Abuse Allegation Offers a View of Issues in Scandal

By Dean E. Murphy
The New York Times
March 20, 2002

On an August afternoon in 1996, Luis Guzman, then 22 years old, made a surprise visit to the Rev. Henry Mills at the rectory of St. Joseph of the Holy Family Church on West 125th Street in Harlem.

It was a very awkward meeting. By Mr. Guzman's account, he had finally mustered the courage to confront a priest who had sexually molested him for more than three years, starting when he was 17. According to Father Mills's version, he was stunned at being falsely accused by someone he had long tried to help, both spiritually and financially.

Little was resolved at that curt session in the rectory's parlor, but it set the framework for the bitter legal battle that ensued. That battle, which is still being played out in court, has opened a public window on the inexact and delicate balancing act involved when a priest is accused of sexual abuse but there is no conclusive evidence that it did or did not occur.

In cases like this, church officials ask if it is fair to strip a member of the clergy who is otherwise in good standing of his vocation because of an allegation of abuse.

When neither side seeks the involvement of the police -- as was the situation in this case -- people inside and outside the church question whether it is appropriate for a priest to be punished on the basis of a civil action. Law enforcement officials have long questioned whether the Catholic Church should be empowered to determine the guilt or innocence of its clergy on issues of sexual abuse any more than a school board should with its teachers or even General Motors with its workers.

The range of sex abuse scandals rocking the church in virtually all corners of the country is ample evidence, church leaders themselves concede, that it has not always done well in balancing the rights of its accused priests with the threats they may pose to their own parishioners and children. But both sides involved in the case of Father Mills say that it illustrates the difficult issues for the church.

Mr. Guzman filed a suit in 1997 accusing Father Mills of ''anal and oral sexual contact and other deviant sexual acts'' beginning in May 1992. Father Mills denied the charges, but in keeping with the sexual abuse policy of the Archdiocese of New York, he received a psychological evaluation and was stripped of official pastoral functions that would put him in contact with minors.

''They seem to be so needy for priests that they will take anything that breathes so long as it is not female,'' Mr. Guzman's lawyer, Deborah Pearl Henkin, said of Father Mills's employment with the archdiocese. ''He is not an evil person; he is just a sick person.''

But several months after Mr. Guzman's suit was filed, in February 1998, Father Mills countered with one of his own. He accused Mr. Guzman of slander, ruining his vocation as a priest and causing him countless sleepless nights because of the stress of the accusations.

He also sought professional counseling to help him cope with the ''personal torture'' he was enduring, according to his lawyer, Joseph A. Marra, and he was moved by the archdiocese to new living quarters at St. Elizabeth's Church in Washington Heights.

''This is the type of situation, if someone takes a drop of ink and puts it in a glass of clear water, that ink colors the water,'' Mr. Marra said. ''It ruins how people view you. That is something that is part of your persona whether totally baseless, true or whatever.''

Four years later, the lawsuits are still plodding their way through the court system, with each side seeking information and documents from the other.

Ms. Henkin acknowledges that she has been unable to come up with other allegations against Father Mills, even though Mr. Guzman has said he believed his abuse was part of a broader pattern. And outside of the required court depositions, Father Mills has yet to offer a public statement, even to the parishioners of St. Elizabeth's. ''My advice is he not talk to anyone,'' Mr. Marra said.

Yet the two men, in their own ways, have put the immediate trauma behind them and have moved on with their lives, as many of these kinds of long-running civil lawsuits all but compel the participants in them to do. Mr. Guzman, now 27, is studying for his master's degree, has learned to become close to people once again and has discovered that he is gay, said Ms. Henkin. She said he had developed ''traumatic diabetes'' as a result of the abuse, but that he is being treated and is doing well.

''Just bringing it to the public kind of empowered him because he was fighting back and he was not going to be a victim anymore,'' she said.

Father Mills, though not assigned to St. Elizabeth's in an official capacity, has been active in the parish by offering Mass every Sunday, officiating at weddings and funerals and occasionally teaching catechism classes at the church. A church advertisement in this month's Uptown Dispatch newspaper lists Father Mills along with the parish's three full-time priests as ''serving Catholics (you) from river to river.''

The pastor of the parish, Monsignor Gerald T. Walsh, said Father Mills was well known and liked because he grew up in Washington Heights and attended George Washington High School. He said some members of the parish had asked that Father Mills perform special ceremonies for them, like weddings and funerals. Monsignor Walsh, who worked as the personnel secretary to the late Cardinal O'Connor when Father Mills was moved to St. Elizabeth's, said there were no conditions placed on the priest's activities.

''We are operating under the principle that you are innocent until you are proven guilty,'' he said. ''You just don't put people out to pasture because someone makes a charge. If we saw anything that we would be worried about, we would say something. It is a matter of fairness.''

A spokesman for Cardinal Edward M. Egan, Joseph Zwilling, said yesterday that he did not know whether there were any conditions on Father Mills's placement at St. Elizabeth's or whether Cardinal Egan, who succeeded Cardinal O'Connor in 2000, shared Monsignor Walsh's views on Father Mills's activities there.

On the broader issue of trying to find a balance in cases of sexual abuse accusations, he referred to a statement Cardinal Egan issued yesterday. In that statement, the cardinal emphasized that during investigations of abuse by the archdiocese, ''we have to respect the rights of all persons involved, the rights of the accuser as well as the rights of the accused.''

Because of the lawsuit, Father Mills has been kept away from most duties that involve regular contact with children, Monsignor Walsh said. He does not teach at the parish's high school, though some students there said yesterday that they had seen him in the school's chapel. It is also rare, the monsignor said, for Father Mills to teach a catechism class at the church.

''You have to consider both sides here,'' Monsignor Walsh said. ''There is a serious charge they are investigating in the lawsuit, so for a period, which takes a long time unfortunately, you have to balance what you are doing or not doing.''

Ms. Henkin, the lawyer for Mr. Guzman, said she did not object to Father Mills performing priestly duties so long as he was not left alone with children. She agreed the church's handling of accused priests like Father Mills involves a balancing act.

''Doing other things that don't involve children is not a problem,'' she said. ''He has to do something. He would go crazy if he didn't do anything.''

Monsignor Walsh said he had only received words of encouragement from parishioners about Father Mills, whose work at St. Elizabeth's was highlighted in a New York Post article on Tuesday as evidence that the archdiocese had simply moved a menacing priest to another parish.

Yesterday, however, some parishioners who attended the noon Mass said the church was undermining its own credibility by allowing accused priests like Father Mills to work in the parish.

''No one is going to listen to him or what the church has to say now,'' said Mayra Irizarry, 26, who attended St. Elizabeth's school and has lived in the parish all of her life. ''He is supposed to be a leader for us. He is supposed to be the one who shows us how to live our lives. How is he supposed to do that if he is doing that to the kids?''

Patsy Cabreea, 17, said she worried about her brother, Jonathan, who is a third grader at the parish school. ''I am going to tell my brother that if he sees him to run away,'' she said. ''This is God's house. People who are bad, don't belong here.''

But Rosario Genao, 63, a parishioner for more than 30 years, described Father Mills as a good priest and a good person. She said she would need a lot more proof to believe the accusations against him. ''I prayed to God,'' she said. ''I asked God, and he told me that Father Mills was innocent,'' she said.

In documents filed with the lawsuit, Mr. Guzman said he first went to see Father Mills at Christ the King Church in the Bronx for counseling after he had a fight with his stepmother. He said that Father Mills gave him some mint liqueur to calm him down, but that once he was relaxed, the priest sodomized him.

Mr. Guzman said Father Mills warned him not to tell anyone, threatening that he would ''tell them that you tried to seduce me and were fresh with me. No one will ever believe you.'' On subsequent occasions, he said, Father Mills would call him, saying, ''Come down, I am waiting for you.''

Father Mills acknowledged in the court papers that he served as a counselor to Mr. Guzman and helped him out financially but he denied that they had sexual relations.

''Luis had a troubled childhood,'' Father Mills's lawyer, Mr. Marra, said. ''He is someone who Father Mills feels badly for. He is an unfortunate figure himself.''

And so the lawsuit goes on, Father Mills may be moved again given the most recent publicity, and no one yet has a final answer as to whether anything ever took place between the two men.
















Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.