For more than 20 years, the Tucson Roman Catholic Diocese covered up information that priests were molesting altar boys and taking young men to their beds, according to civil lawsuits filed by victims.
Clerics suspected of preying on boys and girls in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s were protected by higher-ups and, in one case, promoted through the ranks to the position of judicial vicar, court filings indicate.
The diocese settled 11 lawsuits late in January after a Yuma County Superior Court judge ruled that the victims were entitled to seek punitive damages.
The allegations of the cover-up are contained in a motion filed by the plaintiffs that includes a summary of sealed records in the case. The summary cites details from dozens of depositions, personnel files and diocese records.
The confidential Tucson settlements, estimated in published reports to total at least $15 million, involved four priests alleged to have sexually abused children from 1966 to 1989 at parishes in Tucson and Yuma.
Diocese spokesman Fred Allison said that in many instances, victims’ claims could not be verified because those in positions to know have died. However, diocese officials now acknowledge that incidents of molestation took place and have apologized.
Many of the court documents have been sealed at the request of the diocese. The Arizona Republic is seeking access to those records.
However, the records that are available include a complete deposition from the Most Rev. Manuel Moreno, bishop of the Tucson Diocese. That deposition describes how diocese officials failed to act on information in what amounts to a secret code of the collar.
The deposition and other records show that diocese officials protected one another, lied to a victim’s family, failed to counsel victims, destroyed statements, did not notify child protective authorities and were uncooperative with police.
The cover-up began under the previous bishop of the Tucson Diocese but continued under the current bishop, Moreno, who was installed in 1982.
“It demonstrates absolute sleaze in terms of the covering up, the handling, the toleration, the non-investigation of very valid reports,” said A.W. Richard Sipes, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk who was an expert witness for the plaintiffs and who has been involved in more than 50 similar cases.
Allison said church officials in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s heard rumors about priests but never received a report of sexual abuse they found credible enough to refer to authorities.
New procedures have been in place for the past 10 years that require immediate notification of outside authorities and a complete internal investigation of allegations, Allison said.
The Tucson settlements are part of a national wave of sex-abuse cases involving Roman Catholic priests.
In Boston, where the archdiocese has paid about $10 million in partial settlements, church officials have given prosecutors the names of 80 priests accused of sexual abuse during the past 40 years.
In Los Angeles, the archdiocese settled a sex abuse case for $5.2 million last year and agreed to abide by a new set of “zero tolerance” policies to prevent new incidents.
In Dallas, the diocese settled sex-abuse claims for $23.4 million in 1998 after a civil jury awarded $119.6 million to the nine plaintiffs.
During the past two decades, experts say, hundreds of other claims have been settled quietly or before lawsuits were filed.
The Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, for example, averted a potentially embarrassing trial in 1994, settling out of court with a Scottsdale couple whose son was molested by a priest, the Rev. George Bredemann. The Phoenix diocese settled another suit in 1991 involving sex abuse by Bredemann.
“The pattern and the practice is the same throughout the U.S.,” said Sylvia Demarest, a lawyer for three Dallas plaintiffs. “Only in situations where dioceses have been caught have they changed their MO (mode of operation).”
The Tucson settlements include a pledge that the diocese will respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse.
Two of the priests identified in the cases, the Revs. Pedro Luke and William Byrne, have died. Two others, Monsignor Robert Trupia and the Rev. Michael Teta, have been suspended from duties but continue to receive monthly salaries and health insurance benefits paid by the diocese.
In a Mass celebrated a week ago at Our Mother of Sorrows, a Tucson parish where all four priests once served, Moreno apologized to parishioners.
“We are putting together broken pieces,” he said. “We are making something new out of what was damaged by sin and neglect and ignorance and betrayed trust.”
Moreno and the Most Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas, who arrived from Chicago late last year and will eventually succeed Moreno as bishop of the diocese, have met with some victims and their families.
In an interview, Kicanas said it’s important for church officials to respect and listen to people’s feelings.
“Trust is restored when people are convinced that the church in no way condones abuse and will take on allegations directly and openly,” he said.
Last week, the bishops met with parishioners at Our Mother of Sorrows, which sits in a 1950s-era neighborhood of ranch-style houses and packs a full house for Sunday Mass.
For two hours, in a meeting closed to the media, parishioners asked questions that reflected disappointment and concern. Allison, the diocese spokesman, said some who attended wanted to know “what the bishop knew and when he knew it.”
Plaintiffs lawyers filed documents alleging the diocese didn’t begin an official investigation of Trupia, the judicial vicar, until 1992, about 17 years after the diocese first heard that Trupia was abusing boys.
The plaintiffs claim that during those years, Trupia’s behavior was so notorious he was known as a “chicken hawk” among other priests. Nevertheless, Trupia was promoted to increasingly powerful positions that gave him ready access to boys.
He tutored boys in his private room and took some on trips to visit seminaries.
In 1977, a lay brother who suspected that Trupia was molesting altar boys was rebuked by the chancellor of the diocese after the brother gathered statements from victims who claimed to have been molested by Trupia, documents show. The chancellor told the brother, a former police officer who is now a priest in California, the statements could get priests into trouble and indicated they may have been destroyed.
Trupia was suspended from duties in 1991, Allison said.
In a deposition given in August, Moreno testified that Trupia admitted to him in 1992 that he had sexually molested boys and “was a man unfit for public ministry.” Moreno went on to say he could not explain why he had not been truthful about Trupia’s statements in a letter he subsequently wrote to a victim’s family and in a secret canonical affidavit to the Vatican.
Furthermore, he could not explain why he waited until 1995 to execute another canonical affidavit alleging that Trupia, during his meeting with the bishop in 1992, threatened to reveal personal sexual relationships with high church officials if he was not allowed to retire.
At the time of the 1992 meeting, Trupia was appealing his suspension to the Vatican. Moreno said in the deposition he did not immediately inform his superiors of Trupia’s blackmail threat because he did not intend to give in to it.
“I’m not trying to cover up,” Moreno stated in the deposition. “I am trying to help the diocese. According to you, your first insinuation is that I did not act properly, timely or caringly, and that’s not true.
“I might have made mistakes as far as procedure or process, but they were not intentional in so far as to try to cover up or hide any … or to certainly not in no way to promote anything that Monsignor Trupia was doing.” In written corrections to his deposition, Moreno made substantive changes to sworn testimony, denying that Trupia had ever admitted to him that he had molested boys.
Trupia, of Silver Springs, Md., was arrested last year and taken to Yuma to face criminal charges that he sexually molested altar boys at St. Francis of Assisi Church in the 1970s.
Less than 24 hours after he appeared handcuffed in court, prosecutors decided they could not try the priest under Arizona’s statute of limitations. His lawyer did not return a reporter’s phone call last week.
Yuma Sgt. Jan Schmitt spent two years investigating the Trupia case after a victim reported in 1998 that he had recovered a repressed memory of molestation.
Schmitt said the diocese would not tell him where Trupia was.
Ten years earlier, the diocese would not cooperate with Tucson Detective Ben Jimenez, who wanted to interview Trupia after receiving a tip that the priest had molested boys.
“You’ve got to wonder what would have happened if (the diocese) had taken care of it back in 1988,” Jimenez said.
The Rev. Raymond O’Brien, a priest and professor of law at Catholic University of America and Georgetown University Law Center, said high-profile cases and multimillion-dollar settlements are forcing the church to change the way it handles abuse allegations.
“No longer are you going to have these things hidden if it’s economically disastrous for the church,” O’Brien said.
“It’s a good thing for those of us who love the church and wear a Roman Catholic collar. Painful in the short term, but wonderful in its ramifications.”