Tucson Diocese Stayed Mum on Priest's Trouble

By Nena Baker
Arizona Republic (Phoenix)
May 4, 2002

Whatever happened to Father Steve?

When a 17-year-old boy complained two years ago that a Tucson priest hadmolested him, the diocese didn't call Child Protective Services. Instead,court filings show, it launched an internal investigation that dismissed thepriest's actions as accidental.

Months later, in February 2001, the diocese suspended the priest, the Rev.Steven Stencil, for violating a diocese policy forbidding clerics from beingin the company of minors overnight, diocese officials said.

But diocese officials confirm they haven't told parishioners aboutsuspending the ministerial faculties of Stencil, 50, who led the diocese'sprogram for youths interested in the seminary from 1986 to 1994.

It did inform the Pima County attorney about Stencil's behavior, saidKathleen Mayer, assistant county attorney. However, the diocese did so a yearafter suspending Stencil and after testimony by a church official aboutStencil appeared in a court file. Mayer said the County Attorney's Office islooking into the matter.

As the Roman Catholic Church grapples with a sexual-abuse scandal that hasleft many faithful feeling betrayed, officials are struggling with how muchinformation, some of it decades old and much of it embarrassing, to makepublic.

Approaches vary widely and tend to reflect the individual styles ofbishops, who, in effect, operate like chief executive officers ofcorporations. For example:

* The Diocese of Cleveland has released the names of any priest known toever have had sexual-abuse allegations brought against him. Such priests whoare still active, a total of 10, were placed on administrative leave pendingfurther review.

* The Diocese of Phoenix said it has reported every allegation of childsexual abuse that falls under state or federal reporting requirements and hasno need to review its records. The Rev. Mike Diskin, assistant chancellor,declined to detail the number of reports made by the diocese over the past 10years.

* The Diocese of Tucson said that in February, it turned over to the countyprosecutor the names of any priest known to have been the subject ofsexual-abuse complaints in the past.

In addition, the Tucson Diocese is rewriting its sexual-abuse policies inthe aftermath of recently finalized civil settlements, estimated to total atleast $15 million. Plaintiffs claimed church officials protected priests whoabused altar boys in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

More changes expected

The diocese also has changed its policy so that any new complaint will bereferred to outside authorities immediately, officials said. Diocese officialsalso formed a sexual-abuse policy-review committee to make changes to itspolicy by June, when U.S. bishops will meet in Dallas to discuss the problem.

"The church is being pushed and challenged to act in a different way," saidthe Most Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas, Tucson's co-adjutor bishop. "We're in animportant position where we can be an example to other institutions."

Kicanas said the diocese is committed to protecting children from abuse,but also must strike a balance that protects the rights of its employees.

"In this country, our guiding principal is innocent until proven guilty,"Kicanas said. "There is a human concern for protecting a person's good name."

Kathie and Kevin Stodsgill, parishioners at Tucson's Our Mother of Sorrowsparish, said that they hadn't known about Stencil, but that the diocese isright to remove him from priestly duties and report him to authorities.

"To me, if he has been removed, the church is doing what it should," saidKathie, who, with her husband, runs the diocese's prayer retreats for couples.

"If there is something there, let a grand jury indict him and then it willcome out," her husband added.

Dr. Jose Santiago, a psychiatrist and chairman of the Tucson Diocese'ssexual-abuse policy-review committee, said the committee takes "thevulnerability of minors very seriously and wants to make sure they areprotected."

He expects the committee will extensively rewrite the diocese's policy,including recommending that new screening procedures be put in place to helpprevent the hiring of employees or priests at high risk of abusing children.

Boy's claims dismissed

Fred Allison, diocese spokesman and a member of the diocese committee thatreviews allegations of sex abuse, testified in a court deposition that he andanother church official interviewed the boy after the boy informed officialsat his parish about Stencil's behavior.

In his deposition, Allison testified that he recalled the youth telling himthat Stencil had grabbed him in the crotch and squeezed his penis in aswimming pool. Allison also recalled, in response to questioning, that theyouth reported Stencil asked him questions about sex during privateconfessions and that Stencil placed his hand on the boy's thigh during thoseconfessions.

After officials' first interview with the boy, Allison said he wasinstructed to telephone the boy and ask him if what Stencil did in theswimming pool could have been accidental or unintentional, according toAllison's deposition. The boy said it could have been, and the matter wasdropped.

Mayer, the assistant Pima County attorney, said failure to report a claimof child sex abuse is a misdemeanor. But she added that state law requiresthat a charge be brought within one year of the violation.


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