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New Dispute Over What Church Knew of Abuse Allegations

Jan 12, 2003 | www.tennessean.com

Controversy grew more heated last week over what, if anything, the Catholic Diocese of Nashville knew about accusations that a former Father Ryan High School student was sexually molested by a man who was then both a principal and a priest.

A Dickson businessman from one of Nashville's most prominent Catholic families previously said he made church leaders aware that his late brother was abused as a teenage student. The diocese then issued a public statement saying that the businessman had not done so.

But now the alleged victim's former therapist has stepped forward to say that church officials were told of the abuse by the victim himself.

The diocese responded that no representative of the church had ''any record or recollection whatsoever'' of a report by the victim.

The therapist, Joan Furman, said former client John Cunningham Jr. had talked in therapy for years about telling church leaders of the abuse. She said he finally did so in the last days of his life as he lay dying in a local hospital. Cunningham died of complications of AIDS on Sept. 26, 1991, at age 31.

''I arrived just as the diocese officials were leaving,'' Furman said. ''John broke down and cried. He said, 'I told them. I told them everything.'

''He told them what happened at Father Ryan. He told them how he'd been damaged by it. He said he thought they were going to get rid of (Ron Dickman).''

Dickman, who left the priesthood two months later, has denied the allegations, along with those of another man who claimed he was abused by Dickman. Diocese officials have de- clined to say why Dickman left, citing legal concerns about his privacy. They said they had no record of any molestation report by John Cunningham Jr.

Furman said she did not know the identity of the church officials she saw that day, although she said at least one was wearing clerical garb.

Furman's account supports an earlier claim by Cunningham's brother. Mark Cunningham said that shortly before his brother died, John revealed that Dickman had molested him during his high school years. Mark Cunningham said he then relayed the information to the Rev. Charles Giacosa, then his parish priest.

The diocese last month issued a statement from Giacosa denying that Mark Cunningham had told him the sexual contact started while John was in high school. Giacosa said Cunningham only described sexual contact that was said to have taken place when Dickman and John Cunningham Jr. were adults.

Mark Cunningham said he believed the diocese statement was part of a cover-up to protect the church against legal problems.

Furman, a nurse practitioner in private practice, is author of the book The Dying Time and specializes in counseling people with life-threatening illnesses. She said she counseled John Cunningham Jr. for about four years. She said she remained silent about John's allegations until she learned last week from an article in The Tennessean that John's family was aware of his claims of molestation.

After reading the article, Furman called Mark Cunningham, who asked her to speak publicly about what John had reported. ''His family asked me to help,'' Furman said. ''I was very close to John. He was a wonderful person. I know John would want me to come forward and corroborate Mark's story.''

Furman said John had related to her that Dickman repeatedly molested him while John was a student at Father Ryan. Some of the sexual contact occurred during school hours, she said John told her, when Dickman would call John into his principal's office and close the door.

''He was abused there routinely,'' Furman said. ''John was a sweet, sensitive person. He suffered enormously from what happened to him.''

Furman said she did not report John's allegations to any civil authorities. ''If he'd been a child when I counseled him, I would have had to report it,'' she said. ''But he was an adult. And he asked me not to.''

She said reporting the alleged abuse to church authorities had been one of John's counseling goals. ''It was a huge relief to him to have told them,'' she said. ''He was like a cork waiting to pop. It was healing for him.''

The Cunninghams are one of Nashville's most prominent, devoted Catholic families and have been among the church's strongest supporters for decades.

As it became clear in September 1991 that John was near death, his father wanted him to have last rites and confession. John steadfastly refused. Finally, Mark said, he intervened. Do it for Dad, he begged his brother.

John for the first time told Mark why he didn't want a priest by his side in his dying days. ''He said being around certain priests was probably what got him into this mess in the first place,'' Mark recalled. ''Then he told me about Ron Dickman.''

Mark Cunningham said he reported what John told him to Giacosa. Cunningham said Giacosa told him it wasn't the first such complaint about Dickman and that Dickman had been forced to leave Father Ryan in 1987 because of a similar complaint.

Giacosa has declined to answer questions from The Tennessean about the conversation, but said in a statement that he had no recollection of Mark saying anything about sexual contact occurring while John was in high school.


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