Some Say Chaplain's Removal Too Harsh

By Brian Lewis
The Tennessean
March 16, 2003

For Frank Andollo, the Rev. James Pratt helped greatly in his transition to college.

Pratt was the Catholic Chaplain at Vanderbilt University until he was removed from his position when allegations of sexual abuse surfaced two weeks ago.

Andollo, who came to Nashville from the more heavily Catholic city of Miami, said Pratt was a great spiritual leader. Returning from spring break, he learned of Pratt's removal and was shocked and saddened, said Andollo, a senior studying neuroscience.

"I felt appalled by how harsh the policy that the Catholic bishops set out was," he said. He was even more appalled, he said, when he learned that the allegation dated back 21 years to before Pratt was ordained and that it involved a high school senior.

"I don't think that this is necessarily what the policy set up by the Catholic bishops was meant to address," Andollo said.

He is not alone in his reaction to Pratt's removal. Some other local Catholics who knew Pratt think it's overly harsh. Some people think the removal was the right thing to do or the only choice that Pratt's superiors had. Yet they, too, grieve the loss of someone they consider to be a good priest.

The Catholic Church's policy says that if a credible allegation of sexual abuse is made against a person in the ministry, that person is removed until the charge can be thoroughly investigated.

Pratt, 48, last celebrated Mass here on Ash Wednesday, March 5.

His order, the Society of Jesus of the New England Province, re-ceived an allegation of sexual abuse involving a high school senior. The exact nature of the relationship between Pratt and the accuser 21 years ago isn't clear, and it isn't known whether the high school student was male or female.

Pratt had been in Nashville since 1996, and there are no allegations of misconduct related to his service here, according to the Catholic Diocese of Nashville.

He was ordained in 1986 in Worcester, Mass. Pratt earned a masters of divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., in 1987.

The order requested that Pratt return to its headquarters in Bos-ton and issued a brief statement. It declined to answer further questions or return repeated phone calls. An investigation is ongoing.

This is the first time a priest here has been publicly removed from his position for accusations of sexual abuse.

Removing Pratt was the right move for church officials to make, said Elizabeth Warren, a leader of the Voice of the Faithful, a group of Catholics formed in response to the sexual abuse scandals that affected the Catholic church last year. "Priests are put in an enormous position of trust," Warren said. "Sexual abuse is not compatible with that."

In addition, she said, it's hard to be certain that one allegation is an isolated case.

"I don't know that you can say for certain that there are no others since often victims take a long time to come forward," she said.

Pratt's removal came during Vanderbilt's spring break. Victoria Stevens, a freshman at the school and president of its Catholic community, said student response was split.

Some asked how anyone could support a man accused of sexual abuse. A majority asked how anyone could question Pratt, who had been their spiritual leader, Stevens said.

"We feel like we would have liked to have heard it from him," she said. "It would help as a community to bring us together."

In addition to being the Catholic chaplain at Vanderbilt, Pratt lived at the Cathedral of the Incarnation on West End Avenue and was involved heavily in Nashville's Catholic community.

Last Sunday, the Rev. Patrick Kibby told parishioners at the Sunday morning services that if they wanted to return in the afternoon to talk about Pratt, Kibby would be there to listen. About 35 people came.

"It was like a funeral," Kibby said. "It was a feeling of great loss. We really just gathered to share the pain we were feeling and to pray about it and to put it into the context of the gospel.

"In terms of the policy, the most that was said about that was this is something the bishops need to rethink. I don't think it takes into consideration individual cases. It just treats everybody the same and all situations are not the same. It doesn't give a bishop, or in this case a superior, the ability to take it case by case."

Denis O'Day, a member of the Cathedral parish, said Pratt's reputation in Nashville has been exemplary.

"The loss to this community is just tremendous," he said. "Regardless of what this charge is, the person that we have known here has been a truly extraordinary person."

The punishment in this situation seems to be too harsh, O'Day said.

"Nobody's suggesting that this issue of sexual abuse or harassment is not a serious matter," he said.

"It is a serious matter, but our response, I believe, should be more nuanced and should be much more focused around the issues that surround the charge. ... It's within the tradition of Catholic teaching that there is forgiveness and there is change and there is always hope."

Jim Wilson, another member of the parish who knew Pratt, said Jesuit leaders didn't have any choice because of the media attention focused on sexual abuse during the past year. But, he said, it's a sad situation, especially given the amount of time since the incident allegedly occurred, the lack of other accusations and Pratt's track record as a priest.

"I don't think that should cost us a priest of the quality of Father Pratt," he said. "It's a shame to lose this man to the priesthood if, indeed, it's a single occurrence and there have been no further difficulties, particularly since it predated his ordination.

"I haven't found anyone who feels positive or who feels that this is even fair."


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