Though Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb has been tight-lipped recently about whether cases of child sex abuse committed in the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile extend beyond what has been made public, he did testify in 1995 that the church received such allegations before 1987.
However, Lipscomb said at the time, he probably could count on one hand the number of times he had dealt with such matters.
Lipscomb testified in a 1995 deposition for a lawsuit over an allegation of abuse made against a guidance counselor at McGill-Toolen High School, the late Monsignor Cordell Lang. Timothy Bolden, a former student, sued Lang and the church, claiming he was molested between 1988 and 1991.
A jury, however, ruled against Bolden.
In the deposition, Lipscomb said that some of the allegations brought forward over the years were valid, including those made against employees or people associated with the diocese at McGill-Toolen.
Three of the clergy named recently in an ongoing criminal investigation taught or counseled at the school. One of them was Brother Nicholas Paul Bendillo, known as “Brother Vic,” who was charged last month with two felony and two misdemeanor counts of sex abuse.
Though cases of clergy sex abuse had emerged elsewhere in the country by 1995, similar cases didn’t percolate in the Mobile area until this year, when the Rev. J. Alexander Sherlock resigned after admitting to abusing more than one teenager, according to Lipscomb.
Lipscomb then dismissed another priest and disclosed that he had dismissed Bendillo several years before.
As more cases of sex abuse have come to light, Lipscomb has been reluctant to answer questions about how many times he has received such allegations.
In 1993, he said he wouldn’t comment on whether child molestation was an issue locally because it would risk confidentiality. “Mobile has been singularly blessed vis-a-vis this entire problem in the church today,” he said.
But Lipscomb did address the broader issues of sex abuse in the deposition. His questioner was Archie Lamb, a Birmingham lawyer representing Bolden.
Lamb explained the allegations in the complaint, estimating that the abuse would have started around 1987 or 1988. He asked Lipscomb if he had received a complaint before 1987 that a priest had sexually abused a child. Lipscomb responded that he had and that after investigating them, he determined the allegations were valid.
When Lipscomb was asked if he had received such complaints after 1987, he said he couldn’t recall exact dates.
At another point in the questioning, Lipscomb said he could probably count on one hand the number of times he dealt with clergy sex abuse.
Lamb also asked the archbishop if he was aware of any complaints, in addition to Bolden’s, of sexual abuse of children at McGill-Toolen by any employee or person associated with the archdiocese.
“Yes, we have from time to time these complaints made,” Lipscomb replied.
Some of those complaints had been valid, he said.
But when Lamb asked for the exact number of complaints that had been deemed legitimate, Grey Redditt, the archbishop’s lawyer, objected to the question. Several lawyers debated whether the archbishop should answer that question, and Redditt instructed Lipscomb not to.
Lamb tried asking for the information several different ways, and Redditt objected each time. Redditt also instructed Lipscomb not to answer whether he had received allegations of sex abuse at other schools in the archdiocese.
A message was left Friday for the archbishop, seeking comment on his 1995 testimony, but it was not returned.
In a separate deposition for the same lawsuit, the Rev. W. Bry Shields, president of McGill-Toolen, was asked if any complaints had been made of sexual misconduct involving staff at the school.
Shields responded that there weren’t any, other than an incident in which a coach was reported as going to a student party, having too much to drink and making a pass at a female student. The coach was dismissed, Shields said.
Lipscomb also talked about how he responded to sex abuse allegations in general.
“We are a very small archdiocese, and generally it comes either by phone or by mail. And people know I am receptive to it,” he said. “If it is a serious complaint, I take it and respond to the individual seriously, indicate that before I would proceed, I would have to make the priest or the other party aware of the nature of the complaint.
“If the individual is willing for that to happen, I go further. If they’re not willing for that to happen, it’s very hard for me to proceed. In certain cases, I would depend upon my own inklings, but ordinarily it would be the accused and the accuser would come in some way face to face.”
In 2002, Lipscomb said, “we even pay attention to anonymous calls.” But in a recent television interview, he said he needed to know the victim’s identity before proceeding.
“Where I have found cause, I have removed priests from a pastoral assignment,” he said in the 1995 deposition. “As the need arose, sent him for rehabilitation. There have been extended periods of rehabilitation.”
Asked how he dealt with victims in sex abuse cases, Lipscomb said, he would work with the parents’ desires and offer counseling, hospitalization, “whatever seems to be needed.”
He gave his opinion about what kind of emotional or psychological damage would occur to a 14-year-old victim of sex abuse.
“If I were investigating this from scratch, I would want to know something of what the 14-year-old brought to the situation prior to that,” Lipscomb said. “Is he totally innocent, unspoiled and pure, or is he somebody who in his own way may have invited or even initiated these kind of I would not know those things until I knew more of the characteristics.”
Thomas Plante, a psychologist and counselor who has written about clergy sex abuse, responded to Lipscomb’s statement by saying “we want to be careful not to get into a situation where victims get blamed. That quote is kind of getting close to that.”
Assessing the toll of sexual abuse is complex, Plante said, and likely would include knowing causes of the victim’s vulnerability or previous instances of abuse.
Lipscomb also said that sex abuse complaints are forwarded to civil authorities “if we have any serious reason to think that the complaint has substance to it.”
Redditt said Friday that “civil authorities” refers to agencies outside the church, such as the Department of Human Resources or law enforcement.
If the church did report such allegations to law enforcement or child care agencies, that would be above what current state law requires.
Certain professionals must report allegations of child abuse, but clergy are not included in that group. A bill making its way through the Legislature would change that, with some exceptions.
District Attorney John Tyson Jr. said Friday that in his nine years in the position, he has never been notified by the church of an abuse allegation. There are other law enforcement jurisdictions within the Archdiocese of Mobile, which extends to Montgomery.
Lipscomb also said in the deposition that he became aware of a sexual abuse problem within the church through news reports and lawsuits elsewhere in the country, starting in 1987 or 1988. “From a small beginning with increasing crescendo of concern.”
In 1985, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops received a 92-page report that defined types of sexual abuse and warned that pedophilia cannot be treated on an outpatient basis because “recidivism is so high.”
Lipscomb reflected on what caused the problem to erupt then.
“The Catholic Church is a product of the society in which it lives,” he said. “Our society underwent a general diminution of the inhibitors with regard to sexual freedom in the late’60s, the’70s and the’80s.
“Now this takes time for it to climb up the ladder and impinge upon even those individuals who in some instances are the guardians of these values. But in time they will impinge upon it.”