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VU's Catholic Chaplain Removed

Charges of sexual abuse predate his ordination

Mar 10, 2003 | The Tennessean A Jesuit priest has been removed from his position as Catholic chaplain at Vanderbilt University because of an allegation of sexual abuse.

The Rev. James Pratt has left Nashville and returned to New England because of the allegation, which concerns an incident that allegedly happened 21 years ago, said Rick Musacchio, spokesman for the Diocese of Nashville. Pratt had served at the Vanderbilt Campus Ministry since 1996, Musacchio said.

The incident would have taken place before Pratt became a priest. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1986 in Worcester, Mass., and is a member of the Society of Jesus of the New England Province.

The diocese said it did not know where the incident would have taken place or who is making the allegation.

Officials said they had received no allegations of abuse related to Pratt's service as an ordained Catholic priest.

''We were informed that the incident is alleged to have involved a senior in high school, but the matter is still under investigation,'' Musacchio said. ''Although the incident does not involve anyone or any actions within our diocese, we support a full, proper and prompt response to this matter.''

Vanderbilt University is conducting an internal review even though no allegations about Pratt have been lodged there, said Michael Schoenfeld, vice chancellor for public affairs at the school.

''At this time, we have no information or indication that anything untoward happened during his time at Vanderbilt,'' Schoenfeld said.

A phone call to Pratt's Vanderbilt office and an e-mail sent to him were not immediately re-turned yesterday. Pratt last celebrated Mass at Vanderbilt on Ash Wednesday. A phone call to his order's provincial offices in Boston also was not returned.

This is the first time a priest in the Diocese of Nashville has been publicly removed from his position because of allegations of abuse, Musaccchio said. Pratt's removal is in line with the policies of the Diocese of Nashville, the Jesuit order and the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that the United States Council of Catholic Bishops approved at its spring meeting in Dallas last year.

Court documents obtained by a Boston newspaper early last year detailed a pattern in which priests accused of sexually abusing children had been reassigned by the church. Similar reports across the nation surfaced in the following months, helping to create a crisis that rocked the nation.

Two Nashville priests, Franklin T. Richards and Edward J. McKeown, were asked to leave the ministry in 1989 because of allegations of child sexual abuse. Richards was not prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired. McKeown is serving 25 years in prison without parole for later raping a 12-year-old boy.

Vanderbilt University, al-though founded as a Methodist university, cut its ties with the church in 1914. Chaplains representing seven different denominations and faiths work at the school through an arrangement between the university and the supporting religious bodies, said University Chaplain Gay Welch, director of religious affairs at Vanderbilt.

''He is, as far as I have known him, a capable professional,'' Welch said of Pratt. ''I don't know of anything negative about him, personally or professionally. He has done an excellent job as a university Catholic chaplain. He's well-liked. He's well-respected.''

Welch added that Catholics were the largest single religious group on campus, accounting for at least 30% of the student body.

As Catholic chaplain, Pratt was not an employee of the university. Pratt received a doctorate from Vanderbilt in 2002. He was not teaching any classes currently, although he had taught classes in the past and was listed as a lecturer in church history on the university's Web site.

Jim Zralek, co-chairman of the Nashville chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a group formed in re-sponse to sexual abuse scandals that confronted the Catholic church last year, said the church made the proper decision. ''I think they were right to remove him,'' he said.

Musacchio and Schoenfeld said they did not know when Pratt would be replaced. ''We will be working with the diocese to ensure that the members of the Vanderbilt Catholic community have access to counseling and support as needed and also ongoing leadership for their spiritual needs,'' Schoenfeld said.

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