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Dispute Arises Over Abuse Allegations Against Priest

Jan 5, 2003 | The Tennessean The Nashville Catholic Diocese has released new information disputing allegations that a former priest molested students at Father Ryan High School. At the same time, the accuser says church officials are deepening a cover-up.

The accuser is a prominent layman, Dickson businessman Mark Cunningham, who says church leaders have been trying to discredit him for speaking out.

''The diocese has a sweep-it-under-the-rug policy,'' Cunningham said. ''It's not right.''

The diocese denies any cover-up or attempts to discredit Cunningham and says legal considerations for the ex-priest's privacy restrict what the diocese can say. But the diocese has issued a statement disputing that Cunningham reported a key allegation to his parish priest — that Cunningham's brother was molested by another priest while attending Father Ryan.

The priest accused of the abuse, Ron Dickman, was also principal at Father Ryan, one of the premier Catholic schools in the Midstate. Dickman, who has long since resigned as both principal and priest, has been accused of abusing another student at Father Ryan. Dickman denies both of the allegations.

Cunningham, whose family has been a strong local supporter of the church for decades, said in an Oct. 6 Tennessean article that Dickman sexually molested his brother John Cunningham Jr. in the late 1970s. At the time, Dickman was principal and John Jr. was a student.

Mark Cunningham said his brother was on his death bed with AIDS in 1991 when John Jr. told him he had been abused.

Mark Cunningham said he was greatly upset and related what his brother told him to the Rev. Charles Giacosa, who was then his parish priest. Cunningham said he demanded that Dickman be removed from the priesthood.

According to Cunningham, Giacosa told him that it wasn't the first complaint about Dickman and that Dickman's departure as principal at Father Ryan four years earlier had been forced because of a similar complaint. Two months later, Dickman did leave the priesthood.

In December, the diocese issued a statement by Giacosa, who had previously declined comment about his 1991 conversation with Cunningham.

In his statement, Giacosa said he was ''surprised and angered'' to read Cunningham's comments in the October article in The Tennessean that ''claimed I had been told that Ron Dickman abused John Cunningham Jr. while he was a student at Father Ryan High School.''

''Mark told me that John Jr. had told him about a recent sexual encounter between himself and Ron Dickman,'' part of Giacosa's statement read. ''This was the first time that I had become aware of a sexual relationship between Ron Dickman and John Cunningham Jr. I have no recollection whatsoever of Mark Cunningham telling me of abuse involving his brother while in high school.''

Giacosa's statement did not address Cunningham's claim that Giacosa had said it wasn't the first such complaint about Dickman. Nor did Giacosa comment on whether he had said Dickman had been forced to resign as Ryan principal in 1987.

After hearing Giacosa's statement, Cunningham said he and Giacosa had discussed the issue several times in 1991 and since then. He said he was sure Giacosa had understood that the sexual contact started when his brother was in high school. He said John Jr. had not complained about ''recent'' sexual contact, nor was that plausible.

''My brother had had AIDS since the mid-1980s,'' Cunningham said. ''He was bedridden the last two years of his life. (In 1991), he wasn't in condition to have had sex with anybody 'recently.' That statement is outrageous. It just blows my mind the length (church leaders) will go to, to protect their rears on this.

''Why would I go through all this if it weren't the truth?'' Cunningham asked. ''I'm Catholic. I'm going to continue to be. I go to Mass. My children go to Catholic schools. This is a shame that it's got to be dealt with. But the truth must be told so we can all heal. It's time to tell the truth.

''This is the last I'm going to say about it all, though. I've told the truth. People will believe what they're going to believe.''

The Tennessean left messages for Giacosa seeking elaboration on his statement, but he did not respond.

Rick Musacchio, the diocese spokesman, said Giacosa had reread his statement ''many times and there is not a word he would change.''

Musacchio said church officials had waited 10 weeks after the October Tennessean article appeared to release Giacosa's statement, because it wasn't until then that Cunningham had given written permission to discuss the situation.

Cunningham disputed this, saying that he had urged the bishop personally to speak publicly even before The Tennessean article was published in October.

Going public

That article did not identify Mark Cunningham or his late brother by name, although Giacosa, the diocese and Dickman were made aware beforehand that the article was referring to Cunningham. Their responses in the October article were made with knowledge of Cunningham's identity. Cunningham said he insisted on that approach because he did not want to bring further pain to his father and mother.

But in the weeks after the article appeared, Cunningham said, he began to consider making a public statement by name because he believed that diocese officials had launched a campaign to discredit him and that other area Catholics were being misled.

Attendees at two separate diocese meetings of priests and employees were told that the allegations were incorrect, Cunningham said.

And an article in the Tennessee Register, the diocese newspaper, said several people reported having been misquoted in The Tennessean article, although they were not identified. Cunningham said Musacchio, who is also Register editor, told him the sentence referred to him.

Musacchio would not comment on what he told Cunningham about the article but said the diocese was standing by the publication. Cunningham said The Tennessean had quoted him accurately.

Cunningham began to prepare a statement for release to The Tennessean denouncing what he said he saw as a cover-up. He let the diocese know he was going to do so.

''I want people to know that what I said happened did happen, and that these people are lying about it,'' Cunningham told The Tennessean.

''On one day, they honor my father for his contributions to the church. A few days later, they try to make it look like I was changing my story. I took that as a direct insult.''

Cunningham's father, John J. Cunningham Sr., was honored recently for his lifelong charity to the church. The elder Cunningham, who is retired from Robert Orr/Sysco Food Services as executive vice president, has served on the boards of Catholic Charities, Samaritans Anonymous, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic Youth Organization and other groups.

''He's one of the premier figures and icons in our diocese,'' Nashville Bishop Edward Kmiec said of Cunningham Sr. during the celebration Oct. 11.

Taped conversations

Cunningham says the diocese released Giacosa's statement in an attempt to continue a cover-up. To support his belief, Cunningham gave The Tennessean copies of tape-recorded telephone calls he had with diocese officials in the weeks after the October article appeared.

He said he began making recordings of the phone conversations after diocese officials began ''changing their story.''

In none of the conversations that Cunningham recorded does any diocese official mention that Giacosa was challenging any part of Cunningham's account.

However, Musacchio told The Tennessean that there were ''numerous times where we questioned Mark's assertion that he reported to Father Giacosa that sexual abuse of his brother had occurred in high school.''

Cunningham said no one from the diocese had ever questioned his assertion until Giacosa's statement was released. ''It's funny that when they found out I had tapes, their story completely changed again,'' Cunningham said.

In one tape-recorded telephone conversation, Cunningham asked Gino Marchetti, the diocese attorney, why the diocese would not ''just acknowledge the fact that, you know, that (you) removed Dickman after I made that complaint?''

Marchetti said on the tape that the diocese could not do so without Dickman's permission, but that the timing of Cunningham's complaint and Dickman's departure should make the connection obvious: ''Now you don't have to be a damn rocket scientist to figure out somebody who has been in the priesthood for, you know, whatever, 20 years that, you know, somebody comes in August or September of '91 and then December 1, '91 he, quote, leaves the priesthood, unquote. I mean, like I said, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out.''

Marchetti can be heard on the tape agreeing that Dickman was not telling the truth when he said church officials never brought Cunningham's allegations to his attention, and that they had nothing to do with his departure from the priesthood.

Asked for comment about the taped conversation, Dickman's attorney, George Barrett, said: ''Ron Dickman resigned from the Diocese of Nashville as a priest in active ministry as of Dec. 1, 1991. He resigned. He was not fired by the diocese. He has authorized the diocese to confirm the truth of these statements.''

The newspaper also sought comment on several occasions from Marchetti. He responded through Musacchio, who said, ''Gino only acknowledged to Mark that a conversation between Mark and Father Giacosa took place in 1991 and that someone might draw a conclusion that there was a connection between that meeting with Giacosa and Dickman's departure from the priesthood. However, any inference that this conversation confirms an allegation of the sexual abuse of a minor is simply incorrect.''

Cunningham said church leaders here should be concerned about Dickman's current job as executive director of a Tampa, Fla., social services agency, which among other things serves disadvantaged children.

''I just hope Dickman can't hurt anyone else,'' Cunningham said.

The president of the board of directors for Religious Community Services, where Dickman now works, said the board had received no complaints about Dickman there and that he had done an excellent job.

As for the Cunningham allegations, Mark Cunningham said he hoped area Catholics could separate the actions of men and God.

''I don't want people to feel so angry over this they quit the church,'' he said. ''We must not forget about all the good things in the church. Our faith is as strong as it ever was. We can be hurt and disappointed by men within the church, but they are simply that men, not God. God has not disappointed us.''

But healing will not happen, he said, until the full truth is known.

''The church is going to have to decide if it's backing Dickman or backing the truth,'' Cunningham said. ''What's it going to be? Does it protect child molesters or does it protect children?

''People think this is about what happened years ago; it's not. I'm talking about what is happening now,'' Cunningham said. ''I'm not talking about what happened 10 years ago, I'm talking about two weeks ago.''

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