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Bishop Let Priest Continue Working

Sep 23, 2002 | Dallas Morning News

The US Catholic bishop who has led efforts to confront clergy sex abuse has let a priest continue working despite allegations of inappropriate behavior with boys and adults.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, a rising star of the US Catholic Church who guided his colleagues to a one-strike-and-you're-out-of-ministry charter at a meeting in Dallas this summer, said he would ask a review board to reexamine the conduct of the Rev. Daniel L. Friedman after inquiries this week by the Dallas Morning News.

Gregory suspended Friedman yesterday pending that investigation, which will be the third church inquiry involving the priest since the late 1980s.

''I regret not having asked the review board to reconsider this matter in light of the charter immediately after our Dallas meeting,'' Gregory of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., said in a written statement yesterday afternoon.

Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, had returned Friedman to parish work in 1995, even though the priest had been removed from a previous post and sent to counseling after complaints. The bishop said in an interview this week that he reinstated Friedman at the recommendation of the review board, which had investigated at least one allegation of sexual misconduct between the priest and a minor at a church youth camp.

Gregory said he was unaware of several other accusations made against Friedman. But several camp workers told the newspaper that they forwarded the complaints to the diocese before and after Gregory arrived in 1994.

Among them: Friedman grabbed the buttocks of a young man who worked at a diocese-run camp, rubbed his groin against a clothed boy's backside, and insisted on helping campers dress. He also was sued this year by a woman who said he fondled her after she sought counseling from him. The woman later dropped the lawsuit.

Friedman, 56, when asked whether the allegations were credible or false, refused to comment and would not answer further questions. The priest is also a member of the diocese's Priest Senate and an adviser to the National Catholic Committee on Scouting.

''You'll have to talk to my lawyer,'' he said. His lawyer did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

Gregory's vicar general, the Rev. James Margason, said the diocese considered the woman's accusations false. He then gave varying accounts about another allegation and initially denied knowing about additional complaints. He acknowledged that Friedman was still undergoing therapy - not because the priest was a risk but because ''he wants to go.''

''The man has had to deal with a considerable amount of accusations,'' said Margason, who oversees the diocese's abuse investigations. ''I think that, in itself, is reason enough for someone to want to seek counseling.''

The US bishops' new policy, approved at their historic Dallas meeting in June, defines abuse as behavior that does not necessarily involve ''a complete act of intercourse'' with a minor and says that it need not involve physical contact or explicit force. The document does not address abuse of adults.

''There will be severe consequences for any act of sexual abuse,'' Gregory said the day the charter passed.

Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, head of the Catholic Church's new national review board, said the church's new charter requires ''retrospective zero-tolerance and, therefore, the reopening of any past cases.'' Gregory's decision to revisit the matter involving Friedman adheres to that policy, Keating said.

''The best and honest policy is always reexamination and referrals to the criminal justice authorities,'' he said, ''so it does not look like a coverup or that it was hometowned. Bishop Gregory will do the right thing.''

David Clohessy, national president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he was surprised that Gregory did not remove the priest sooner. He noted that the lawsuit filed against Friedman this year was ''an obvious reminder'' about the priest's past.

''If it is an honest case of `Gosh, I forgot' on Bishop Gregory's part, heaven help us all,'' he said. ''If he, as leader of the bishops conference, loses track in his own diocese, that's very troubling.''

Concerns about Friedman's conduct date at least to 1986, eight years before Gregory took over the sprawling, rural diocese across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Friedman had just started working as a chaplain and co-director at Camp Ondessonk, a diocese-run retreat for boys and girls near the Illinois-Kentucky border. He was assigned there, in part, to replace the Rev. Robert Vonnahmen, who was later accused in lawsuits of abusing boys at the camp.

Former camp workers said they were hoping for a fresh start when Friedman arrived. But they soon began to notice questionable behavior much of it revolving around his fondness for one Ondessonk tradition, they said.

Throughout the year, campers in their early teens and younger were initiated into a special American Indian-themed club called the Lodge. For the ceremony, they would dress as Indians, wearing only body paint, loincloths, moccasins, and replica headdresses.

Several former employees said they saw Friedman help the boys, many of whom were naked, put on the loincloths. The workers said they also saw Friedman hugging campers and massaging their shoulders.

''It was creepy - he gave everyone the willies,'' former camper and staff member George Wickey said. ''We, as counselors, would almost police him among ourselves. We wouldn't let him be alone with the boys.''

When it came to the Lodge initiations, Friedman was ''really into it,'' former camp ranger Dave Bretscher said. ''If I had to sum up Father Dan, I'd say he's a little too touchy. There are red flags there.''

One former camp employee, William Benton, alleged in a deposition that Friedman had ''put his hand on my bare butt'' before one of the Lodge events that first year.

Benton, who was 24 at the time of the incident, gave the testimony several years later as part of his lawsuit accusing Vonnahmen of sexual abuse at the camp. An appeals court dismissed his suit because it was filed after the statute of limitations had expired.

''I wouldn't want Father Dan around children,'' Benton said. ''If an uncle would come over and play a little too frisky with the kids, the parents would keep an eye on that uncle.''

Former camp director Gene Canavan said he forwarded complaints from Wickey and Benton to the diocese, as well as several others.

Canavan said he considered the allegations credible and confronted Friedman, who denied them. At one point, Canavan said, he urged the diocese then led by James Keleher, now an archbishop in Kansas City, Kan. to replace the priest.

''Every time I had a case like that come to me, I went to the diocese,'' Canavan said, adding that he took at least one accusation directly to Keleher and others to Margason. ''I didn't hear anything back. I got thanked for coming.''

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