Navy Punishes Chaplains for Sexual Abuse

By Matt Kelley
Associated Press Online
July 4, 2003

The Navy has punished more than 40 chaplains over the last decade for offenses ranging from sexual abuse to fraud - a misconduct rate much higher than for other officers, according to documents that detail the Navy's alarm at the problem.

"Navy chaplains, in fact, create a disproportionate number of problem cases," Navy Chaplain Corps official Bradford E. Ableson wrote in a 1999 memo that is among several documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The previously undisclosed documents detail offenses that included adultery, spousal assault and sexual harassment that were so pervasive that in 1999, then-Navy Secretary Richard Danzig ordered a new training and oversight program to ensure the Navy's nearly 870 chaplains met high moral standards. Ableson, the deputy executive assistant to the chief of Navy chaplains, wrote the memo to give his boss details on the extent of the problem.

The chaplain corps implemented that retraining program but hasn't tracked how many chaplains have been punished since then, said Lt. Jon Spiers, a chaplain corps spokesman.

Court records and news stories show that since 1999 at least one chaplain has been convicted of indecent acts and a recently retired chaplain was charged with murder.

Spiers said the current chief of Navy chaplains, Rear Adm. Barry Black, has made enforcing ethical standards his top priority. Black has been nominated to become the U.S. Senate chaplain.

Spiers said the chaplain corps shouldn't be judged by its members' misconduct.

"To say the actions of a few speak for the service of the many thousands of men and women who serve and have served as Navy chaplains does an injustice to all the good work these officers give so willingly," Spiers said in a written reply to questions submitted by AP.

Danzig declined comment through an assistant at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he is a senior fellow.

In interviews last year, Spiers acknowledged only one case mentioned in the 1999 memo - that of Neal Destefano, sentenced to five years in prison in 1994 for drugging and molesting two Marines.

Ableson's 1999 memo stated that "Chaplain Corps disciplinary cases are monitored by ... the Chief of Chaplains Office." But Spiers said the chaplain corps no longer keeps statistics on punished chaplains.

"If these cases were monitored in 1999, they are not now," Spiers said.

Most of the punished chaplains - 28 of the 42 - were accused of sexual misconduct or harassment, according to the documents obtained by AP.

Examples: A Roman Catholic chaplain went to prison for molesting the young sons of sailors and Marines. A Seventh-day Adventist chaplain was court-martialed for an indecent assault during a counseling session. Three chaplains - a Baptist, a Catholic and a United Pentacostal Church International minister - were punished for downloading pornography onto Navy computers.

Despite its relatively small size, the chaplain corps had at least 39 officers disciplined between 1994 and 1999 - more than the number disciplined among the rest of the Navy's 32,000 regular officers, Ableson wrote.

The regular officers had a discipline rate of 2 per 1,000, while the rate for chaplains was 45 per 1,000, other Navy memos said.

The corps' troubles have continued.

In 2001, Catholic chaplain Cmdr. Robert Milewski was convicted of fondling a sailor during a massage the year before and fined $48,000.

Spiers said chaplains are held to the same standards as other Navy officers.

But Ableson's memo questioned whether the chaplain corps fostered a tolerance for misbehavior.

"Too many officers with integrity problems are nurtured by the CHC (chaplain corps) culture and advanced by the CHC system," he concluded.

The system rallied to the defense of some convicted chaplains, according to Navy records.

Catholic chaplain Lt. Robert Hrdlicka pleaded guilty to molesting boys in 1993. Before his sentencing, six other Catholic Navy chaplains and the church's archbishop for the military services urged authorities to send Hrdlicka to a church-run treatment center.

"It is my fervent hope and prayer that he will be able to return to the active ministry as soon as possible," wrote then-Cmdr. Robert L. Kincl.

Instead, Hrdlicka went to prison.

The 1999 memos also show some chaplains were given light punishment for serious offenses.

Two Catholic chaplains had promotions deferred; one for sodomy and another for "homosexual acts/assault," according to a 1999 list of disciplined chaplains. Such offenses are felonies under military law.

The chaplains' names were deleted from the list provided to AP.

Spiers said chaplain corps officials had nothing to do with the punishments, which are decided by local commanders.

Other criminal chaplains have been allowed to leave the Navy rather than face further punishment, including a Catholic chaplain permitted to quit in 1993 after he admitted molesting an altar boy at the Marine base in Twentynine Palms, Calif.


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