Accused Priest Advising Bishops
Archdiocese Says Cleric Admitted Molesting 6 Youths in Md
By Caryle Murphy
June 2, 2002
A priest who admitted molesting six youths while working in parishes of the Baltimore Archdiocese from 1969 to 1986 has been employed for 16 years by a Washington-based commission that advises the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on liturgical matters.
The Rev. Michael J. Spillane, 59, executive director of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, acknowledged the sexual abuse in 1991 when he was confronted by archdiocesan officials after one of the victims came forward, archdiocesan spokesman Raymond P. Kempisty said.
The archdiocese immediately revoked Spillane's right to celebrate Mass and perform the sacraments. It also informed the federation of its actions against Spillane and the reason for them, Kempisty said.
But the federation's current chairman and a spokeswoman for the bishops' conference said last week that they had been unaware of Spillane's admission and the archdiocese's sanctions.
The archdiocese recently received a new allegation that Spillane committed child sex abuse in the late 1960s, and it has reported that case to prosecutors, Kempisty said. Church officials do not know whether the recent complainant is one of the six people Spillane had admitted molesting, Kempisty added. He said that when the priest made his admission in 1991, the archdiocese knew the name only of the person who had come forward and it did not learn the identities of the other five victims.
The Spillane case brings into sharp relief the raging debate in the U.S. Catholic Church over whether and how to employ priests who have admitted sexually abusing children in the past but sought treatment for their problems.
The federation is funded by Catholic dioceses across the country. Although it works closely with the U.S. bishops' conference, it is independent in terms of its finances and administration, said the Rev. John H. Burton, the federation's chairman. Burton said Spillane is to retire from his post this year. He said that if he had known earlier about Spillane's past, he would not necessarily have asked him to resign.
"You don't put people back in a situation where they can repeat the event," Burton said, noting that Spillane's job gave him "no contact with children."
At the same time, "any human being needs to be productive, and I can tell you that Father Spillane in this situation was very productive," Burton said. "When a man has tried to right the wrong and has fixed his life, I'd be very careful about zero tolerance."
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Spillane should not have been allowed to continue working at the federation. At the very least, Clohessy said, church leaders should have publicly disclosed the priest's sexual offenses.
"This notion that somehow kids are safe from molesters with desk jobs . . . because they won't get access to children is ludicrous," he said. "No matter what you do from 9 to 5, if you can wear a Roman collar, you can find parents who will trust you with their child."
Spillane did not respond to a reporter's e-mail and telephone messages. His attorney, Gregg Bernstein, said the priest, who was ordained in Baltimore in 1968, had recognized by 1985 "that he had a problem with both alcohol and issues regarding his sexuality." As a result, he "voluntarily, without any prodding by anyone in the archdiocese, sought psychological treatment . . . and remained in therapy for a lengthy period of time," Bernstein said.
He said Spillane also resigned from parish ministry at that time. "This is a very, very sensitive guy who . . . took affirmative steps to try and correct those issues and problems," the attorney said.
"That does not in any way minimize whatever emotional suffering may have occurred by people he may have come into contact with," Bernstein added.
The victim who reported Spillane's abuse in 1991 contacted The Washington Post last week and said he was upset that Spillane "still serves in a good position in the church."
The man, a 41-year-old computer programmer who lives in the Baltimore area, agreed to be interviewed on the condition he not be named.
He said that in 1975, when he was 14, he was abused by Spillane, then serving at the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City, on "a handful of occasions" at the priest's apartment. Sometimes another boy was present, and he also was abused, the man said. On one occasion, the man said, he and the other boy were molested by Spillane after he became pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Crofton.
After disclosing the abuse to the archdiocese in 1991, the man said, he received "a small settlement that covered my therapy."
The archdiocese did not report the allegations to police because Maryland law at that time did not require such reporting if the victim was no longer a minor, according to a letter sent to the victim's attorney by an archdiocesan attorney. The letter added that "we in no way discourage your client from reporting independently, if he so chooses."
The man said he did not report Spillane's abuse to police because he "didn't want the exposure."
He said he later contacted Spillane by e-mail, adding that he was disappointed the priest did not apologize in his reply.
Burton, who has been with the federation for eight years, said he did not know about Spillane's past until two weeks ago, when someone doing research for the federation saw the priest's name on a Web site maintained by abuse victims. He said he also did not know that Spillane, who wore his clerical collar at official meetings with bishops, could not celebrate Mass.
Burton said he has since learned that when the federation was informed by the Baltimore Archdiocese of Spillane's abuses, federation officials decided to keep him in his job "because it was purely administrative and involved no contact with children."
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops' conference, said, "We were not aware of the accusations [against Spillane] until three days ago."
In his position, Spillane has worked closely with the Secretariat for the Liturgy at the bishops' conference and was an ex officio member of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy. Burton said Spillane brought the federation out of debt and made major contributions to reform of the liturgy — the form of worship — including overseeing a project to rewrite the official prayers for a now widely used children's Mass.
At the time Spillane's retirement was announced, the federation said it intended to honor him this year with an award for his work on liturgical reform.
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