A Holy Cross priest who served at Little Flower Catholic Church for several years in the 1980s and 1990s is under scrutiny for allegedly fondling boys left in his care.
The accusations against the Rev. Paul LeBrun, 46, date back almost 20 years and are reportedly the subject of a local police investigation.
Members of the provincial office of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Indiana Province, acknowledged in a Sept. 12 interview that they are aware of molestation allegations concerning LeBrun.
Holy Cross officials said they met with the St. Joseph County prosecutor’s office and Indiana State Police several times during the summer about “one particular person,” but they would not discuss details of the investigation. The order confirms that it has willingly handed over files on the matter to authorities.
LeBrun’s attorney, Andrea Hoffman, released this statement on his behalf Friday: “Father LeBrun is looking forward to the completion of this investigation and is confident the charges will be determined unfounded.”
Bishop John M. D’Arcy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend declined requests for an interview. When reached by phone Friday, he said, “Where it’s a police investigation, it would not be right for me to say anything while they are investigating.
“It is part of our policy,” D’Arcy added, “to cooperate fully with public officials in investigations of this sort.”
The St. Joseph County prosecutor’s office confirmed an investigation.
“We are currently conducting an investigation of alleged sexual misconduct by a Holy Cross priest in conjunction with a law enforcement agency,” Prosecutor Chris Toth said in a prepared statement.
“These are obviously allegations only and we cannot comment on the details of the investigation,” Toth said. “Many investigations of this nature often center on the applicability of the statute of limitations to any alleged offense.”
According to the prosecutor’s office, the statute of limitations for cases involving fondling of a child is five years, if the incidents happened before 1988. If the fondling occurred after 1988, there are times when the case is still prosecutable until the victim is 31 years old.
Those restrictions could mean none of the following alleged incidents would be prosecutable. But four men, now 31, 31, 34 and 35 have come forward in the hope that any more recent victims might emerge.
Three of the four alleged victims told The Tribune they have already spoken with authorities. Those men and two mothers interviewed by The Tribune have asked that their real names not be printed. The name of an aunt was also changed. What follows are their accounts.
Fourteen-year-old Michael fell asleep easily on the house boat that July night in 1985 as it traveled down the Mississippi River. The rocking of the boat, the back rub a friend was administering and the songs his youth group mates were singing lulled him into a peaceful slumber.
An uneasiness woke him.
The lights were out, he said. The sing-along was over. His friends had all gone to bed. Yet someone was rubbing Ben Gay on his back.
“I’m getting my back rubbed, and it’s Paul,” Michael said of LeBrun.
“We were literally in the dark. He got up and washed his hands,” Michael remembered.
“He came back and rolled me over. I tried to get up, and he held me down. Suddenly, I’m getting rubbed in front. He immediately went for my genitals. Even though he washed his hands, it was like fire,” he said of the sensation from the Ben Gay. “If it wasn’t for the Ben Gay, I might have thought it was a dream.”
Michael said he got up and left the room. The burning sensation confirmed for him that two incidents earlier that summer in Florida were not dreams, either.
The trip to Fort Myers included Michael, his best friend (who was also a 14-year-old boy), LeBrun and a Holy Cross seminarian. For the boys, it was the summer between middle school and high school.
The condominium in which they stayed belonged to a Little Flower parishioner, Michael recalled.
“The whole trip was odd,” Michael said of the week’s vacation, where the kids were allegedly exposed to pornographic material and alcohol.
“On a rainy day, they took us into a video store,” Michael said, adding that LeBrun went into a room and emerged with porno tapes. “The back room was the XXX section.”
According to Michael, the clerk wouldn’t let LeBrun rent them because he was from out of state.
“On the way home, he bought a hard-core (pornographic) magazine, and I remember someone hung the centerfold up on the fridge door,” Michael said. “All the conversation was very sexually charged.”
Vodka and orange juice was provided for the kids, Michael said, while LeBrun and the seminarian drank scotch and vodka heavily.
The boys figured they would sleep in the same room.
“There were two bedrooms. My friend and I threw our gear in one room and LeBrun said, ‘No, that’s not the sleeping arrangements,’ ” Michael said.
Michael bunked with LeBrun in one bed, he said. In the other room, Michael’s friend shared a bed with the seminarian.
After a day in the sun, Michael said, LeBrun suggested Michael sleep in his underwear, and he insisted on rubbing aloe vera on Michael’s body.
“Nothing happened, and I fell asleep. (LeBrun) was drinking and reading,” Michael said.
“I had been sleeping on my chest, but he pulled me over. Then all of a sudden, it’s like, Wait a second. I’m not sunburned there,” Michael said.
“I wanted to open my eyes, but I rolled over, and he rolled me back over. He pulled it out above the waistband,” Michael said of his penis.
Michael said LeBrun tried to touch him again another night, but Michael acted like he was still asleep and rolled over, away from LeBrun. Michael made sure to stay awake until LeBrun fell asleep.
“He’d drink a half-gallon of scotch at night,” Michael said, “so eventually he’d fall asleep.”
The other boy on the trip said nothing happened in the other bedroom between him and the seminarian.
‘Taking this head on’
Michael, now 31, asserts that LeBrun, a Holy Cross priest and the associate pastor at Little Flower Catholic Church at the time, fondled him perhaps three times on three trips to different states in 1985 and 1986.
He said LeBrun tried to touch him other times on retreats between August 1985 and June 1986, but Michael was on guard.
“I had to sleep on the zipper of my sleeping bag on retreats,” Michael said. “I know there were two to four times when he made an attempt to get into my sleeping bag. He couldn’t figure out where the zipper was. He couldn’t get to the zipper.”
The last time was on a school bus in the summer of 1986 as the Little Flower youth group traveled back to South Bend from a trip to a parish in Arizona.
With the Florida and Mississippi River incidents behind him, Michael said he tried to avoid being near LeBrun. Michael secretly hated LeBrun but loved being part of the youth group.
At one point on the bus, Michael had to sit next to LeBrun because there was simply nowhere else to sit.
“He started rubbing my back and saying, ‘You’re awfully tense. Here, lean against me.’ He got a blanket around me and stuck his hands down my pants,” Michael said. “I sat up, threw the blanket on his lap and walked away.”
At the next gas station stop, Michael said he went up to LeBrun and told him “if he ever f — ing touched me again, I’d kill him.”
“I thought, ‘I’m taking this head on.’ I told some students. I had to tell someone,” Michael said. “I was 14, I didn’t know what the course of action was. I went to other peer ministers and friends.”
Michael said those he talked to went straight to LeBrun.
“I tried to get it out through the proper channels, but they ran to Paul,” Michael said. “They thought it couldn’t happen.”
For 17 years, Michael has tried not to think about what was allegedly done to him. He moved to the Southeast, married and had two children. He never spoke a word of the incidents to his parents or his wife.
But then a phone call in May from Indiana State Police investigator Sgt. Don McCay evoked all the memories and resentment.
“It’s one of those things that I put behind me for so long,” Michael said. “Once I was contacted by police, I had to deal with this again.”
According to people The Tribune has spoken with, Indiana State Police have interviewed several victims and others, including parishioners.
“My parents didn’t know. They found out a month ago,” Michael said in August.
Why didn’t he tell them? How could he carry such a burden for so long?
Michael sobbed, “Because I knew it would ruin their faith.”
All along, Michael thought he was the only victim: “I only found out recently that there were others.”
He didn’t know that David, a childhood acquaintance, would later say he also had been a victim of LeBrun since 1980, when LeBrun was a seminarian.
David, who has not yet spoken with Indiana State Police, was 9 when LeBrun allegedly fondled him.
David said the alleged abuse began during the years 1980-1985. He said he could probably reel off 10 incidents off the top of his head but thinks there were several more times LeBrun touched him inappropriately.
“I never talked about this to anyone. The first time I told anyone was this week,” David said of the investigation he just learned about Monday.
David’s family contacted him after other victims who had talked to police started to look for him.
“I’m not real comfortable talking about it,” David told a Tribune reporter.
He described an incident that occurred when LeBrun took him to a movie in 1980.
“He groped me pretty good that time. It lasted 20 minutes,” David said. He was 10 at the time.
David said LeBrun reached through the leg of his shorts and under his underwear to touch his genitals.
David said LeBrun was so much fun to be around when he was a child, he didn’t dwell on the fondling; he didn’t even know what it was. “I never felt violated at the time,” David said.
By high school, he said he understood what had happened but was too embarrassed about it to tell anyone.
“I pretty much blocked it out,” he said.
Ann, David’s aunt, says she considered LeBrun a close personal friend until a week ago.
That’s when David told her that LeBrun had allegedly fondled him several times in the early 1980s.
“I found out Monday. I’ve cried over this. I’m just cried out,” she said Friday.
“When my nephew was talking to me, it was like I was talking to a child — an 8-year-old,” Ann said. Her nephew told her he was embarrassed and ashamed and had trouble telling her details.
Four days later, David spoke with his mother, Molly.
Molly, Ann’s sister, said she is devastated.
“How could I have let this evil man in my house? I was so protective of my kids,” Molly said. “I went to church. I was a good Catholic. I thought, ‘God has brought (LeBrun) into our lives to keep us on the right path.’ I was a divorced single mom.”
Molly hopes that now that her son has cleared his conscience, he can move on.
“I know we are going to see a whole different person here. I think he’s going to be happier. The anger won’t be there. There won’t be anger at the drop of a hat,” Molly said, acknowledging that her son will need extensive counseling.
“Betrayal — that’s a great word. I’m done with Paul LeBrun,” Ann said.
She said LeBrun wrote to her just before her nephew dropped his bombshell. She said LeBrun warned her that news was about to break about an Indiana State Police investigation involving alleged misconduct.
Ann said he assured her that he had never broken his vow of celibacy.
“If you look up the word celibacy in the dictionary it says ‘sexual intercourse.’ Well, he didn’t have intercourse,” Ann said.
Another family’s story
Henry, now 35, recalls being terrified when he woke up one night in 1982 to find his seminarian friend’s hand inside his pajama pants. Henry was 14 years old then.
“He was actually feeling me with his hand,” Henry said of the incident.
It was the summer of 1982 when he, his 13-year-old brother, Sam, and two other young boys traveled to Cascade, Colo., to be with LeBrun, then a Holy Cross seminarian. Henry said the Colorado home belonged to a friend of LeBrun. LeBrun was studying at the nearby Holy Cross Novitiate, Henry said.
Henry and Sam’s grandfather drove the four boys across the country and left them in LeBrun’s care.
LeBrun provided them with alcohol, they said. The house was spacious, and everyone fought over who would get the big bedroom, according to Henry and Sam.
“Everyone wanted to sleep in the master bedroom. There was a Jacuzzi. It was like a reward,” Sam said of LeBrun’s room.
“It was a rotational thing. The lucky one got to sleep in the bed with Paul,” Henry said. “I woke up with the guy’s hands in my pants, and I acted like I was asleep and rolled over. I put the brakes on how close I was with him after that.”
Henry and Sam didn’t compare notes until the late 1980s. Sam didn’t tell Henry that LeBrun had touched him as early as 1979.
The brothers say Indiana State Police questioned them this summer about LeBrun and alleged incidents like the one Henry described.
LeBrun was recommended as a counselor for Henry and Sam. The boys regarded him as a male mentor, someone to fill the hole left when their parents divorced and the boys’ father abducted their brother and moved to another country, violating a court decree.
They say they met LeBrun at St. Joseph grade school in South Bend in the fall of 1979, when Henry was 12 and Sam was 11. “We were put on a list of children whose parents were going through a divorce. They pulled us out of class to talk to him,” recalled Sam, now 34.
Henry and Sam were dazzled by LeBrun. They said LeBrun would show them his leather jacket and stiletto switchblade he told them were from his days as a gang member growing up in Brussels, Belgium.
“He drove a jacked-up Monte Carlo,” Sam said of the car LeBrun had as a priest. “We thought he was cool.”
When LeBrun would counsel the kids, he’d even allow them to cuss in his office.
“He gave you the impression that it was cool to be Catholic. He was a cartoon character, a superhero,” Henry said.
“I just loved Paul,” Sam said. “I thought he was the best father figure. I just couldn’t believe he was a priest.”
LeBrun became a fixture at the boys’ home soon after they met. The first night he came to dinner, LeBrun allegedly made a move on Sam.
‘Nothing to be shy about’
“After dinner that night when I was in seventh grade, Paul came upstairs to watch TV with me,” Sam said.
“I was sitting on the end of the bed and Paul lay down sideways and put his arm around me,” Sam said. “I leaned up against him. He put his hand in my waistband. I pulled away and sat up.”
Sam said LeBrun told him he was trying to gauge Sam’s openness, since LeBrun was to be his therapist.
“I thought, ‘Oh, maybe that makes sense,’ ” Sam said.
Sam remembers another strange incident in 1981, when he was 13.
“I remember one time I was playing football and I got hurt. I was speared in the stomach,” Sam said. “Paul said he had to check to make sure it wasn’t a hernia.
“I said, ‘No, I think that it’s fine.’ Then I thought, ‘Oh, it’s Father Paul. Maybe he knows something.’ We were at my mom’s house and I pulled my pants down. He felt underneath my testicles. He moved my penis from side to side. It was a one-minute kind of thing, and he said, ‘No, I think you’re OK,’ ” Sam said.
Sam said his mother, Betty, walked in when LeBrun was pulling up Sam’s pants.
About a month later, Sam said he stayed overnight at Moreau Seminary on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, on the floor in LeBrun’s room.
“The lights were turned off and we were in the dark. I was on the floor and Paul was in the bed. He said, ‘It’s been a while. We should check that hernia.’ I said, ‘No, no.’ And he said, ‘It’s been a long time, let’s make sure it’s OK.’ I said, ‘No, just drop it. It’s fine.’ Paul said, ‘It’s nothing to be shy about.’ I said, ‘No. Forget it,’ ” Sam said.
Henry said LeBrun also checked him twice for hernias when he complained of stomach cramps.
He said on both occasions, LeBrun had Henry lie on his mother’s bed. According to Henry, LeBrun took off Henry’s pants and touched his genitals.
Sam didn’t tell anyone of his experiences with LeBrun until 1986, when he told his grandfather, a strong Catholic who served as a deacon at another South Bend church. His grandfather had wanted to know why Sam didn’t go to church anymore.
“I said, ‘OK, this is my big hang-up,’ and I told him about Paul,” Sam said, adding it was the only time he saw his grandfather cry.
“It hurt him so bad. That was his faith,” Sam said. “He drove us to Colorado.”
Sam thinks that his grandfather felt guilty about driving them to Colorado in 1982, where LeBrun allegedly fondled Henry.
“He didn’t say it, but I’m sure that’s what he was thinking, that he put us in that situation,” Sam said.
The year after Sam’s news, their grandfather died.
Sam also said LeBrun’s actions ruined his relationship with his estranged father. LeBrun had been his father figure, so Sam wondered if molesting was what fathers did.
“I was concerned that my dad could do something, if Father Paul could do that,” Sam said.
When he was 16, Sam visited his dad. He winced whenever his father tried to hug him.
“The whole time I was there, seeing my father for the first time in seven years, all I kept thinking about was if my dad pulls this, I’ll just kill myself,” Sam said.
Sam said he distanced himself from LeBrun after the encounters in the early 1980s, but he did not end his relationship with him.
“I was brainwashed into thinking that maybe I was just misunderstanding something. He’s a priest for goodness sake,” Sam said.
“The positives outweighed the negatives, I guess. We just desperately wanted a male role model in our lives,” Sam said. “They feed on that — predators — they know kids long for attention and a male figure who acts like he cares for them.”
Betty, their mother, also calls LeBrun a predator.
‘It didn’t register’
In the fall of 1979, Betty’s personal world crumbled. She was wrapping up a messy divorce when her husband abducted their 1-year-old son, of whom she had custody, and took him to another country.
“I was shell-shocked from my son’s kidnapping and the damage caused by an emotionally abusive husband,” Betty said. “I was regrouping.”
Betty said she found strength in her Catholic faith and in her love for her sons Henry, 12, and Sam, 11.
She said she found a priest to counsel her. Through the elementary school, the boys met a Holy Cross seminarian who was building a reputation as an excellent counselor for troubled youth. His name was Paul LeBrun.
“(Sam) met the counselor at school and asked if he could come to dinner,” Betty said.
“I remember saying, ‘Mom, I just met my new best friend,’ ” Sam said.
Betty, whose father was a deacon, grew up with priests around the house, so inviting this seminarian into their lives was natural. LeBrun became a regular Sunday night dinner guest.
Betty and LeBrun became good friends, according to Betty. At her house, they’d sit at the dining room table and talk. She said that on retreats, he’d preside and she would chaperone the girls and cook the food.
One night at her house, she walked up the stairs to the second floor to call everyone for dinner. She said she went into Sam’s room and witnessed LeBrun groping her 13-year-old son.
“I walked in to call them to dinner and LeBrun was bending over (Sam). His hands were in his pants. I said, ‘What is going on in here?’ LeBrun jumped up 3 feet,” Betty said.
She said LeBrun quickly explained that he was checking Sam for a hernia. Betty, a devout Catholic who revered priests and who says she never knew about man/boy pedophilia, accepted the explanation and told them dinner was ready.
Betty wept at the recollection.
“My sorrow is that it didn’t compute what was happening. It didn’t register that sexual abuse just occurred,” Betty said. “If I had a daughter, it would have registered.”
In 1986, 18-year-old Sam was on Betty’s mind a lot because he was having some substance abuse issues. As she walked up that staircase in her home, five years after what she had seen in Sam’s bedroom, Betty had a flashback.
Betty went to Henry and told him what she recalled.
“He said, ‘Oh, that happened to (Sam) too?’ ”
She went to her priest counselor and reported the incidents, asking him to take it to the Holy Cross provincial.
“He told me the provincial discounted the incidents happened, apparently because (Henry) had been sleeping and could have dreamed it and because mine was a flashback,” Betty said.
Betty said she tried to take the allegations to various local law enforcement agencies, but her efforts led nowhere. Her sons also discouraged her from pursuing the cases because they were worried about what their peers would think.
In 1986, LeBrun left Little Flower, where he had been associate pastor since his ordination in 1983. He was transferred to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. There, he worked in two parishes, primarily with youth.
In 1993, Betty said, she was “shocked” to learn that LeBrun was back at Little Flower, this time as the senior pastor; she felt there was nothing left that she could do.
“By this time, I knew everything about pedophilia, and here they have him as their pastor,” Betty said.
In late 1998, Betty ran into the priest to whom she had taken her case in 1986. She said they talked again about LeBrun.
She said that soon after that conversation, the Rev. Robert Epping, the first assistant provincial of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Indiana Province, called her. It is Epping’s job to investigate such allegations.
“Father Epping was the first person to look at the situation seriously,” Betty said.
Epping interviewed her, Henry and Sam.
“Epping told us the situation would be taken care of and Paul would be removed (from Little Flower) and was being sent away for treatment,” Sam said. “Epping said we wouldn’t have to worry about seeing him in South Bend again.”
On separate occasions since 1999, Henry and Betty said, they each ran into LeBrun on the Notre Dame campus.
“We didn’t even get a courtesy call from Epping saying he’s coming back,” Sam said.
LeBrun lives at the Holy Cross Mission House at the Fatima Retreat Center on Indiana 933.
LeBrun left Little Flower in 1999 for what the provincial’s office still calls “health reasons.”
“We are the reason he was taken out of Little Flower,” Betty said of LeBrun’s exit.
After LeBrun left the parish, friends of his said they visited him at the Southdown Institute in Toronto in 1999.
Epping recently called Southdown “a therapeutic facility for priests and religious men and women who deal with all sorts of issues in their lives. … They would not deal with medical (issues), more the psychological.”
Epping would not say what LeBrun’s treatment was.
“Oh, I think that would be unfair. It’s like asking the pope, does he really have Parkinson’s disease,” Epping said. “I don’t think we should discuss why anybody would go to a facility.”
In January 2000, LeBrun began a new job as a contract chaplain for the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.
On the surface, what happened to LeBrun’s career beginning in 1999 is consistent with Holy Cross policy for cases involving sexual abuse by a priest.
An attorney for the Holy Cross order, Richard A. Nussbaum II, said, “If that information is credible, then that person, against whom the allegation is made, is confronted with that information (and) taken from public ministry. If that person is at a parish, that person is taken out of the parish, is given treatment, and, until there is a full and complete investigation and a full and complete treatment, there won’t be any public ministry.”
Epping said prison ministry is an exception. It is considered controlled public ministry.
In June 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Dallas and created the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a document that outlines how the church should address sexual abuse allegations against clergy.
“In Dallas is where the bishops made a very clear statement that people who have offended in the past would not exercise any public ministry,” Epping said.
According to officials at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, LeBrun’s tenure there ended in July 2002.
Since then, LeBrun has been without an assignment. When asked what LeBrun is doing now, Epping responded, “Living.”
When asked what LeBrun will be doing in the future, Epping said, “We’re working on that.”
Nussbaum said Holy Cross is cooperating with officials.
“We do not have a situation here like, for instance, Boston, where there was a problem with allegations of inappropriate conduct by priests in one parish and that priest is moved to another parish and it occurred there,” Nussbaum said. “That is so far from the truth here that it’s not even close.”
Betty met with Indiana State Police in the spring and told them of her family’s experience with LeBrun.
Although the investigation has not resulted in charges, she is hopeful that victims with more recent cases might emerge.
“I especially encourage other potential victims of LeBrun to come forward so that they, too, can be freed of misplaced shame and feelings of blame,” she said. “I think all victims should come forward, even if the cases can’t be prosecuted. Placing the responsibility where it belongs is one of the first steps in the healing process for victims of sexual abuse.”
Although not confirming the investigation, Sgt. Don McCay of the Indiana State Police Bremen post said people can call him.
“If someone has such allegations, we’re always interested in hearing about them,” McCay said.
Attorney Nussbaum said Holy Cross wants people to come forward. “If … there was inappropriate conduct by Holy Cross priests, we want to know about it. If they feel uncomfortable coming to us, then they should go to civil authorities,” Nussbaum said.
Betty says the fallout of pedophilia by a priest is “spiritually horrendous.”
“Today, I have a tremendous distrust of the spirituality aspect of the church,” she said. “I wonder if it exists.”
Henry said he attends church occasionally.
“I’ve been acquainted with enough priests who are truly into their vocation that I am not opposed to the church,” he said. “But I scrutinize the hell out of priests. I don’t trust them.”
Sam said he is considering other religions.
“It’s my faith. He’s attempted to destroy my faith in the church,” Sam said of LeBrun, “and that really upsets me.”
David said he stopped going to church when he realized what LeBrun had been doing to him.
“I used to go every Sunday. Since 1985, I quit going,” David said.
Michael said he has not gone to confession since his incidents with LeBrun.
“Who is he to forgive my sins? Why does there need to be a man between me and God?” Michael said. “I don’t need a priest.”