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Church Passed Blame In Priest's Sex Abuse

May 23, 2002 | Detroit Free Press By his own admission, the Rev. Tom Johnston was sexually out of control.

But when the Catholic priest's misbehavior with a minor finally caught the ear of a bishop in the Archdiocese of Detroit, church officials quickly shipped him out of Michigan without questioning him or alerting prosecutors.

He was somebody else's problem.

The story of how Johnston spun out of control at his St. Clair Shores parish in the late 1990s -- only recently revealed in court documents -- exposes major flaws in the church's efforts to control predatory priests.

There were warning signs about Johnston's behavior even before June 1999, when, the priest now admits, he took funds from his Dominican religious order, financed a trip to Germany with a 16-year-old parishioner at St. Gertrude Church and wound up masturbating in the boy's bedroom in the middle of the night.

Among the red flags: The night Johnston was spotted by a parishioner in a gay bar in Detroit, a destination Johnston now says he sometimes chose as he began sexually acting out. Or the time Johnston took two kids to an upstairs bedroom in the rectory to see a friend's painting of a muscular, nude Jesus on the cross -- and the priest pointed out that he had posed for it. And then there was the pursuit of the 16-year-old boy that included showing him R-rated movies in the rectory.

"I was not mentally sane in the area of sexuality," Johnston said last month in 134 pages of sworn testimony taken in a civil lawsuit by the boy's family.

Unfortunately, no one acted decisively on those red flags, Johnston's superiors in the Dominican order admitted this week.

"We just did not want to believe that things were happening until the evidence finally hit us in the face," said the Rev. Michael Monshau, Johnston's supervisor in Michigan at the time.

Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga said Tuesday that his staff is investigating Johnston.

"I am concerned about some of the defenses that have been raised by the Catholic Church," Marlingasaid. "It appears that the church is saying if a person is a member of a specific religious order, the order has responsibility for the priest. The order is saying that because the priest is out of their immediate control, it's the diocese that's responsible. It's a finger-pointing routine where nobody wants to take responsibility for a bad priest."

Line crossed

On July 9, 1999, one day after returning from Germany, Johnston revealed to another Dominican who worked in the Archdiocese of Detroit's central staff that he had crossed a line with a minor.

"I knew that my behavior was not sane, and it meant that I had to face my inappropriate behavior and seek treatment," Johnston testified.

But the staff member did not pass the information to Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Kevin Britt, the man in charge of dealing with accusations of sex abuse.

It was not until weeks laterthat the boy told his family about the night in Germany that a drunken Johnston entered his bedroom, began talking explicitly about his sexual adventures and masturbated near where the boy was trying to sleep.

The boy had gone on the trip as part of a cultural-exchange program, but ended up spending a lot of time with the priest.

Another day in Germany, the boy told his parents, the priest climbed partially over a bathroom divider to peer at him.The boy said he was so shocked that he shoved the priest back, knocking his glasses into the toilet.

In his sworn deposition April 10, Johnston admitted that the accounts were accurate.

But, when the family complained to Britt in September 1999, the bishop quickly handed the matter to Johnston's Dominican superiors in Chicago. Because Johnston is part of a religious order, Britt said he had no responsibility for monitoring him. Britt has testified that his only interest was in making sure that the Dominicans removed Johnston.

After that, "it was out of my hands," the bishop testified. "I was out -- done."

Because no archdiocesan official bothered to question Johnston, officials did not discover until April the extent of his misbehavior.

In his April 10 testimony, Johnston, 46, also said his desires became so uncontrollable in late 1998 that he fondled the genitals of a patient while making pastoral calls in a Macomb County hospital. The next day, Johnston said, he felt so guilty that he begged the man to forgive him -- and to keep silent.

Around that same time, Johnston said, he sometimes told friends: "Asking forgiveness is easier than asking permission."

Neither Britt nor the Dominicans told prosecutors about the Johnston case until May 3 -- a month after learning about the hospital incident and three years after the trip to Germany had come to light.

On May 3, Johnston's church file went to prosecutors with records on 51 priests accused of abuse during the past 15 years.

Twelve of the priests were members of religious orders. Like Johnston, they were able to pass in and out of metro Detroit with minimal monitoring by archdiocesan officials. All 12 accused men are no longer in southeast Michigan, and Detroit church officials say they have no interest in tracking them.

Johnston, meanwhile, has been relegated by the Dominicans to clerical work in the order's archives in Chicago. He declined to comment further for this report.

In Chicago, the Rev. Edward Ruane, the Midwest's top Dominican official, vowed this week that he will keep Johnston away from parish work and under tight supervision.

"Any possibility of a priest betraying his trust and injuring people -- that cannot happen again," Ruane said.

The move to St. Gertrude
That's far from the glowing terms in which the Dominicans' Chicago staff assured Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida in 1995 that Johnston and a second priest, the Rev. Michael Ruthenberg, were clergy in good standing. A letter about the two priests concluded: "Neither has experienced problems with substance abuse, violations of celibacy, sexual impropriety, physical abuse or financial impropriety."

The one-page note was a sufficient background check to permit the priests to move into the St. Gertrude parish: Johnston as pastor and Ruthenberg as his local superior.

But the letter wasn't accurate. In fact, Ruthenberg testified last month that he was a recovering alcoholic at the time. After about a year in Michigan, his addiction to alcohol was out of control again and he left for treatment.

That left Johnston unsupervised at a time when, he now says, he was discovering "I have characteristics of a sexual addiction."

Months later, when Monshau arrived to supervise the handful of Dominicans in St. Clair Shores, there was immediate friction over Johnston's friendship with a younger Dominican priest, the man who painted the nude picture of Jesus. The two men sometimes went off together and ignored parish duties, Monshau said.

Around that time, Johnston also latched onto the family of a parish secretary and found himself drawn to the woman's teenage son. The Free Press is withholding the family member's names because the paper generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

Unbeknownst to his superiors, Johnston began showing up frequently at the family's home and, the family alleges, the priest occasionally scheduled extra work for his secretary to allow himself unguarded time with her son.

The supervision of Johnston, who was 39 when he arrived at St. Gertrude as pastor, obviously was lax, Monshau said this week.

When Johnston was warned about frequenting gay bars, "We just assumed it wouldn't be done again," Monshau said. No one checked further, he said.

The nude painting troubled Johnston's superiors, but no one quizzed him about his claim of posing for it.

When it became clear that Johnston had taken minors upstairs in the rectory, he was warned against the practice by other Dominicans.

"As a religious superior, you don't expect to act as a policeman," Ruane said. "But there should have been much more direct questioning."

Relationships among the parish staff soured by 1999. Johnston fired the secretary, which prompted her lawsuit seeking compensation for an unfair termination.

After leaving St. Gertrude, Johnston spent six months in treatment at the Southdown Institute in Aurora, Ontario.

"As long as I'm provincial superior, I would say, no, he's not ever going to minister again," Ruane said. But, he added, "What about 10 years down the line?"

Ruane is 60 and Johnston now is 46. A new Midwest superior someday may feel differently.

The new policies that will be hammered out next month by the nation's Catholic bishops meeting in Dallas are likely to reshape even religious orders' approach to abusers and victims, Ruane said.

Detroit church officials also are looking to the June meeting as they revise their local policy.

David Clohessy of Missouri, the head of the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said he hopes bishops will start closely monitoring religious orders.

"In the case of religious order priests, bishops will often wash their hands of the disclosure and say, 'Sorry, he's not our guy,' " Clohessy said.

Harsh reminder
This is not the only time the 1,600 families at St. Gertrude have faced revelations about a Dominican priest.

In April, they learned that one of their former pastors, the Rev. Vincent Bryce, resigned from two parishes in western Michigan after admitting to sexually molesting a youth decades earlier in another state.

The Dominican priests, who wear white robes, have presided since 1983 over St. Gertrude, a parish founded in 1826 and whose modern structure has a view of Lake St. Clair. The Dominicans live in a brick, two-story rectory attached to the church.

Parishioner Bill Herman remembers the Sunday when parishioners were informed that Johnston was gone.

"We're shocked, saddened, but we pray for the victims and we forgive," said Herman. Nevertheless, he wants justice to be dealt to Johnston. "He should be treated like a regular person."

The Rev. Joe Fogarty, an associate pastor and one of two Dominicans now running the parish, said he has preached about the current crisis.

"I told them that, despite what has happened, trust in the church, trust in one another, trust in our priests and trust in our leadership, even though they've fallen short," said Fogarty. "And trust in the Holy Spirit."

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