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Church Rule Keeps Files On Priests Under Wraps

Apr 15, 2002 | Seattle Times In a crowded filing room inside the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle Chancery, Archbishop Alex Brunett keeps a secret archive that contains information on priests accused of crimes and immoral acts. Few know about it, and church law requires that only the bishop have a key.

By today's legal standards, the archive is a relic any good subpoena can crack. But it symbolizes a legacy of secrecy that has a growing number of Roman Catholics on edge as news accounts across the country reveal scores of sexual-abuse allegations against clergy that were kept hidden for years by their bishops.

"Catholics are so angry, and so distrustful, they're just waiting for the next shoe to drop," says Linda Pieczynski, spokeswoman for Call to Action, the nation's largest Catholic Church reform organization.

Some, like Umberto Lenzi, a devout parishioner at St. Brendan's in Bothell, are telegraphing their concerns in the offering basket.

"I have stopped giving," Lenzi says. "I think that's going to be a reverberation across the country until this is cleared up."

The Seattle Archdiocese has been candid in dealing with its own current scandal involving two priests accused of molesting boys 25 years ago. When asked, church officials have shared information about the accused priests and bluntly discussed new and old allegations made against them.

And, under reforms made in the 1980s, the archdiocese promises to contact police with any new allegations of abuse.

But ask how many of its clergy have been accused of sexual abuse in the past and how much money has been spent in settlements, and the candor ends.

"It's easy to get caught up in numbers, and in today's atmosphere they can be really inflammatory," says archdiocese spokesman Bill Gallant. "Talking about cases that occurred 25, 30 years ago that have already been settled does not provide the perspective or context that one needs to explain to the church community what the situation is today."

That information is equally guarded by the Yakima and Spokane dioceses.

Thus the nearly 1 million Catholics in Washington must trust the word of church leaders who say there are no known pedophiles assigned to parishes in the state now.

Call to Action is urging all Catholics nationally to demand two things from their bishops: full financial disclosures and reports on sexual-abuse investigations.

"Child-protective services do that," says Pieczynksi. Without listing names, she says, the diocese could report how many allegations were made, status of the cases, charges brought and payments made.

"All that would be to show that you're doing your job," she says.

Seattle re-examining policy

The Seattle Archdiocese, which oversees 139 churches in all of Western Washington, is wrestling with that idea now. The archdiocese periodically convenes an independent panel of law-enforcement and mental-health professionals to examine the archdiocese's sexual-abuse policies.

It has already met once this month, hastened by the growing national scandal, and is expected to convene again in coming weeks. Its agenda is expected to include whether the archdiocese should be more transparent with settlement information.

Gallant says the amount the archdiocese has paid to victims is relatively small compared with archdioceses such as Boston's, the epicenter of the latest national scandal. Sources close to the archdiocese support that assertion, making some think it would behoove the Seattle prelate to release those numbers.

"It would be a good story," agrees Gallant. "But our goal is not to make ourselves look good or bad. The question is, would it provide the kind of context that would show whether our children are safer today?"

Gallant says Archbishop Brunett is keeping an open mind.

He also says parishioner donations are never used to pay the archdiocese's "relatively few cash" settlements. That money, he says, comes from insurance, and sometimes from the offending priests themselves.

Known allegations

What is known of most cases is what's been in the newspapers, or what's filed in the courts.

In Washington, the Rev. John Cornelius was placed on leave from his Everett parish last week after a former national television-news reporter accused him of molesting him in the 1970s while at a Seattle parish. Three other men have since made similar allegations. Cornelius has denied any wrongdoing; he survived similar investigations twice in the last 13 years.

In Clark County, a former altar boy filed a lawsuit in September accusing the Rev. Barry Ashwell of molesting him in the 1970s when the priest was assigned to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Vancouver. Ashwell, who is now at St. Aloysius in Buckley, Pierce County, also is on leave while the archdiocese investigates.

Five years ago, similar allegations of long-ago abuse were made against Ashwell, who was then serving at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Oak Harbor.

The archdiocese hired a forensic psychologist to investigate, but he was not allowed to interview the priest and returned an inconclusive finding.

At the time, Ashwell cited church laws that protect priests' privacy and refused to cooperate. He was allowed to continue his duties and his parishioners weren't told of the allegations, even though the investigator strongly recommended he be evaluated.

Gallant says the priest "vehemently" denies the current and past allegations.

Past cases handled quietly

This is not the first time scandal has rocked the priesthood in Washington. But a quick review of past cases shows that even when they go to court, the public seldom is privy to much information.

In the Yakima Diocese a plaintiff identified as "C.J.C." alleged in 1988 that two priests sexually molested him for two years, beginning in 1980 when he was 15 years old, at St. Paul's Parish.

C.J.C. claimed the Catholic diocese was aware of the risk the Revs. Richard Scully and Dale Calhoun presented, but did nothing to prevent it. That case and another similar one filed against the priests were settled within the last three years. The terms were sealed.

According to news reports at the time, the priests denied the allegations but were sent to counseling by the church and removed from Yakima to locations in Texas and King County.

Lawyers involved in their cases said yesterday they don't know where Scully and Calhoun are now or if they're still priests.Yakima diocesan officials did not return calls Friday or yesterday.

In Spokane, the Rev. Ronald Lane Fontenot pleaded guilty in 1986 to one count of statutory rape after three boys accused him of sexual molestation. He was sentenced to a year in prison. Spokane Diocese Vicar General John Steiner says he doesn't know where Fontenot is now, nor do the attorneys involved in lawsuits against him.

Steiner says he knows of no current allegations of sexual abuse involving Spokane Diocese priests.

In 1988, the Seattle Archdiocese made a stunning confession when it acknowledged that it had assigned the Rev. James McGreal to a Federal Way parish even though he had been removed from two parishes and a Catholic hospital after being accused of sexually abusing boys. McGreal, who was never charged with a crime, is now at a ministerial-retirement center in Oregon.

That same year, the Rev. Paul Conn pleaded guilty to molesting altar boys in a Port Angeles parish. He spent time in prison and now lives in California. He is no longer a priest.

Lawsuits brought by McGreal's and Conn's victims were settled under terms that remain sealed.

A third priest also was treated for pedophilia around the same time, but archdiocese officials have never revealed his name.

Rules for archive

At least some of that priest's records should be in the archdiocesan archives as mandated by canon law — the code of rules handed down by the Vatican governing the Roman Catholic Church.

Canons 489-90 state that a safe or a cabinet is to be used as a "secret archive," securely closed and bolted and which cannot be removed. Documents in it are to be "kept under secrecy" and "most carefully guarded."

"Each year," it continues, "documents of criminal cases concerning moral matters are to be destroyed whenever the guilty parties have died, or ten years have elapsed since a condemnatory sentence concluded the affair. A short summary of the facts is to be kept, together with the text of the definitive judgment. Only the Bishop is to have the key of the secret archive."

Steiner, vicar general of the Spokane Archdiocese, says the archive is mainly meant to safeguard correspondence dealing with the appointment of bishops and communications with Rome.

But "bishops also choose to put material in there that they don't want anybody else to get their hands on," Steiner said in a deposition during a 1988 lawsuit involving a sexual-abuse claim against a former military chaplain who was ministering in the Seattle Archdiocese at the time.

Former Seattle Archdiocese employees say the archive is sometimes referred to as the resting place for any information "that can ruin a priest's reputation."

A push for information

Personal-injury lawyers handling lawsuits against the church over the years have accessed archive information through discovery requests.

"It's never easy," says Seattle attorney James Rogers, who was involved in the Yakima cases. "They always resist discovery of files and you always have to make a motion to compel."

Recently, prosecutors have begun following suit using subpoenas.

Since January, the Archdiocese of Boston has turned over to prosecutors the names of 80 priests suspected of molesting children in the past 50 years.

Prosecutors in Detroit, Cincinnati and Maine have subpoenaed their local dioceses. And just last week the Archdiocese of New York agreed to turn over information on priests accused of sexual abuse during the last four decades. Prosecutors across the country are searching for ways around statutes that would seemingly bar criminal charges in most older cases.

Bellevue attorney Tim Kosnoff says it's time for Washington prosecutors to climb aboard.

"Because these cases are old, it's not a public-safety issue?" says Kosnoff, who last August won a $3 million settlement against the Mormon Church in Portland on behalf of a Redmond man who had been sexually abused by a Mormon high priest. "Are they going to give these guys a free pass?"

In a letter this week to King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, Kosnoff called for an investigation of the Seattle Archdiocese's files.

But Dan Satterberg, Maleng's chief of staff, says he doesn't see a need.

"We have not seen anything that suggests the archdiocese has been anything but vigilant about its duties," says Satterberg, who also is a member of the archdiocese's independent review panel.

"The Boston situation is hardly comparable to what we have in Seattle," Satterberg adds. "I think we're so far ahead of Boston and other places that have had these histories, so we don't have these suspicions of a vast cover-up."

Call to Action's Pieczynski, a former state's attorney in Illinois, agrees that the Seattle Archdiocese is ahead of others in how it handles sexual-abuse cases. "As a prosecutor, we looked to it as a model," she says.

Still, "If we've learned anything these past few weeks, it's that secrecy is deadly."

When the Seattle Archdiocese was dealing with the McGreal and Conn scandals in the 1980s, then-Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen dug into the archives and reviewed them with "new eyes," says one former employee.

He selected a handful of files that raised concerns and turned them over to the Attorney General's Office for review. But neither the church nor the attorney's office ever revealed what became of that review, or how many priests it involved.

King County Judge Greg Canova, who was with the Attorney General's Office at the time, remembered reviewing the files but couldn't recall names or numbers, just that "95 percent" involved cases well beyond the statute of limitations.

But until the archdiocese opens its files to the public, some loyal parishioners like St. Brendan's Lenzi say, they'll continue to keep their money out of church coffers.

"If a church is not totally transparent," he says, "it's not a religion, it's a cult."

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