One of the Dallas Catholic Diocese’s most prominent priests has remained on duty for several months despite an accusation that he grabbed the genitals of a worshipper who had asked him for help, correspondence and interviews show.
The case raises questions about whether the diocese is following its sexual misconduct policies, which were toughened in the wake of clergy abuse scandals that cost more than $30 million in legal settlements. It has also exposed deep divisions between Bishop Charles Grahmann and the man named as his apparent successor nearly three years ago.
Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante, one of the nation’s most outspoken prelates on abuse issues, said he has been unable to persuade Bishop Grahmann to remove the Rev. Ramon Alvarez as head priest of the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The allegations against the priest surfaced in May, when a 58-year-old man told the diocese that Father Alvarez had assaulted him on a Sunday night in 1991. Garland Melancon said he was visiting Dallas and suffering severe back pain when the priest agreed to perform a pain-relief blessing, then pulled down his jogging pants, groped him and propositioned him.
Father Alvarez acknowledged “inappropriate contact” with the Houston-area man and was told to resume counseling about “boundary issues” that he’d previously undergone voluntarily, diocesan Chancellor Mary Edlund said. She characterized the encounter as consensual but would not discuss details. No civil or criminal charges have been filed; the legal deadline for doing so may have passed.
The priest, 47, declined interview requests from The Dallas Morning News, as did Bishop Grahmann. Ms. Edlund and the bishop’s spokesman said he has dealt appropriately with the Alvarez matter.
Bishop Galante said he did not get a detailed briefing about the situation until early October and has been urging action since.
He said when he asked Ms. Edlund whether the allegation were true, “She said, ‘There is some truth.’ She didn’t go into details.”
Bishop Galante said he still has not received a full description of Father Alvarez’s account but has learned enough to conclude that the priest should be removed indefinitely from the cathedral, both for punitive reasons and to promote his own healing.
Father Alvarez’s high-profile downtown church, known until recently as the Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe, has more than 50,000 registered families and celebrated its 100th anniversary last month.
In a written policy, the Dallas Diocese says that clergy sexual misconduct “will not be tolerated under any circumstances.” Misconduct is defined as including any sexual contact with a minor or an adult.
The policy states that if allegations “are supported by sufficient evidence,” the priest will be promptly removed from duty. Final discipline is not specified.
The diocese responds to adult and child sex-abuse allegations in essentially the same way, Ms. Edlund said in an interview. If she makes a preliminary determination that an accusation is credible, the priest is suspended while a full investigation is conducted â€“ and permanently removed from ministry if that inquiry finds the allegation to be true.
Bishop Galante said church law does not allow for permanent removal if there is no evidence of persistent misconduct.
But he said the diocese should have asked Father Alvarez to step aside while the matter was investigated and reviewed by a lay board. “This is not something we should brush aside,” he said.
Father Alvarez has not been suspended or had his conduct reviewed by a board. In a written statement, the diocese told The News that “this matter has been thoroughly reviewed by the diocesan officials. Bishop Grahmann after consultation with advisors and professionals determined that based upon the facts there are no impediments to Father Alvarez continuing in ministry.”
Ms. Edlund, who runs the diocese’s day-to-day operations, and diocese spokesman Bronson Havard said a full investigation was unnecessary because they considered the priest’s accuser not credible. One reason was that Mr. Melancon “wanted to be paid for his silence,” Mr. Havard said, noting that he has not pressed civil or criminal charges.
Mr. Havard and Ms. Edlund cited a letter Mr. Melancon sent to the diocese in July. It formalized the claims he made in a May phone call and explicitly alleged assault. His letter also sought payment for therapy plus “monetary compensation for the effect this traumatic experience has had on me, my wife and our mental health.”
“If I don’t hear from you within five working days,” Mr. Melancon wrote, “I will assume that this matter is not that important to you and my only recourse will be to seek support through the media.”
He later hired a Houston attorney, Felecia Peavy, who asked the diocese to pay him $45,000. That’s less than many settlements paid to accusers in this and other dioceses, Bishop Galante said, though he added that Ms. Peavy had recently increased the demand to $85,000.
“It’s about accountability,” not silence, Ms. Peavy said.
Mr. Havard and Ms. Edlund also said that Mr. Melancon may have been interested in physical intimacy with the priest. They noted that in his letter, Mr. Melancon said he agreed to have dinner with Father Alvarez after the priest heard his confession and agreed to go to the cathedral priests’ living quarters for the blessing.
“He didn’t see warning signs?” Mr. Havard asked. “Or was he in some other state of mind that warning signs were not important? We don’t know.”
Mr. Havard also said that Mr. Melancon may be driven by homophobia, even though the spokesman said Father Alvarez maintains he is not gay. Mr. Havard cited an e-mail from the accuser that urged Ms. Edlund to “consider what the knowledge that their pastor is gay would have on the parish.”
In a recent interview, Mr. Melancon said he had lashed out in that e-mail because Ms. Edlund seemed more concerned about Father Alvarez than him. He said he was angry to now hear how the diocese was questioning his credibility.
“I never saw it coming,” Mr. Melancon said of his experience with Father Alvarez. “In retrospect, I was very naive.”
He recounted a childhood in heavily Catholic south Louisiana, where the church was central to daily life and priests were “as close as I could get to Jesus.” He said he grew up to be a regular, devout churchgoer and feels bad even now about criticizing any priest.
Ms. Peavy called the questions about her client “red herrings.” She said the diocese has never asked to meet him and instead “just summarily dismissed this man.”
Bishop Galante sounded a similar note.
“He’s not the issue,” he said of Mr. Melancon. “All of these things may be true, but that in itself doesn’t say whether this happened and what we’re doing about it.”
Bishop Galante is a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and was one of the most vigorous advocates for a policy requiring that all priests who have molested children be permanently removed from ministry. He said that policy â€“ adopted by the bishops at their June meeting in Dallas but later ordered revised by the Vatican â€“ needs a companion document to cover abuse of adults.
Letter to the diocese
In his July letter to the diocese, Mr. Melancon said he has had friendships with several priests and previously had received pain-relief blessings. One priest confirmed this to The News, saying that he simply laid his hands on Mr. Melancon’s clothed back and prayed.
Mr. Melancon said his encounter with Father Alvarez took a different and traumatic turn, one that he told no one about and tried to forget. He said he finally confided in his wife earlier this year, when stories about clergy abuse were making national news.
“I was wearing a jogging suit,” he wrote to the diocese, “and before I knew what was happening, he pulled my pants and drawers down, grabbed my testicles and said, ‘I want to bless your testicles!'” Mr. Melancon said he was shocked, pulled up his pants and left, even as Father Alvarez was asking him to masturbate and spend the night.
In her response to his letter, Ms. Edlund wrote to Mr. Melancon that Father Alvarez “began intense counseling with a psychologist” in the mid-1990s and “worked diligently to ensure that he would respect boundaries and act appropriately in all of his encounters.”
Ms. Edlund added that Bishop Grahmann had now ordered the priest back into counseling and had met with the psychologist, who “assured him that Father has developed significantly since the 1991 episode you described and that he poses no threat to people in his parish.”
In an interview, Ms. Edlund said that no one else has ever accused Father Alvarez of sexual misconduct. He entered therapy the first time on his own, she said, adding that the diocese did not learn this until recently. She said she did not know specifically what had led him to seek help.
Ms. Edlund and Mr. Havard said adult-abuse accusations are more difficult to assess than child molestation allegations. Sexual contact with a child is criminal on its face, they noted, while a priest can defend contact with an adult as consensual.
“You’ve got to assume it’s consensual unless there is an assault and someone goes running right to the police,” Mr. Havard said. “In today’s environment, when we get sued for anything and everything, if we gave in to all those pressures we would make our people vulnerable to any weirdo allegation out there.”
Victim advocates and counseling experts say adults often stay silent for the same reasons children do, such as shock, shame and fear of not being believed.
Mr. Havard said he knew of no Dallas priest now on duty who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing an adult.
In August, Bishop Grahmann suspended the Rev. Ernesto Villaroya from a small-town parish after a former nun accused him of raping her 19 years ago, when they both lived in the Philippines. The priest admitted fathering her child but said the sex was consensual.
A key reason for Father Villaroya’s removal, Ms. Edlund said, was that his accuser went public with a lawsuit. Father Villaroya’s future will be determined, in part, by the diocesan personnel board on which Father Alvarez serves.
A Dallas native, Father Alvarez grew up in the Little Mexico neighborhood near downtown, graduated from the University of Dallas and was ordained in 1982.
After stints at several parishes, he became an assistant pastor at the cathedral in 1988. There, he and the Rev. Larry Pichard started a pre-seminary training program for young Latin American immigrants.
Bishop Grahmann, after coming to Dallas in 1990, made Father Alvarez his assistant, chancellor and vocations director â€“ the person who oversees priest candidates. The priest also continued to work at the cathedral until the mid-1990s, then moved to pastorates at two East Dallas churches before becoming the cathedral’s rector in the late 1990s.