The Rev. John Cornelius hasn’t been convicted of a crime, but he must meet several times each month with a Washington state parole officer — one hired by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.
The priest, accused of molestation by at least a dozen men and currently on administrative leave, has been observed by the officer since 1997 in his limited contacts with parishioners.
Archdiocese officials defend the monitoring — the only such arrangement publicly disclosed in the United States — as a way to ensure children’s safety while retaining a valued servant. But even some of the most vocal critics in the Catholic church’s current sex-abuse crisis say putting a priest “on parole” sets an unsettling precedent.
“Protecting the children has got to be number one, but you also want to maintain the dignity of the people involved,” said Svea Fraser of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group pressuring the Boston Archdiocese to change the way it handles abuse allegations.
The archdiocese hired George Uhlman, a parole officer who routinely supervises sex offenders, to monitor Cornelius, 56, after an Idaho man accused the priest in 1996 of abusing him as an adolescent in Boise in the early 1970s.
Church and police investigations were inconclusive. But Cornelius, a former city police chaplain and the adoptive father of 13 children, was reassigned from his inner-city Seattle ministry. He was barred from contact with children and required to meet regularly with Uhlman and a sex-abuse counselor.
The parole officer arrangement appears to be unique, said Mike Hurley, with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.
“I’m sure it will not miss the attention of the bishops” when they gather for a June meeting in Dallas, he said.
The gathering will focus on ways to strengthen national guidelines for handling sex-abuse cases. Since January, the U.S. church has been shaken by allegations that some bishops protected priests suspected of molesting children.
Dan Satterberg, chief deputy criminal prosecutor in King County and a member of a lay panel that advises Seattle Archbishop Alexander Brunett on sex-abuse policy, said hiring an outside monitor “is an appropriate option.
“It’s more than most employers would do, but they’re a unique employer,” he said.
Satterberg said monitoring a priest may be the best choice in cases where the statute of limitations has run out, or when the evidence does not support full removal but officials want to err on the side of caution.
But Regina Brannan, an academic researcher on the U.S. church and president of the Southeast Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, said she worried about the message it sends.
“One of the things we have to be careful of is due process,” she said. “Parole implies the process of a person who has been convicted of a crime and is now back in society.”
Seattle archdiocese spokesman Bill Gallant defended the arrangement, begun under a previous archbishop and continued by Brunett.
“On the surface, someone might hear something about this and say it’s too harsh, but one who gives that kind of opinion may not know the extenuating circumstances,” he said.
He noted that a “special cases” committee of lay experts, separate from Satterberg’s policy panel, advised hiring a monitor.
Uhlman, who has worked as a parole officer for Washington’s Department of Corrections for nearly 30 years, has said Cornelius’ conduct over the last five years has raised no red flags.
“There’s never been a hint of impropriety at all,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in April. Uhlman did not return phone calls requesting an interview.
Gallant said he did not know how much the archdiocese paid Uhlman for his moonlighting work. Nor, he said, did he know whether the Seattle Archdiocese had any other similar arrangements.
Speaking through the archdiocese, Cornelius has denied all the allegations against him. Still, he was placed on leave in April, following new molestation complaints dating to the 1970s. Two men have alleged that the priest improperly touched them when they were students at a Catholic school in suburban Burien, and a number of others have contacted the Seattle archdiocese about alleged abuse in recent weeks.
Terrie Light, head of the Oakland, Calif.-based Northwest regional office of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said her experience as a social worker tells her that even a supervised priest could easily hide current abuse from a monitor.
“I like the idea in theory, but unless he’s connected to the person by a chain, how’s he really going to know?” she asked.