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Priest Abuse Probe Widens

Apr 27, 2003 | Mobile Register The criminal investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile has widened to include more priests and victims than have been publicly announced, according to a prosecutor handling the cases.

"There are numerous victims and friends of victims from around this country who are contacting this office," said Steve Giardini, the assistant district attorney who handles most child abuse cases in Mobile County.

On Thursday, authorities arrested Brother Nicholas Paul Bendillo, who is affiliated with the New Orleans province of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, on two felony and two misdemeanor charges of sex abuse.

Bendillo was known as "Brother Vic" to those who knew him at McGill-Toolen High School, the Catholic institution where he worked from 1959 to 1998 as a teacher and adviser.

A criminal investigation of clergy sex abuse was opened last month after Mobile Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb revealed that the Rev. J. Alexander Sherlock, a longtime Mobile priest, had admitted to sexually abusing three minors. Lipscomb has further identified the alleged victims as teenagers, and has said he believes the abuse occurred during the 1970s. Sherlock resigned from the priesthood effective Feb. 28, one day before a new church policy would have forced Lipscomb to remove him.

While the investigation is proceeding, local church officials have faced criticism for keeping such abuse quiet until recently. Church leaders have been defended, however, by those who say they were just trying to forgive troubled priests and give them another chance.

Giardini said it's too early to say exactly how many victims there are in the area, partly because of a steady stream of tips coming into the district attorney's office. Those calls range from general tips suggesting that certain priests be checked out to calls from people who say they were abused.

At some point, Giardini said, the tips will have to be categorized, which will give investigators a better idea of how many victims there are.

Told of Giardini's comments, the Very Rev. Michael L. Farmer, chancellor of the Mobile archdiocese, said he wasn't surprised that the investigation was broader than the initial group of clergy whose files were turned over in response to a subpoena.

"I'm assuming they're investigating any call that they get in," he said.

Besides Bendillo and Sherlock, District Attorney John Tyson Jr. said he has started criminal investigations into three other clergy members with ties to the archdiocese: the Rev. Arthur C. Schrenger, the Rev. Barry Ryan and the Rev. Eugene Smith. Tyson had previously disclosed receiving files about all five, and none is active in the archdiocese.

Though the exact scope of abuse in the Mobile area is unknown, average numbers can be derived from research conducted of clergy who are in treatment for sex abuse, said Thomas G. Plante, a licensed psychologist and author who teaches psychology at Santa Clara University in California.

That research indicates that the average clergy abuser has eight victims and a total of 32 instances of abuse, Plante said. Most priests don't start abusing until after ordination, he said, and they generally don't stop until they are caught or are cut off from potential victims.

In Mobile, not every case of alleged abuse will result in prosecution, Giardini said. According to the Code of Alabama, sex crimes that involved victims under 16 and occurred before Jan. 7, 1985, cannot be prosecuted.

However, Giardini said, "we're looking at those hard, too. Even if they're not necessarily charged in those cases, we're trying to get a full picture of what went on."

For that reason, Giardini appealed to people to call in even if their situations may not end up in court.

"We have an interest at the (Child Advocacy Center) of finding victims," he said. "We don't just exist to prosecute people. We exist to serve victims."

The advocacy center can arrange counseling for people even if they aren't part of ongoing cases.

Tyson said information from cases that can't be prosecuted may be relevant to others that can. Accounts that predate 1985 may help prosecutors determine the patterns and practices of an alleged perpetrator, he said.

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