Pastor Takes Leave

By Elaine Goodman
Reno Gazette-Journal
June 19, 2002

The pastor of St. Therese the Little Flower parish in Reno has taken a voluntary leave of absence in response to five lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct, Bishop Phillip Straling said Tuesday.

Monsignor Robert Bowling took a two-week leave earlier this month to travel to Louisville, Ky., to defend himself against the lawsuits filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court.

The leave of absence is open-ended, although diocese officials called it temporary. Bowling will be paid his $1,500 monthly salary while he's on leave, Straling said.

The announcement of Bowling's leave came at a news conference at St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral, where Straling discussed the new policy on sexual abuse drafted by bishops at a conference in Dallas last week.

Straling said he supports the policy that calls for removing from ministerial du ties any priest convicted of sexually abusing children.

The policy also calls for suspending an accused priest during a "preliminary review" of a child molestation complaint. If the accusation turns out to be unfounded, the diocese should work to restore the priest's good name, the policy states.

Straling said a diocese review board has been studying the complaints against Bowling. But the leave of absence was Bowling's idea, the bishop said.

"He voluntarily submitted a request for a leave of absence until this matter could be resolved," Straling said. "And I have granted that."

Meanwhile, parishioners at St. Therese are establishing a legal defense fund for Bowling. Straling said he gave parishioners permission to set up the private fund, although he is not involved in it himself.

Four of the five Kentucky lawsuits were filed by women who said Bowling molested them 40 or more years ago, when they were girls and Bowling was a priest in the Louisville archdiocese. The women are suing the archdiocese for knowing about the abuse but not stopping it.

In a fifth lawsuit, Reno resident Christine Clark alleges that Bowling acted in a sexually inappropriate manner in 1982 when, as a 21-year-old newly married woman, she met with him several times concerning possible conversion to Catholicism. Clark is suing the Louisville archdiocese, claiming that its failure to take action against Bowling allowed the priest to continue his inappropriate activity in Reno.

Bowling's attorney in Reno, John Arrascada, said he's monitoring the five lawsuits, in which Bowling is not a defendant. Bowling has denied allegations against him in two of the lawsuits, but has not commented on the other three, Arrascada said.

At Tuesday's news conference, Straling described the three-day bishops' conference in Dallas as "hurtful and painful."

"The accusation against us is that maybe we've given more attention to the care and concern of the priests than we have of the victims, and also of our children," Straling said. "What happened in Dallas was to help us to take a look, that we need to be very clear on our priorities."

In response to the bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," Straling said he is appointing a new Diocesan Review Board composed mainly of lay people. Members of the current review board all are diocese officials.

Straling said bishops still are working on how to ensure accountability in their own ranks, an issue that will be discussed further at a November meeting. He said dioceses in Nevada and California are working together to monitor each others' finances, and he'll propose a similar regional review of how well dioceses are complying with the new charter.

Straling came under fire last week when the Dallas Morning News posted a database of bishops who allegedly have protected priests who have molested children. The database listed two incidents Straling allegedly was involved in while he was bishop of the Diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., from 1978 to 1995.

Regarding one incident, Straling said he does not recall the priest, the Rev. Joe Fertal, and that he never was informed of Fertal's problems.

In a second incident, Straling said he dismissed from his diocese a priest who molested an altar boy. The priest moved to Mexico, where the Diocese of Tijuana hired him, despite Straling's warnings. Straling said he did nothing to cover up the priest's activities.


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