Before Bishop Walter Sullivan, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond, learned of a priest’s alleged abuse of a 14-year-old boy while the man was pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Prince George County, the priest had moved on to a new assignment.
After being placed on leave and ordered to get psychiatric treatment in 1988, the priest – the Rev. John P. Blankenship – was allowed to return to active ministry as a chaplain at the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg.
In a news release issued Aug. 9, the diocese said that “Bishop Sullivan allowed Father Blankenship to continue this particular ministry because he would have no direct contact with minors.”
Yet, the priest’s last diocesan assignment before his forced retirement is at least one reason that – 20 years later – Blankenship’s accuser sought justice from Prince George law enforcement, instead of the diocese.
On Tuesday, Blankenship was indicted in Prince George County on four counts of sodomy.
Prince George officials say Blankenship’s accuser contacted them July 12, when he learned that the priest was assigned as priest-in-residence at St. James Catholic Church in Hopewell.
“It was the victim’s belief that the priest was again in the purview of young people through his affiliation with the Hopewell church,” Prince George Police Lt. Bill King said. King led the investigation of the Blankenship case.
The accuser, King said, also was unhappy with conversations with the Richmond diocese about further action against Blankenship. “There is some indication from the victim that they were going to let it drop.”
But the diocese didn’t let it drop.
Less than a month after Prince George officials began investigating the accuser’s charges, Sullivan forced Blankenship’s resignation. He cited a new zero- tolerance policy adopted by U.S. Catholic bishops during a recent meeting in Dallas to discuss sexual-abuse cases against priests.
But diocesan officials say they were surprised to learn of the priest’s indictment or the county’s interest in the case.
“We didn’t know that there was an investigation going on until this morning,” the Rev. Pasquale Apuzzo, spokesman for the diocese, said Tuesday.
Apuzzo said his own attempts to learn the identity of the priest being indicted by Commonwealth’s Attorney H. Martin Robertson were initially rebuffed.
The diocesan spokesman said Blankenship’s resignation had nothing to do with a possible criminal investigation. “We had absolutely no idea any of this was going on,” he said.
King said at a Tuesday news conference that officials had documents dating to the 1980s that supported allegations against Blankenship.
King prefaced his comments by saying the element of surprise was vital to any investigation, but the lieutenant doubted that the diocese knew nothing of the criminal investigation.
“The victim came to the commonwealth’s attorney on July 12, and we’ve been investigating ever since,” King said. “It was the first time he’s spoken to law enforcement. But it was not the first time he talked to the Richmond diocese.”
David Clohessy is executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. He also doubts what the diocese says it knew and when it knew it.
“We’ve seen that before,” Clohessy says, “when a bishop takes credit for dealing with a priest before an indictment comes. It is evidence that the diocese is only interested in damage control.
“If Bishop Sullivan is at all sincere about rebuilding trust and caring for children, then he has to turn over any information he has about sexual abuse to unbiased authorities.”
The Richmond diocese is investigating “a handful of cases” of alleged sexual abuse by priests against people who were minors at the time. It’s unlikely that the diocese will give that information to local law enforcement, Apuzzo said.
“We’re not at a point to determine what to do with the information,” he said. “We’re still at the preliminary stages of what is being claimed about whom by who.
“There are a lot of jailhouse lawyers in these cases.
“But there are things we can and can’t do.”
In the case of the Rev. John E. Leonard – a pastor at St. Michael’s Catholic Church near Richmond, who’s been accused of sexual abuse by at least five people – the diocese spoke to Goochland County officials.
In regard to the many cases against Leonard, Sullivan said the diocese was limited in what it could do to check the validity of allegations.
“The Diocese of Richmond is not a detective agency,” Sullivan said. “I, therefore, call upon law enforcement to thoroughly investigate the claims in all their various forms.”
What Clohessy said he didn’t understand was why the Richmond diocese continued to privately investigate some cases, while turning others over to police.
“If Bishop Sullivan has information to turn over to the authorities, then he has to turn it all over. That’s what the Dallas charter calls for,” Clohessy said.
The man who led to Blankenship’s indictment requested to remain anonymous until a trial was scheduled.
He lives out of state.
A trial date depends on when Blankenship is in police custody.
He wasn’t at his home earlier today.
King said the Richmond diocese was able to help him reach Blankenship and the retired priest’s attorney to arrange to turn himself in to police.
St. Mary Star of the Sea at Fort Monroe was among the Catholic parishes that Blankenship served before his assignment to Sacred Heart in Prince George County.
He was associate pastor at the Hampton church from 1963 to 1966.