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Tracking Priests A Problem

Jun 10, 2002 | Detroit Free Press

Msgr. Walter Hurley, Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida's point man in the church's sex-abuse scandal, picked up the telephone to deliver the latest bad news about an accused priest to St. Ronald Catholic Church in Clinton Township.

Hurley asked the current pastor, the Rev. Jim Andres, if he was aware of the Rev. Walter Lezuchowski, who once had been an administrator at St. Ronald.

"Oh, yes, he's been helping here for the last five years," Hurley recalled being told. In fact, Lezuchowski frequently celebrated Sunday mass.

Hurley was dumbfounded.

He had no idea Lezuchowski was still working at St. Ronald. The priest was barred from parish ministry in 1991 after a credible allegation that he sexually abused a girl, Hurley said.

Somehow, Maida's staff lost track of him.

The revelation illustrates the toughest problem facing Catholic bishops as they gather in Dallas this week to address the crisis.

Even when bishops invoke their toughest discipline, some abusive priests keep lurking around the church, working in parishes and teaching. And, sometimes, they abuse again. The priests often crisscross the country with little supervision and no national system to track them.

That has to change, Maida said late last week.

"We'll have to check on priests transferring into the archdiocese more than we have in the past," he said.

Then, wearily shaking his head and referring to the Archdiocese of Boston's recent admission that it misplaced 800 pages of files on abusive priests, Maida said, "And we'll have to be sure our personnel files don't get lost."

On Sunday, Maida formally apologized to victims and asked the 1.5-million Catholics in metro Detroit to attend special prayers in each parish later this week.

A "great purification" is needed to resolve this problem, Maida said at St. Kenneth Catholic Church in Plymouth, where he celebrated mass Sunday.

"I apologize to anyone who has been abused by any of our priests," Maida said -- a message he also included in a letter read to more than 300 parishes.

The problem is so difficult, he said, that the church's only hope for turning the corner lies in prayer, fasting -- and tough new rules.

Flouting the old rules
Many priests have capitalized on the current lack of oversight.

In 1989, a former Detroit priest, the Rev. Harry Benjamin, was yanked from St. Paul parish in Grosse Pointe Farms because archdiocesan officials were convinced he sexually abused a minor, church spokesman Ned McGrath said.

Benjamin agreed to give up his priestly credentials through a Vatican procedure known as laicization that was completed by 1991.

It was the Catholic equivalent of throwing the book at Benjamin. But the former priest refused to stay away and, as recently as this spring, was saying mass in and around Washington, D.C.

Just as troubling, McGrath said, is a travel agency Benjamin founded in 1995 in Arlington, Va., with another Detroit priest, the Rev. Gerald Shirilla, who also was ousted for alleged sexual abuse.

The men merged their last names to dub the company the Shirben Group Inc. and began contacting former friends in the church to drum up business. Shirilla, who defied a church request that he be laicized, was still on the archdiocesan payroll in Detroit.

Shirben booked at least one group tour for a metro Detroit parish before archdiocesan officials learned Shirilla and Benjamin were behind the effort.

Maida's staff then made several discreet telephone calls discouraging parishes from using Shirben, McGrath said. But they declined to publicly reveal the reason for Benjamin's ouster until last month -- 13 years after pulling him from St. Paul.

That secrecy allowed Benjamin to carve out a new spiritual home with a group that he knew welcomed former priests with few questions: Dignity, a network of gay and lesbian Catholics.

Dignity has a long-standing policy banning abusers from leadership, said Mary Louise Cervone, the Philadelphia-based president of Dignity USA.

But Dignity officials said Benjamin convinced them that he was unfairly ousted from Detroit on a bogus complaint. Until recently, he flouted church law by regularly saying mass for two Dignity chapters in the Washington, D.C., area, Cervone confirmed.

When told about Benjamin's past last week, Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity USA, said she was stunned.

"The information you have is very different than the information we have from him," she said.

Now that the group knows of Benjamin's past, allowing him to lead worship is no longer appropriate, Cervone said.

"Dignity communities must be a safe environment for children, youth and adults," she said.

Benjamin declined to comment beyond a statement repudiating any church oversight.

"As a consequence of my laicization, the Archdiocese of Detroit has neither the obligation nor the right to 'monitor' any of my activities," Benjamin wrote.

The 1989 allegation against him is one of 16 cases being investigated for possible criminal charges in the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, people familiar with the case said.

Meanwhile, in August, Benjamin's friend Shirilla took a job as pastor of St. Mary in Alpena in the Diocese of Gaylord. Maida removed him in Marchonly after the Free Press reported on his return to Michigan from the east coast.

Shirilla never should have been given a parish, but confusion in communication between the dioceses allowed him to start work, Hurley said afterward. Through his attorney, Shirilla has denied abusing anyone, and there are no known reports that Shirilla or Benjamin have abused minors in recent years.

The Rev. Joseph Sito, on the other hand, has continued to trouble church officials with improper sexual behavior, even after his 1993 removal as pastor of St. Cletus in Warren. At the time, church leaders said Sito faced a credible allegation of abusing a minor.

Over the years, Sito often told visitors to his retirement apartment on the Felician Sisters campus in Livonia that the church's effort to monitor him was virtually a joke. It amounted to dinner once a month with a supervisor, Sito said.

In 1999, Sito was arrested and charged after an incident with a young man in his apartment. The man, who was 17 at the time, testified Sito convinced him to expose himself during counseling and confession. Sito eventually pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of assault and paid a fine. He did not go to jail.

But that led to a further restriction of his duties, including a reaffirmed prohibition on public ministry, McGrath said.

Defying even that order, Sito kept saying public masses on the Felician campus, the Free Press reported in April.

Last month, after repeated inquiries from the Free Press about his status, church officials evicted the 66-year-old priest and moved him to an undisclosed location.

Sito could not be reached for comment for this report.

Keeping a low profile
Initially, disciplined priests often disappear from view, which tends to conceal the circumstances surrounding their departure.

There were no complaints of abuse at St. Ronald during Lezuchowski's recent years of service. He could not be reached to comment for this story. Hurley has declined to say anything about his whereabouts since he was placed on leave May 10.

Lezuchowski, 69, originally was barred from parish ministry in 1991 after a complaint that he had abused a young girl, Hurley said. During the next 11 years, he was supposed to have been restricted to his assigned work in a hospital and a prison.

Last month, Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan said someone called his office to report another allegation against the priest. That sparked the archdiocese's full suspension of Lezuchowski and prompted Hurley finally to check on the priest. Hurley also called Lezuchowski's former employers.

Only then was the error in supervision finally discovered.

The files on accused priests turned over to prosecutors last month show how poorly church officials have monitored these men, Duggan said. "Left Michigan. Have no further information" is what some files say.

"There is not an effort to track them," Duggan said.

That's likely to change after the Dallas meeting, Maida said.

In his letter to metro Detroit parishes on Sunday, the cardinal pledged again "to ensure that the church will always be a safe environment for children and young people."

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