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Sex Scandal Reaches Armed Forces Chaplains

Apr 26, 2002 | AP The Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal has been felt in the military, where a handful of priests serving as chaplains have been punished after molesting children or making sexual advances toward adults. In one case, the Dallas Roman Catholic diocese ordered a priest who was accused of molesting boys to join the Army, where he later confessed to molesting a boy, according to evidence in a lawsuit.

Church officials also helped persuade victims of child sexual abuse by military priests not to press charges in at least two of eight cases, according to testimony reviewed by The Associated Press.

Victims' advocates say such cases, although fewer than a dozen in number, are part of a nationwide pattern by the church of abuse and cover-up. None of the priests remains in his military job.

"If they wanted to get rid of someone, the military was just another placement," said attorney Sylvia Demarest, who represented a man who says he was molested at 15 by the priest ordered into the Army. "It didn't matter that they were pushing this off on people who were serving our country."

An AP review of court records and other public documents found eight military priests accused in lawsuits or criminal cases of sexual misconduct in the past 25 years. They were convicted of sex crimes, disciplined by the military or privately sued in cases the church lost or settled out of court.

In addition, the Diocese of Greensburg, Pa., said this month it had an unidentified Army chaplain put on leave after receiving an allegation of sexual abuse dating back more than 20 years.

Several of the cases involve allegations of misconduct by chaplains with soldiers. In one, a Navy chaplain was fined for touching an enlisted man inappropriately during a massage.

The military has about 5,500 active duty, reserve and National Guard chaplains. About 850 of them are Catholic priests.

Military chaplains for other faiths also have been punished for sexual misconduct, including a Protestant Army chaplain at a base in Germany convicted in 1994 of incest, records show.

The Army, Navy and Air Force have no plans to begin broader investigations of possible abuse because of the much-publicized Catholic civilian cases, spokesmen said.

"We have no substantiated reason to begin an investigation or review," said Valerie Burkes of the Air Force.

It is difficult to know whether other chaplains have been accused of sexual misbehavior and their cases never brought to light. The Navy Chaplain Corps, for example, keeps no records of chaplains accused or convicted of misconduct because such cases are handled by chaplains' individual commanders, said Navy spokesman Lt. Jon Spiers.

Burkes said the Air Force also does not keep separate disciplinary records for chaplains. Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd said the only cases of sexual misconduct Army officials could find were the priest accused of molesting the 15-year-old boy and the minister convicted of incest.

All chaplains must pass criminal background checks and be certified by their churches as meeting ecclesiastical requirements.

Bishop John Glynn, who leads the Washington-based military archdiocese that certifies Catholic chaplains, wouldn't comment.

In 1993, Glynn testified in a lawsuit against one priest that he knew of seven accusations of sexual misconduct against military priests. He identified only one: Owen Melody, who pleaded guilty in 1987 to molesting a 13-year-old girl.

Glynn testified that the archdiocese would disqualify any priest for military duty who had admitted or been convicted of sexual abuse, but would not automatically do so on the basis of unproved allegations.

"I'm not going to indiscriminately ask, 'Are you a pedophile?"' Glynn testified. "To me, it's an insult to the good priests that are out there, 99% of them."

Glynn also testified that military archdiocese officials had persuaded one victim not to pursue his complaint further.

"We helped the young man realize that he was dealing with a very tragic figure," Glynn testified. "We were trying to say, 'This is a poor priest. Have pity on him. He has alcoholic problems."'

The bishop's testimony came in a lawsuit against former Air Force chaplain Timothy Sugrue. He was accused of molesting a girl in 1978 at the now-closed Blytheville Air Force Base in Arkansas.

An Arkansas jury awarded the victim $1.5 million, but Sugrue had taken a vow of poverty and neither he nor his Catholic religious order has paid. Sugrue declined comment.

Lawyer Demarest's case involved Robert Peebles Jr., a priest in the Dallas Catholic diocese accused of molesting several boys. Church officials ordered Peebles to join the Army after receiving abuse allegations against him, according to testimony.

Peebles invited the 15-year-old boy, whom he knew from his work in Dallas, to visit him at the Army base at Fort Benning, Ga., the lawsuit records show. Several witnesses testified that Peebles molested the boy hours after meeting him at the airport.

Peebles confessed, according to testimony by military investigators and documents filed by the victim's family in a civil lawsuit. He was allowed to resign from the Army instead of being prosecuted, over the objection of several Army officers.

A separate lawsuit accused Peebles of molesting another boy after he returned to the Dallas diocese from Fort Benning. The church later stripped Peebles of his priesthood.

Peebles, who is now a lawyer in New Orleans, did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

Dallas diocese officials pressed the boy and his family not to pursue the case, and the family had told military prosecutors the boy would not testify against Peebles, relatives and church officials testified.

Church officials settled by paying $5 million.

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