Warning about Priest Didn't Prompt Inquiry at His New Diocese

By Nick Madigan
New York Times
April 10, 2002

Officials of the San Bernardino Diocese acknowledged today that they had been told a Roman Catholic priest who was being transferred here had been in legal trouble, but they said the warning was not specific and they did nothing to investigate it.

The case involves the Rev. Ponciano M. Ramos, 55, who pleaded guilty in 1993 to three misdemeanors in connection with a strip-search of young boys in Indianapolis. Church officials here learned of the case only last week, after the mother of one of the boys discovered that Father Ramos had been transferred to a parish here in the mountainous desert 25 miles north of Palm Springs. Father Ramos resigned from his parish, St. Mary of the Valley, on Saturday.

This is the second such case to surface in a matter of days in the diocese, which serves about a million Catholics. The first was that of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, who was transferred to St. Anne Parish in the city of San Bernardino, and later to New York, from Newton, Mass., despite accusations in the Boston area that he had sexually molested children there.

In neither case were church officials here informed that there had been complaints of abuse against the priests. In both cases, the priests' superiors had testified as to their good character.

The Rev. Howard Lincoln, a spokesman for the San Bernardino Diocese, said he and other officials had no reason to doubt the sincerity of a letter of recommendation from their counterparts in Boston written on Jan., 16, 1990.

"However," Father Lincoln said, "we relied on that letter as to its correctness, its veracity and its credibility" in accepting Father Shanley, who was being granted a medical leave from the Boston diocese for an unspecified ailment.

Three years later, church officials here were told by the Boston Archdiocese that there had been accusations of sexual misconduct against Father Shanley, at which point his duties at St. Anne were terminated, Father Lincoln said.

Father Shanley's superiors were also unaware that he and another Boston priest, the Rev. John J. White, owned a motel in Palm Springs, the Cabana Club Resort, that catered exclusively to gays. They sold the motel in 1997. Father White was the sole owner of another gay-themed motel, the Whispering Palms, which he sold in 1994.

Bishop Phillip Straling, who headed the San Bernardino Diocese in the early 1990's and is now the bishop of the diocese in Reno, Nev., said through a spokesman that Father Shanley had not been given a formal assignment in San Bernardino and had had "minimal responsibilities."

"If someone was sick or on vacation, he'd cover for them," said the spokesman, Brother Matthew Cunningham.

Father Lincoln said church officials here investigated Father Shanley after it became clear he had a history of sexual abuse to see whether he had had contact with children in San Bernardino. He celebrated Mass at St. Anne on an occasional basis and conducted one heavily supervised field trip, Father Lincoln said.

Father Shanley, 70, is apparently living in San Diego but has not come forward to comment on the accusations in Boston, where officials received the first of at least 26 complaints about him in 1967. At least two men have recently said they were abused by him.

The case of Father Ramos concerns an incident in 1992 at St. Rita's Catholic School in Indianapolis. The principal had asked him to look into who had set off stink bombs in a classroom. Father Ramos questioned a dozen seventh- and eighth-grade boys, and in the process he is said to have strip-searched some of the boys and fondled at least one.

The diocesan spokesman, Father Lincoln, said that officials at Father Ramos's order, the Society of the Divine Word, based in Illinois, had written to the diocese in 1994 to say Father Ramos had been involved in a legal matter that was reduced to a misdemeanor. In addition, he said, the order described Father Ramos as being of good moral character and said there were no matters that would preclude him from effectively serving the diocese.

Father Lincoln said that, given such an evaluation, the diocese saw no need to look into the misdemeanor. But he would have liked more details concerning the events in 1992 in Indianapolis, he said.

In light of the two cases, Father Lincoln went on, the diocese is reviewing the files of about 400 active and retired priests and has begun taking fingerprints and conducting criminal background checks of priests.

"We are trying to vigilantly avoid any mistakes of the past," Father Lincoln said. "We're trying to refine and develop as airtight a process as possible."


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