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2 Priests Ousted, Hired

Apr 23, 2002 | Beacon Journal

In the 1980s, on at least two occasions, Catholic priests in the Diocese of Youngstown got caught sexually abusing children. They received treatment and counseling. Then they became some other diocese's problem.

A Louisville priest allegedly molested a teen-age boy in his Stark County parish, and a Girard priest may have sexually abused dozens of boys while serving in Trumbull County.

The Rev. John E. Hammer, a priest at St. Louis parish in Stark County at the time, is now a parish priest in the Saginaw, Mich., area.

Robert M. Burns, who no longer is a priest, went from St. Rose in Girard to the Boston area. About a decade later, he landed in prison on a conviction of child sex abuse.

``Moving the priests and not prosecuting them has only harmed other children,'' said Carole Ser of Girard, who alleges that her son was among as many as 50 boys molested by Burns at St. Rose. ``I was promised that (Burns) would no longer be in contact with boys, and I felt betrayed when I found out he had been training altar boys in Boston.''

The Rev. Robert Siffrin, a spokesman for the Youngstown Diocese, which covers Stark, Portage and four other counties, said yesterday that a recent review of diocesan files turned up ``several'' cases of past allegations dating to the 1980s and earlier.

All those cases had been ``dealt with'' by removing the priests from ministry and sending them to treatment, said Siffrin, who declined to give a specific number of priests involved.

Burns was ordained in 1975, Siffrin said. In 1981 or 1982, allegations of abuse at St. Rose surfaced.

Siffrin said Burns was sent to the Boston area for treatment and counseling. After he completed treatment, he was allowed to stay in Boston on a leave of absence to study.

No molestation charges were filed in Trumbull County. Ser said she and her husband met with church lawyers and worked out a monetary settlement with the diocese in her son's case. As part of the agreement, she said, she was promised that Burns would not have access to children.

But in the late 1980s, Burns was accused of molesting at least five boys at a parish in Boston where he was vicar and altar boy instructor.

According to newspapers and television reports from Boston, five lawsuits have been filed against Burns and the Archdiocese of Boston. These suits allege that the archdiocese gave Burns an opportunity to prey on the boys despite allegations that he had molested boys in Ohio and in the Boston area.

The plaintiffs allege that the late Bishop James Malone of the Youngstown Diocese consented to Burns' transfer to the Boston area only after being assured that Burns was receiving psychiatric treatment and would not have contact with boys.

Siffrin said Malone made it clear that Burns was not to function as a parish priest.

Burns ``was not released from here to be a parish priest,'' Siffrin said. ``He was never given the option to be reassigned as a priest. It happened because of mistakes in Boston.''

According to one of the lawsuits, Burns was sent by the Boston archdiocese to St. Luke Institute in Maryland in 1991 for treatment as a pedophile. At the institute, he was urged to undergo extensive tests because of the ``depth of his impairment,'' but he rejected the recommendation. Burns was permanently removed from his duties as a priest after that.

In 1996, Burns was sent to prison after pleading guilty to two counts of molesting a boy in his Salem, N.H., apartment. According to stories in the Boston Globe, Burns has been released from prison, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Allegation from Stark

An allegation of child sex abuse against Hammer, the other Youngstown Diocese priest, surfaced earlier this month.

In a Mass at his Alma, Mich., church on Saturday, Hammer asked for forgiveness for ``inappropriate sexual behavior'' with an altar boy that occurred between 1980 and 1983 at the Louisville parish.

According to a Saginaw, Mich., newspaper, Hammer confessed to parishioners that he had been removed by Malone from St. Louis parish in 1985 and sent for treatment at St. Luke.

After treatment, Hammer said, he worked at a halfway house and as a hospital chaplain in Maryland. No diocese would hire him because of his past, and he moved back to the Canton area in 1990. It was then that Malone persuaded the Saginaw Diocese to seriously consider him for a post.

``Because of my rehabilitation program, I'm not the same person I was in 1985.... I am grateful to the Diocese of Saginaw for the opportunity to prove it,'' Hammer was quoted by the newspaper as saying. ``Please pray for those I have harmed, and please pray for me.''

But Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer, said an apology is not enough.

``We want him removed from the priesthood,'' said Anderson, who is representing a 33-year-old former Louisville altar boy who alleges that Hammer molested him.

Efforts to reach Hammer by phone for comment yesterday were unsuccessful.

In a letter dated April 12 and addressed to Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Diocese of Youngstown and Bishop Kenneth Unterner of the Diocese of Saginaw, Anderson outlined the details of alleged sexual abuse suffered by his client between 1980 and 1983 when he was an altar boy trainee.

In the letter, Anderson asked to be advised on what the ``dioceses intend to do to protect others from harm by Father Hammer.''

Anderson also requested that the bishops give law enforcement all the information they have regarding Hammer's sexual misconduct.

Stark County Prosecutor Robert Horowitz said the diocese has cooperated with his office in turning over documents related to any sex abuse cases in Stark County.

No allegations since '94

Horowitz said the diocese assured him that no incidents had been reported since 1994, when the diocese established its current policy on abuse by priests.

That policy requires that an allegation be immediately reported to civil and church authorities, that the accused be immediately removed from duties, and that the victim receive immediate therapeutic assistance and spiritual support.

Siffrin said that when the diocese reviewed its old cases, it found that Hammer was the only priest who'd been accused who is now in a parish ministry.

``While I don't know that Bishop Malone gave (Hammer) a recommendation,'' Siffrin said, ``my memory is that he gave all of (Hammer's) background information to the diocese in Michigan, and he (Malone) didn't stand in the way of Father Hammer being assigned there.''

But Anderson complained that instead of ``abiding by the law'' and reporting abuse by priests to the proper civil authorities, dioceses continue to shuffle pedophile priests from one church to another.

Anderson said he has represented victims of priest abuse for more than 20 years.

``His (Hammer's) apology was hollow,'' Anderson said. ``When he stands in the pulpit with that collar on, it sends a message that this man is somehow fit to be a priest, that this man is holy. He has done indelible harm to his victims.... Until he is removed from the parish -- until he is removed from the priesthood -- prevention can't begin. Healing can't begin.''

Anderson said his client wants Hammer removed from the priesthood.

If that doesn't happen, Anderson intends to file a lawsuit.

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