Abuse survivors urge diocese to add seven priests to credibly accused list

By Mark Bliss
Southeast Missourian
January 17, 2019
Larry Antonsen of Chicago and David Clohessy of St. Louis hold signs containing the names of seven priests they want the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese to add on its list of those credibly accused of molesting children on Wednesday outside St. Mary Cathedral in Cape Girardeau. Antonsen and Clohessy are both members of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and victims of clergy abuse. [Photo by] Jacob Wiegand

Two members of a priest-abuse survivors group called Wednesday for the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese to place an additional seven priests on its list of those credibly accused of molesting children.

The plea came from Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) members David Clohessy of St. Louis and Larry Antonsen of Chicago as they stood outside St. Mary Cathedral in Cape Girardeau, holding signs listing the names of the seven priests.

"These are all priests who were ordained elsewhere, worked mostly elsewhere, but spent some time in southern Missouri," Clohessy said. "They have been publicly named as accused child molesters, either through criminal action or lawsuits or by church officials themselves who have deemed them credibly accused."

The seven identified include priests John Edward Ruhl, John "Jack" Farris, Thomas Gregory Meyer, James Vincent Fitzgerald, Michael Charland, John O'Flaherty and Monsignor Thomas J. O'Brien.

Only two of the seven -- Ruhl and Charland -- are still living, Clohessy said.

Two of the seven priests -- Ruhl and Farris -- served the Catholic Church in Cape Girardeau and Perryville, Missouri.

Accusations against Ruhl and Farris, both Vincentian priests, were reported in the Southeast Missourian in 2013. The two men were accused in a lawsuit of molesting children in California.

Ruhl worked at St. Mary's Seminary in Perryville from 1961 to 1963 and spent the summer of 1964 at St. Vincent's College in Cape Girardeau. By mid-1993, he had been placed on "inactive leave" and was not expected to return to active ministry, according to documents released as part of a legal settlement.

Ruhl's personnel file, disclosed in the settlement, refers to three allegations of molestation in the 1970s.

Farris' personnel file made no mention of child abuse, but the lawsuit claimed the priest, who died in 2003, molested a child in California from 1951 to 1954.

Farris worked at St. Mary's Seminary from 1977 to 1978, Christ the Savior Church in Perryville from 1981 to 1982, and the Evangelization Center in Cape Girardeau from 1985 to 1986.

Last August, the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese, at the direction of Bishop Edward Rice, launched an inquiry into the personnel records of all its clerical and lay staff dating back more than five decades.

An outside law firm is conducting the investigation. Diocese officials have promised to publicly disclose the findings.

Leslie Eidson, director of communications for the diocese, said Wednesday in an email the inquiry could be wrapped up by the end of January.

She said Farris never served in a diocesan position.

Eidson said the diocese has no records in its "historical archives" for Ruhl, Charland or Flaherty.

She said the diocese also has "no record" of any allegations against Fitzgerald or Meyer.

As for O'Brien, his name will appear in the final report once the external review is completed, Eidson said.

Since August, the diocese has released the names of four priests credibly accused of sexual abuse with children: John Brath, Fred Lutz, Monsignor John Rynish and Monsignor Mark Ernstmann.

The names of two other priests, accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with adults, also were disclosed by church officials,

In addition, former Catholic Schools superintendent Leon Witt retired after allegations of inappropriate interactions with a minor. In Witt's case, "it was not deemed sexual misconduct or abuse," Eidson said.

Clohessy surmised some priests have not been listed by the diocese because those priests belong to different Catholic orders such as the Vincentian order.

But Eidson said, "We're attempting to accurately identify all religious order priests who have ever served here and going back to their congregational headquarters to see if they have any reports of misconduct."

"We want to encourage any victims in our communities to come forward so that we can be reconciled with them and promote healing," Eidson said.

Clohessy urged "victims or whistleblowers, people with knowledge or suspicion of these crimes, to call local law enforcement first and then the Missouri Attorney General's Office."

The Attorney General's Office (AGO) last year launched an investigation into priest abuse. That investigation is continuing, said AGO spokesman Drew Dziedzic, who declined further comment.



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