's no one who will take responsibility."

Mr. Roberts, a Dallas diocesan priest who for the last 25 years operated an unsupervised multimedia ministry from suburban St. Louis, has declined interview requests. His spokeswoman has said that he would obey Bishop Grahmann and that he had never deliberately disobeyed the bishop.

She also has said that Mr. Roberts denies some abuse allegations and can't confirm or deny others because of alcohol-related blackouts.

AOL increased its child-protection efforts last fall after repeated reports that sexual predators were using the service to contact children. One particularly embarrassing case involved a former AOL attorney who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy he met online.

Among other things, the service began criminal background checks of volunteers who monitor kids' chat rooms. It also gave parents additional power to screen out sexual content, said Dave Phillips, a former AOL chat host from Buffalo, N.Y.

Mr. Phillips said the last action came only after he complained for two years that parents needed to be alerted to some of the content AOL was sponsoring. Service executives, he said, "never admitted there had been a problem."


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