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Sex-Abuse Cases Show Gaps In Church Response

May 26, 2002 | Seattle Times

It started in January when news coverage revealed that the Archdiocese of Boston allowed some priests to molest hundreds of children over the decades. Four months later, in the other corner of the nation, the ouster of a popular Seattle priest has revealed gaps in pioneering efforts to manage sex-abuse allegations.

The Archdiocese of Seattle, thought to be a model in the American Catholic church for the sexual-abuse reforms it made in the late 1980s, announced on Friday the removal of the Rev. John Cornelius, the charismatic priest whose ministry had survived years of rumors and past accusations until news coverage revealed a new spate of allegations.

And the whole notion of review boards, enlisting the help of lay experts to evaluate allegations, is being questioned by critics who say the panels are seldom independent and often don't receive all the information they need to evaluate cases. Pioneered by the Seattle archdiocese, the boards are used in various forms by most dioceses today, including Boston, which has had one in place since 1993.

"The big question is whether the church should be in the business of investigating at all," said David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "Our view of all these reform policies is they're virtually meaningless, they are rarely followed and there is no accountability mechanism. They are basically like having speed limits with no cops."

Seattle Archbishop Alex Brunett said yesterday in a weekly television program produced by the archdiocese that the job of investigating complaints is often left up to the archdiocese.

"I expect anybody that works for me or this archdiocese to cooperate fully with the civil authorities" on abuse cases, Brunett said. But authorities then "may give it back to me and tell me: 'This is beyond the statute of limitations, or this is something that there's not enough evidence, and we're not going to bother.' Then I have to begin an internal investigation. That's what people don't understand."

The reform policies have been largely credited for the relatively few lawsuits that have been filed against the Seattle archdiocese over the years.

The archdiocese began examining its own policies in 1985, after then-Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen learned just how widespread and damaging the problem of child molestation by priests was in the Roman Catholic church. But beset by scandals three years later involving two different priests, Hunthausen turned to outside help, enlisting mental-health and law-enforcement experts to help draft new guidelines. A separate panel, a "special-cases committee," was also established to evaluate claims made against priests.

Aspects of the new policy — reaching out to victims, making sure that perpetrators weren't shuffled from parish to parish — were groundbreaking at the time, said Jason Berry, author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children."

But Cornelius' case raises questions about the policy and how it was followed. The first known complaint against Cornelius was made to church authorities in 1989, when a parish administrator heard thirdhand of a sex allegation against the popular pastor of Seattle's Immaculate Conception Church. The alleged victim was Rick Barquet and the alleged abuse had taken place in the 1970s. Seattle police and the state's Child Protective Services investigated the complaint and cleared Cornelius. But Barquet, a Kent bus driver, maintains he was never contacted by either civil authorities or the church.

And in 1996, an Idaho man also accused Cornelius of sexually abusing him in the 1970s. This time Cornelius was moved to a different parish in Everett, given limited duties and ordered to undergo counseling with a sex-abuse therapist. The archdiocese also hired a Washington state patrol officer working on his off-time to monitor him.

The archdiocese says the late Archbishop Thomas Murphy, who died in 1997, acted on advice of the special-cases committee empaneled at the time.

But a former priest personnel director for the archdiocese, Father Jack Walmesley, has questioned that action, saying the archdiocese had learned years before that it could not realistically monitor priests 24 hours a day.

None of those allegations was made public. Not until a Chicago man told The Seattle Times in April that he had been abused by Cornelius did the past accusations come to light. Since then, at least a dozen others have filed similar complaints, alleging abuse between 1968 and 1985.

Cornelius is not likely to face criminal charges because all the known complaints exceed statutes of limitation for sexual assault, which generally run from three to seven years in Washington state.

Where Cornelius will go from here is not known. Church law requires the archdiocese to continue to pay his living expenses, though he can no longer celebrate Mass, cannot wear the collar and cannot represent himself as a priest, said archdiocesan spokesman Bill Gallant.

Other cases have also raised questions. The Rev. Barry Ashwell was moved from his longtime parish in Oak Harbor to a church in Buckley, Pierce County, after he was accused of long-ago abuse in 1996. A church investigation into that case proved inconclusive, but Ashwell refused to be evaluated by the forensic psychologist hired by the archdiocese to investigate. The archdiocese says the priest was moved to Buckley as part of normal priest rotation and not because of the allegation.

But in September, a former altar boy filed a lawsuit against Ashwell and the archdiocese, claiming Ashwell molested him in the 1970s. The archdiocese learned about the second allegation in 1999, according to sources, but didn't place Ashwell on administrative leave until the lawsuit was filed.

And last month a woman filed a lawsuit against a Seattle priest claiming he physically abused her during a six-year relationship. In that case again, the archdiocese had learned about the allegation at least as early as September but didn't place him on leave until the lawsuit was filed. The archdiocese has said it believed the relationship was consensual and not abusive.

Most off-putting to critics and even many devout Catholics is the archdiocese's refusal to reveal how many priests have been removed under its reform policies and how much has been paid in settlements.

The Seattle archdiocese is also grappling with how to deal with allegations of long-ago abuse. In cases of recent abuse, the archdiocese must turn them over to civil authorities immediately. But when statutes of limitations have expired, the process isn't as clear.

The archdiocese is reviewing its guidelines to examine just these kinds of issues. "We have always said our policy is a living document, and subject to review," said Gallant.

The archdiocese stopped using a special-cases panel altogether about two years ago, believing its separate human-resources departments had the know-how to deal with sexual-abuse complaints. But the panel was recently reinstated after the national scandal began to grow.

The current panel, which includes two therapists and two former sexual-assault prosecutors, moved quickly on the Cornelius case, making a unanimous recommendation to remove him within days of examining victim reports and psychological evaluations.

But some victims wonder what would have happened without news coverage of the accusations.

"If I hadn't made the call (to the media) in early April, would this have ever happened?" asked the Chicago man, a former national television-news correspondent who asked not to be identified. "Would he have ever stepped out on his own and said: 'I'd like to make the archdiocese aware of something I did in the late 1970s'?"

Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress, still has faith in the role of independent review panels.

Berliner was on the original panel that drafted reforms for the Seattle archdiocese in the late 1980s. She continues to serve on a panel that advises the archdiocese on such policy.

"I strongly believe in the importance of having an independent review panel, and I believe the composition of the one we have in our community is of absolutely the highest quality," she said.

Berliner said she doesn't know what information the special-cases committee had in the past, so she can't say whether it functioned correctly or not in the case of Cornelius.

The decisions facing such panels are often complex, and mistakes can be made. "I wouldn't expect a panel to always come to the same conclusions," she said. "Whenever you have human beings making decisions, perhaps there will be a mistake."

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