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Church Oversight Can't Stop Predator

Apr 12, 2002 | Detroit Free Press

This wasn't supposed to happen again.

In 1993, the Rev. Joseph Sito resigned as pastor of St. Cletus Church in Warren after a credible allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor. He was put on administrative leave and sent to a treatment facility for sex offenders. The Archdiocese of Detroit restricted his ministry and said he was under watch to prevent him from molesting again.

Then came a spring night in May 1999. It was just after dark. Inside Sito's apartment on a campus for nuns and retired clergy in Livonia, a 17-year-old boy stood with his pants and underwear lowered.

The boy, court records show, had come to the priest for counseling. But Sito placed a hand on the boy's buttocks and turned the young man toward him.

The teenager pulled his pants back up. A few minutes later, he left.

He told his parents, and they went to police the next day. Sito was charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct.

In a deal with the prosecutor, Sito pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of assault. He paid a fine, but served no jail time.

Today, he lives in the same apartment in the senior clergy village on the Felician Sisters' wooded campus at Levan and I-96. He still receives a pension and health insurance from the archdiocese. He still wears the Roman collar.

He said he didn't want to talk about the incident with the Free Press.

Scandals over the Catholic Church's concealment of sexual abuse cases nationwide have become well-known in recent weeks. The case of Father Sito points to another problem. Even when Catholic leaders take action, even with written policies and procedures now in place, they can be ill-equipped to handle problem priests successfully.

These men, many of whom still wear the vestments and collar, can become predators again.

Since Sito's conviction in the 1999 incident, he has been placed on additional restrictions, archdiocesan spokesman Ned McGrath said Tuesday. He would not go into details.

But what has changed? Just two weeks ago, Sito, 66, was a celebrant at Holy Thursday mass in the Felician Sisters' church. He helped lead Good Friday services a day later. And, like all masses there, the public could attend.

As Sito took his place in front of the altar to distribute communion to the congregation, there were children in the pews.

The boy whom Sito molested just three years ago was dismayed to hear all this.

"You've got to be kidding me," said the now 20-year-old suburban Detroit man.

Taking action, avoiding scandal
More than three decades ago, the Archdiocese of Detroit handled such cases much differently, according to a Free Press review of lawsuits filed in Wayne County Circuit Court.

In the summer of 1968, 12-year-old Michael Mason told his parents the Rev. Robert Burkholder of St. Hugh Church in Southgate repeatedly molested him over several days at a lake-side cottage.

In depositions and other court documents filed years later, the boy's father, Larry Mason, said he complained to an archdiocesan bishop, who told the family Burkholder admitted the abuse.

The bishop offered the family a gift: a paid, 2-week trip to Miami, courtesy of Burkholder, Larry Mason said. Burkholder later was transferred to another parish.

Larry Mason said in a deposition he could not remember the bishop's name, but he did recall the conversation. He said the bishop told him: " The church would appreciate if you would not create a scandal.' "

In 1994, Michael, then 38, sued the archdiocese, but the case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had long expired.

Another man filed a separate lawsuit against Burkholder in 1995 accusing the priest of molesting him in the 1960s. The suit was settled for undisclosed terms, court files show.

In a letter sent to that man on July 12, 1993, and contained in the court file, a church official apologized for the priest's behavior.

Burkholder "acknowledged that there had been abuse," wrote the Rev. Walter Hurley, who reviewed sexual abuse allegations then for the archdiocese. "This was a grave violation of the trust that you and your family placed in a priest."

Only then, it appears, 25 years after the first known complaint against Burkholder, did the archdiocese take action. Burkholder, who by the early 1990s was living and working in Hawaii, was prohibited from any public ministry and ordered not to wear a Roman collar, Hurley wrote in his letter.

Today, the father of Burkholder's first known victim is wracked with guilt for accepting the vacation offered by the church. Larry Mason said he was reimbursed for about $1,000 he spent on plane tickets.

"I have a bad feeling that I let my son down," he said Thursday. "It just devastated the family. We've never forgotten about it."

Michael Mason said Thursday he holds no animosity toward his father.

"My father was a very devoted Catholic," he said. "I love my dad."

Today, these cases are supposed to be handled differently in the church. In 1988, the Archdiocese of Detroit published a policy on sexual misconduct. In 1992, the archdiocese appointed a secret review committee to evaluate allegations. In the last month, amid growing publicity across the country, the Detroit Archdiocese removed three priests from active ministry. A fourth has been charged with raping a woman.

New policies don't fix everything
Despite the new public efforts and the revamping of policies that is under way, church leaders say there is only so much they can do with predatory priests.

Before the new policies in the Detroit Archdiocese, Sito survived at least one early allegation, according to a man who says he was abused by Sito as a boy.

Today, Dave is a retired police officer. He did not want his last name or the place he worked in law enforcement printed. He said he's worried about the effect on his family.

In the 1960s, Dave was an altar boy and student at Sacred Heart Seminary High School in Detroit. Sito and another priest were longtime friends of his family. Dave said Sito first preyed on him during his freshman year.

During confession, Dave asked to be forgiven for masturbating.

Sito called that a great sin, and sometimes took Dave to his bedroom in the rectory. There, the priest "cleansed" the boy by rubbing his genitals with aftershave -- Aqua Velva, Dave said.

"He enjoyed doing this to me; you could see that look on his face along with his intense breathing," Dave said. "It burned like hell."

He said the molestations continued until Sito and another priest attacked him during an overnight stay in a Franciscan monastery in Ohio,where Dave had hoped to learn more about the priesthood as a vocation.

Sito drove him home the next day. "Neither one of us said a word on the way back," he said. "I just stared into the highway, hoping he would drive faster."

Dave said he told no one until March 22, 1985, the date he asked the archdiocese to annul his 13-year marriage. To justify the annulment, he provided details of the abuse he says he suffered.

"Do you think that the church was concerned about it then? Not a word was mentioned back to me."

His annulment was granted.

In 1993, he thought about suing and contacted an attorney. Dave said the lawyer decided his case was too old, but the threat of a suit prompted a meeting with Monsignor Hurley on April 12, 1993. Dave said he again detailed his allegations and Hurley took notes.

In the next few weeks, the archdiocese announced that Sito had resigned as pastor of St. Cletus. McGrath now will only say the resignation was based on a credible allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor. He would not discuss who made the complaint.

McGrath said Sito was sent to treatment and retired to the Felician Sisters' campus in November 1995. The campus is home to two other priests who, McGrath said, have been disciplined for sexual misconduct with minors. The sisters are aware of the priests' history, he said.

Sito's restrictions continued there, and the archdiocese said it monitored him. McGrath said the priest was supposed to obtain permission for any outside ministry.

Dave said he thought Sito had been removed as a priest after his complaint in 1993. He was shocked to learn of the recent conviction.

"Had they taken care of this problem earlier, they would have prevented a second victim that we know about," Dave said. "How many more silent victims are out there . . . afraid to voice their story?"

But McGrath said the archdiocese has done all it can.

"There's no possible way short of putting someone under house arrest to stop him from doing something," McGrath said. "We feel we've tightened the monitoring and other procedures with him."

Defrocking rare

What the church has not done is remove Sito from the priesthood, a rare but not unprecedented move.

Dismissal from the priesthood is rarely attempted because canon law establishes it as a final step of many in resolving the problem, said the Rev. Patrick Lagges, vicar for canonical services for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Canon law says a bishop is expected to seek other alternatives before asking the Vatican for a dismissal trial. A bishop must establish that among other things, the accused cannot be reformed.

No one knows if Sito's title allowed him to molest again in 1999. But court records show he was acting as a priest when the crime occurred. The Free Press has interviewed the youth and his parents. The newspaper generally does not identify sexual abuse victims without their consent.

On May 9, 1999, the mother and her 17-year-old son went to see Sito for counseling. The priest was a family friend, and the parents were considering a divorce.

After meeting with the pair, Sito asked the boy to leave so he could hear the mother's confession. After she finished, Sito asked for the boy to come in alone. The mother waited in the car.

The boy testified at a preliminary examination that he confessed to Sito that he had had sex with a girl. He also told the priest he had had trouble because of a medical problem with his genitals.

Sito suggested the boy expose himself so that he could air out his genitals, the boy testified.

He did so, and Sito placed a hand on the boy's buttocks and turned the boy to face him, testimony showed. The boy pulled his pants back on.

They sat down near each other, and Sito moved his face very close, the boy said in a recent interview. He said Sito asked him, " 'Are you erect?' "

The boy said he left and went outside, where his mother was waiting.

On July 8, 1999, Sito was charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct and later was ordered to stand trial.

But it never went that far.

Instead, the prosecutor cut Sito a deal.

Had Father Sito been convicted of the original sexual misconduct charge, he would have been required to register on the state's public list of sex offenders.

Late Thursday, McGrath said the archdiocese will bar Sito from celebrating mass in public again.


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