When Priests Commit Suicide

By Amanda Garrett
Plain Dealer
May 25, 2002

What choice did he have?

The Rev. Don Rooney had watched other priests struggle after being accused of molesting a child. Could they ever explain this? Would anyone trust them again?

Now, he was the accused.

As he sat in his green Buick outside a drugstore in Medina County the morning of April 4, Roo ney had con trol over only one thing - the choice of whether to live or to die.

He chose death.

So did at least 15 others in his situation. The local priest is one of at least 16 Catholic priests, 12 in the United States, who have killed themselves since 1986 amid allegations of child sexual abuse, according to a search of records by The Plain Dealer.

Although suicide is rare among priests in general, experts say, priests facing allegations of sexual abuse appear to be more likely to kill themselves.

Earlier this year, the Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, director of one of the few treatment centers for abusive priests, sent an ominous e-mail to every diocese in the United States, urging them to treat priests with care.

Rossetti said he feared more priests would kill themselves as additional accusations come out during the unfolding Catholic crisis.

Yet even after the e-mail, a priest accused of molesting two boys in Connecticut hanged himself at Rossetti's Maryland treatment center. It was the first suicide at the St. Luke Institute in its 25-year-history.

"Imagine you're a priest," said Kalman Kaplan, a psychology professor who studies suicide at Wayne State University in Detroit. "People see you as a teacher, an educator, someone carrying on the moral tradition from one generation to the next. Now it's being publicly exposed that you have abused children.

"Where do you go from here? Your whole identity is shattered. The shame can be overwhelming, the options few."

Suicide instead of trial

The Rev. Jonathan Franklin appears to be the first priest to choose suicide rather than face an allegation of sex abuse since victims began going public in the mid-1980s.

The 61-year-old priest and monk shot himself at a Louisiana abbey in 1986, a week before he was to stand trial on charges of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old boy at a Pensacola, Fla., church.

A handwritten note lay next to Franklin's body. "My friends, the presumed guilty are an embarrassment, the dead are soon forgotten," Franklin wrote. "I have faith that He will have mercy on me for being presumptuous that now is the time he is calling me home."

For centuries, such an act would have been considered a mortal sin by Catholics.

Early on, many believed suicide was a one-way ticket to Dante's version of hell, a sizzling sulfur pit where those who killed themselves writhed alongside other sinners in never-ending agony. For hundreds of years, funeral Masses and burials on consecrated ground were prohibited because of this.

But in 1983, church officials rewrote canon law, opening a door to forgiveness, both from God and the church.

"Most people today would regard most suicides as resulting from some kind of depression," said Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. "If you have a priest who committed suicide . . . the tendency today is to apply mercy and solidarity rather than strict justice."

Indeed, when Rooney killed himself in April, Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla voiced no judgment, no harsh indignation. Pilla even delivered the homily at Rooney's funeral Mass himself.

"The meaning of Father Rooney's death is hidden from our eyes," Pilla gently told thousands of mourners. "Yet, we cannot conclude that his life and death had no meaning or were rejected by God."

The depth of Pilla's tenderness surprised some, especially those who say they had tried to raise concerns about Rooney.

At least four women say they were touched inappropriately by Rooney when they were schoolgirls in the 1980s. They say they thought Rooney deserved mercy but also wonder why church leaders never extended equal compassion to them.

"That's the part that puts your faith in question, puts the Catholic church under scrutiny," said Kelly Colling, 30.

Colling said she wrote a letter about Rooney's behavior to St. Patrick grade school officials in Cleveland during the 1980s. Rooney did not abuse her, Colling said, but he did touch two of her friends in an inappropriate way.

She got no response.

"Now, through his action, [Rooney] just left so many windows open," Colling said.

A parish divided

In 1992, Virginia Catholics were shocked when Monsignor William T. Reinecke shot himself at a Trappist abbey there.

They later learned that a mental-health worker had confronted Reinecke after a Mass two days before his suicide, accusing the priest of molesting him 25 years before. The man wanted Reinecke to get help.

Many parishioners were initially outraged by the lone allegation and blamed the man for Reinecke's death.

But a month later, a second man and his family came forward with similar allegations against Reinecke, saying they didn't file a complaint at the time because a lawyer said it would be painful and useless.

Were there other allegations out there? Police were soon satisfied that Reinecke's death was a suicide. And because he was dead and they couldn't pursue criminal charges against him, they closed the investigation.

With no evidence, parishioners remained divided over Reinecke's guilt or innocence.

Yet Robert R. Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist who has studied sexual abusers for the state of California, doesn't believe suicides such as Reinecke's are ambiguous.

"I'd be willing to bet a million bucks that a majority of priests who kill themselves do it because they're guilty," Butterworth said.

For decades, the church hid many of these priests, assigning them to one unsuspecting parish after another, investigations have shown. "That's like giving an alcoholic a job as a bartender," Butterworth said.

"Maybe these priests finally figured that there was nothing in this life that would stop them, but maybe something in the next life would," he said.

Double lives

In the days after Rooney killed himself in Medina County, dozens of parishioners - some angry, some worried - pleaded with reporters to tell of the priests' many selfless deeds.

"I don't want to believe it's true, but if it was, this wasn't the person I thought I knew," said Laura Gray, whose family leaned on Rooney for months after learning that the baby Gray was carrying had a fatal birth defect.

The baby wasn't supposed to live, but the tiny girl lingered for days after Gray delivered her. Rooney, a fastidious man who abhorred blood, spent many late-night hours at the hospital.

So Gray can't forget the man and his kindness. But she can't put out of her mind what he was accused of doing. "For us, for our family, I don't know if that will ever be resolved," Gray said.

In parish after parish across the United States and United Kingdom, there are similar stories.

In 1995, when Irish police first charged the Rev. Sean Fortune with abusing boys, people were shocked. They thought the charismatic priest who delivered fiery sermons about the evils of alcohol, sex and sin must have been falsely accused.

But as time passed, 66 charges mounted. As Fortune's trial approached in 1999, the priest gulped down dozens of pills and a bottle of whiskey, wrapped a rosary around his hands and laid down on a bed to die.

A book and documentary have since been released, detailing how Fortune terrified young boys in his basement. Yet even now, there are those who can only think of him as the good-hearted priest who started a boys club to help troubled teens.

How can a priest be both an abuser and a nurturer?

Psychologists call these seemingly dual personalities "splitting," according to A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk who has studied sexuality and priests for decades.

Sipe and others say that priests maintain their double lives much as German doctors accused of experimenting on humans during World War II.

Researchers discovered that the doctors developed a coping mechanism, flipping their personalities on and off like a light switch. At work, they were mad scientists. At home, they were doting fathers. There was no crossover.

Sipe said he often sees the same "splitting" among priests who abuse children.

They can be among the most dedicated servants to God, he said. But when they choose to flip the switch, they are predators, manipulating children only to fulfill their sexual desires.

Secrecy is the key. If their double lives are revealed, their whole identity collapses, Sipe said. "It's very sad," he said.

Disillusion or despair?

No one knows the demons Rooney must have wrestled with the day he killed himself.

For 23 years, he seemed to be a rock to those in need. When other priests were too busy or didn't seem to care, Rooney would reach across parish lines to counsel and console and even lend money.

And yet on April 1, a phone call to the diocese threatened the reputation that he had worked so hard to build. A woman told the diocese that Rooney had abused her in 1980, when she was a young girl and Rooney was an associate pastor at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Wadsworth.

Diocesan officials called Rooney immediately, setting up a meeting for April 3. He knew that a nightmare would follow. He had seen it the week before when the diocese sent out a news release about a similar allegation against the Rev. Raymond Bartnikowski.

Bartnikowski was immediately relieved of his duties as pastor of St. Victor parish in Richfield on Holy Thursday. The priest barely had time to move out of the rectory before television trucks appeared outside the church.

The diocese already was under fire for how it handled such allegations in the past. And now, it was moving swiftly and publicly.

Diocesan officials suspected something was wrong when Rooney skipped the meeting. They called Rooney's family and filed a missing-person report.

Friends of the priest would later tell investigators that Rooney had "lost his spark" in recent years after being forced by the church to transfer to New Mexico. The diocese insists Rooney headed west on his own to care for his dying stepfather. Either way, the priest's friends contend he was "disillusioned" when he returned to Ohio.

Had that disillusionment turned to despair?

Just before lunch time on April 4, Rooney's 1997 Buick rolled into a parking space at a CVS pharmacy in Hinckley Township.

At 11:50 a.m., the priest slipped his index finger through the trigger of a 9mm semiautomatic, lifted the barrel to his head and squeezed.

He had made his choice.

News researchers Cheryl Diamond and Olivia Wallace contributed to this story.

Contact Amanda Garrett at:, 216-999-4814


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