Dallas Resources – October 2002
By Brooks Egerton
Once he was a pedophile priest in Dallas.
Now he's a government lawyer in New Orleans, an officer of the system he managed to escape.
Church, state, a doctor and others helped Robert Peebles Jr. get here – to stay out of jail, to get a legal education, to keep his terrible secrets from the Louisiana State Bar Association.
Extraordinary as it sounds, this transition from one position of public trust to another is not particularly unusual. An abusive priest in Tennessee, for example, became a juvenile court worker and got custody of a troubled 12-year-old boy, whom he raped. Other molesters have moved on to jobs as teachers and counselors.
Rarely, though, is the contrast between past and present as stark as it is with Mr. Peebles, who works for the Social Security Administration.
Perhaps no one helped Mr. Peebles as much as his psychiatrist in Galveston, Dr. Lee Emory. She endorsed his bid for a law license in a letter that contradicted her own previous assessment of him, according to records surrendered during 1990s civil litigation against the Catholic Diocese of Dallas.
Dr. Emory declined to be interviewed. The director of sex-offender treatment at the clinic where she works said they could not discuss Mr. Peebles' case without his permission.
Mr. Peebles did not respond to interview requests.
Responding to a 1988 questionnaire from the diocese, Dr. Emory had expressed grave concern. Mr. Peebles, by then forced from ministry and the Army by child-molestation admissions, had quit taking a libido-suppressing drug and dropped out of treatment. He had married a church secretary with teenage sons, after writing in therapy that he was a pedophile and didn't feel as close to her as he did to boys.
Psychiatrist does 180
"There is a lot of vulnerability for recurrences," wrote Dr. Emory, who was paid by the diocese and thanked her own priest for advising her on treatment of clergy. "I believe the pressure of public trust is too great a load for Robert."
She gave a very different account in 1990, although she had not treated Mr. Peebles further.
"His 'condition' is no longer existent," the psychiatrist said in a letter to the Louisiana Bar admissions committee, which was evaluating Mr. Peebles' fitness to become a lawyer. "I know him to use intellectual and empathetic skills to a high degree and therefore would most definitely recommend him to counsel the public."
The committee had sent Dr. Emory a confidentiality waiver, signed by Mr. Peebles, that freed her to disclose "any and all information ... concerning my character and past record." Yet she apparently consulted with her former patient about restricting what she would say.
"I agree that discharge summaries, etc., should not be sent," Mr. Peebles wrote to Dr. Emory. "They are liable to be misunderstood and seem inflammatory; moreover, the committee didn't ask for them."
Dr. Emory subsequently told the committee chairman in a letter that her former patient's diagnosis of psychosexual disorder referred to "compulsive sexual thoughts." She did not mention that children were the subject of those thoughts and that Mr. Peebles had admitted molesting 16 of them.
In an addendum to his bar application, which he copied to Dr. Emory, Mr. Peebles wrote that he "was discharged from the Army under other than honorable conditions" after being "investigated for indecent acts with a minor." He said he had never been convicted of a crime, and "other than this one incident, I have never been accused of any crime."
The addendum also stated: "I admit to a history of largely passive, latent psychosexual problems which caused me great anguish and internal stress." He said he had experienced no further problems since leaving "the unique pressures of the celibate priesthood" and marrying.
Mr. Peebles' assurances, like Dr. Emory's, did not mention that he had admitted abusing boys. One of those admissions came in a sworn statement after he was arrested in 1984 on suspicion of trying to rape a 15-year-old boy on a Georgia military base, where he worked as a chaplain on loan from the Dallas diocese.
The priest was allowed to quit the Army instead of facing a court-martial – "after weeks of intense negotiations involving myself, the parents of the boy and the military authorities," according to a statement written in the late 1980s by Bishop Thomas Tschoepe, who headed the diocese during Mr. Peebles' tenure.
The bishop put the priest back to work in a parish, where he abused more boys. Mr. Peebles admitted one such case in 1986 to his bosses, who permanently removed him from ministry and apparently notified Dallas police.
"The police are not going to do anything as long as he gets help and there's no formal complaint or charge filed against him in Texas," a Maryland psychiatrist wrote after evaluating Mr. Peebles.
From Abuser to Officer of Court
Here is a timeline of events that preceded former Dallas priest Robert Peebles Jr.'s 1990 admission to the Louisiana State Bar Association. The bar probably didn't know most of this information because it didn't investigate applicants' backgrounds at the time, a former bar official said. Louisiana officials are now investigating whether Mr. Peebles is fit to practice law.
1977 – He is ordained a priest for the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, which later lets him go work as a military chaplain.
1984 – Father Peebles is arrested at the Army base of Fort Benning, Ga., on a charge of trying to rape a boy. He admits to a military police investigator that he fondled the youth and previously abused another boy in the Dallas Diocese. Father Peebles avoids a court-martial by resigning from the Army, then returns to work as a Dallas parish priest. Doctors at the Medical College of Georgia evaluate him and conclude that he suffers from borderline personality disorder.
1984-1986 – Father Peebles undergoes therapy with Dr. Ray McNamara,
a Dallas psychologist. The treatment summary: "I am concerned about
Rob's potential for resolution of his difficulty and I am equally concerned
about his depth of motivation and sincerity in trying to deal with the
November 1986 – Father Peebles asks Pope John Paul II to remove him from the priesthood. "I have a loathsome sexual perversion which I never asked for and never wanted," the priest wrote. "I am a pedophile, sexually attracted to young adolescent boys." The Vatican takes three years to approve his petition.
December 1986 – Father Peebles starts taking the libido-suppressing drug Depo-Provera at therapists' urging "but believes that he does not need" it, according to a psychiatrist's report.
January 1987 – As part of his therapy, he writes an essay entitled "A Pedophile's Self-Assessment" and concludes that his disorder "runs broad and deep." He says he has become sexually involved with a woman, "but I have never felt the 'bondedness' or emotional closeness I feel with boys." He adds that he fears losing this attraction, because life without it might be "colorless and boring."
Spring 1987 – He gets a job as a probation officer near San Antonio and quits taking Depo-Provera. In a letter to his psychiatrist at the Rosenberg Clinic in Galveston, Dr. Lee Emory, he writes: "[S]oon I will be in law school. Active treatment, especially chemical treatment, for a severe psychosexual problem with legal overtones is something that I cannot allow to be discovered by my current employers or by the legal establishment." Father Peebles also writes that "I am still capable of molesting children" and tells the doctor, "Do not think for one moment that I am not nervous in abandoning Depo-Provera."
August 1987 – Father Peebles marries the woman with whom he's been having a relationship. She is a former church secretary with two teenage sons; she soon gives birth to a son fathered by the priest.
Fall 1987 – Father Peebles enters Tulane Law School in New Orleans, with financial aid from the Dallas Diocese.
February 1988 – In a letter to the diocese, Dr. Emory says that one of Father Peebles' therapists "probably summed it up best when he framed Robert's psychological makeup, among other things, as a need to identify with the aggressor. So law school should be a good sublimation." On a questionnaire submitted by the diocese, the psychiatrist writes that "there is a lot of vulnerability for recurrences" and adds: "I believe the pressure of public trust is too great a load for Robert." A psychologist working with Dr. Emory, responding to the same questionnaire, says that Father Peebles dropped out of treatment despite advice to the contrary.
September 1988 – Dr. McNamara, the Dallas psychologist, tells the diocese that Father Peebles showed "no sign of improvement and a strong tendency to avoid or interrupt adequate treatment, and his potential for further actions inconsistent with the laws of society and the Church is very high."
May 1990 – On a bar admissions committee form, Mr. Peebles authorizes release of all confidential medical, employment, education, military and law enforcement records about him.
May 22, 1990 – Mr. Peebles writes Dr. Emory about limiting the records she will provide to the admissions committee. He also provides her a statement he gave the admissions committee that says he "was discharged from the Army under other than honorable conditions" but has "never been convicted of any crime."
May 29, 1990 – Dr. Emory responds to an inquiry from admissions committee chairman Ernest O'Bannon. Her letter never mentions Mr. Peebles' molestation admissions, says he "has an excellent prognosis" and recommends him.
No current member of the Dallas police child exploitation squad handled such cases in 1986, said Sgt. Byron Fassett, one of the unit's veterans, so "I can't comment on that." The city would not release its records about Mr. Peebles, citing his right to privacy.
Sgt. Fassett told The Dallas Morning News in 1994 that the unit was examining allegations against Mr. Peebles. No charges resulted, he said recently, because "we had no complainants ever come forward." The former priest has no criminal record in Texas or Louisiana.
In July of this year, responding to a complaint filed by one of Mr. Peebles' former altar boys in the Dallas area, Louisiana officials began re-examining whether he should have a law license.
His attorney, Richard Stanley, responded with a letter to a state investigator asserting that his client "fully disclosed the circumstances of his resignation from the Army ... and subsequent treatment at a mental health facility."
Kristopher Galland, the former altar boy, then sent the investigator a copy of Mr. Peebles' sworn admission and an expert witness' summary of evidence in the litigation against the ex-priest and the diocese. "Do you honestly believe he would have been approved for a law license were the bar admissions committee given the information I am now providing you?" wrote Mr. Galland, who was a plaintiff in the litigation.
"I am not against Bob Peebles making an honest living," he added, "but I am worried that he will abuse the power and position of trust."
Lana Ford, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration, said Mr. Peebles earns nearly $60,000 annually for a desk job. "There is no public contact," she said.
Ms. Ford said federal privacy rules prevent her from discussing what Mr. Peebles disclosed when applying for his job. She did note that applicants for public-trust positions such as his undergo an extensive background check that includes questions about mental health treatment.
Ernest O'Bannon, a New Orleans lawyer who was the bar admissions committee chairman in 1990, said that the effect of Dr. Emory's letter to him would have been that Mr. Peebles' application "probably never got to the stage where he'd be rejected."
He said he did not recall the application specifically but stressed that, at the time, the admissions committee operated under "very limited resources." A clean bill of health from a psychiatrist, he said, meant that the committee would not have sought a candidate's military record or references from former employers.
"We didn't have the resources to do an investigation," Mr. O'Bannon said.
No public documentation exists of Mr. Peebles' entire bar-admissions file – such records are routinely destroyed after two years. But there are independent indications that support Mr. O'Bannon's recollections. Mr. Peebles' diocesan personnel file, for example, contains no sign that the bar asked his church superiors about him.
Officials of the Louisiana Attorney Discipline Board, which is conducting the current inquiry, declined to comment. Since the late 1990s, Louisiana has begun asking far more questions of prospective lawyers and uses the National Conference of Bar Examiners to run background checks.
Erica Moeser, president of the conference, cautioned that the checks focus on verifying applicants' statements – not detecting omissions. "What went undetected then wouldn't necessarily be detected now," she said.
"In general, bar admissions resources are severely under-resourced," said Ms. Moeser, who formerly investigated bar candidates for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She said she has seen many cases in which therapists advocate for their patients, which "sometimes defeats the public interest."
Protecting the public
Advocacy is an important part of treatment, said Dr. Richard Milone, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association's ethics committee, "yet protection of the public is paramount." He noted that his association's ethics code requires psychiatrists to be honest within legal constraints. People generally must waive those constraints, however, when seeking professional licenses.
Texas law says that the Board of Medical Examiners can discipline physicians for "conduct that is likely to deceive or defraud the public."
Dr. Emory's letter to the bar "makes us very uncomfortable," said Dr. Donald Patrick, a lawyer and medical doctor who is executive director of the board. He stressed that he was basing his comment on a reporter's summary of documents in the Peebles case.
Dr. Milone, medical director of a Catholic hospital in suburban New York, questioned why Mr. Peebles would seek a legal career.
"He knew all along" that he would face questions about his fitness when applying for a law license, the psychiatrist said. "It was a disaster set up to happen."
To become a lawyer, Mr. Peebles had to first get a legal education, of course. And two letters of recommendation that helped him get into Tulane Law School in New Orleans said nothing about his problems.
One came from his brother-in-law, a New Jersey lawyer named Stephen Knox. According to psychiatric records, Mr. Knox had previously advised Mr. Peebles to hire a criminal defense attorney after the priest was accused of molesting a boy. Mr. Knox declined last week to comment.
The other letter came from Dr. Stephen Maddux, an associate professor of French at the diocese-affiliated University of Dallas. He wrote that Mr. Peebles might speak up to superiors "whenever he disagreed with them, a practice they may not have appreciated. Very likely it is this side of his character that is responsible, in part, for his decision to leave the priesthood."
Dr. Maddux said Friday he had no idea at the time that Mr. Peebles had molested children, although he knew he had been transferred repeatedly as a priest. "I guess I was kind of dense," he said. "We didn't know about these things then."
The Dallas Diocese financed much of Mr. Peebles' legal education, as The News reported several years ago. Bronson Havard, a spokesman for the diocese, said church law requires the retraining of clerics to compensate them for past sacrifices.
Asked why Mr. Peebles got help entering another position of public trust, Mr. Havard responded, "I can't second-guess the judgment of the time." He added: "We probably would do it differently today."
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