The Rev. John Cornelius, a prominent Roman Catholic priest, resigned yesterday amid allegations that he molested at least a dozen men between 1968 and 1985. In a contritely worded statement, Cornelius apologized for the pain he has caused his accusers and the church and for the humiliation he has brought to his family, especially his adopted children.
But his apology stopped short of admitting to the numerous sexual molestation charges lodged against him.
“I am aware that this current situation, with the accusations against me, has caused a great deal of hurt to a large number of people,” he wrote. “To all those I have hurt, I express to you my sorrow and I ask for your forgiveness.”
Cornelius’ apology was read at a news conference yesterday by Bill Gallant, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle.
Cornelius, known for his charismatic preaching style, his civil-rights work and his adoption either formally or informally of 13 children, did not attend the news conference in Seattle and has not made himself available for interviews since the allegations began surfacing in April.
His resignation came two days after Archbishop Alex Brunett informed him that he would be removed from ministry.
Reactions to his resignation yesterday ranged from sadness and disbelief from his friends and loyal parishioners to disappointment from accusers.
Rick Barquet, 38, a Kent bus driver who accused Cornelius of molesting him in the 1970s, said that Cornelius’ apology yesterday never admitted guilt for specific actions.
“He was saying he was sorry for his failures, which I think was cheap,” Barquet said. “He should’ve said he was sorry for the harm he caused the young men that he attacked, for the lives he interrupted. He should apologize to God for using God as a gateway to vent his sexual fantasies or frustrations.”
Cornelius’ attorney, Anne Bremner, said Cornelius did not address the specific allegations in his statement in part because the archdiocese has yet to apprise him of all the accusations or show him the complaints.
“The only allegations he’s seen are the ones that have been in the newspaper,” Bremner said. Asked whether he admits to the published accusations, Bremner declined to comment until she’s had a chance to speak further with Cornelius.
But the carefully worded statement might also have been meant as a pre-emptive measure for expected legal action. At least three of Cornelius’ alleged victims are believed to be preparing a civil suit against the priest and the church.
Accuser: It wasn’t enough
Patrick Hoch, 46, an Oregon man who accused Cornelius of molesting him when he was 12, said Cornelius’ removal and resignation was “the least they could do.”
Hoch said he felt Cornelius’ statement was an admission of guilt and said he was happy that the priest finally “came out and said yes, he did it.”
“I believe the people of his church that he’s been ministering to needed to hear that,” Hoch added.
But Hoch also said he felt the apology wasn’t personal enough.
“I put my name out there for people to either call me a liar or say all this couldn’t have happened,” Hoch said. “And I took it very personally when he molested me. I would’ve felt more satisfaction if he would’ve said: ‘To those that have come forward by name — Patrick Hoch — I sincerely apologize for what I’ve done to you, for what I’ve done to your life.”
Supporters shocked, upset
Hugh Gerrard, a friend of the Cornelius family for 20 years, had staunchly defended the priest’s innocence. He reacted with shock yesterday upon hearing Cornelius’ statement.
“Oh my God,” Gerrard said. He now believes Cornelius’ resignation was the right thing to do.
“My family firmly supports Father and we pray for Father and the people that have come forward,” Gerrard said. “My love for him is not diminished in any way, because of what he’s done for me and my family. Good people sometimes do bad things.”
Fred Cordova, a member of the Central Area’s Immaculate Conception for 50 years, said he was sad to lose someone he knew as a good priest.
“I also wish that God can continue to certainly forgive him and to bless him in his life,” Cordova said. “Justice, at least, has been given to the victims.”
No saying Mass, no collar
The action announced yesterday stops short of defrocking Cornelius. Though he will still be a priest, with his living expenses paid for by the archdiocese, he will no longer be allowed to say Mass, wear the collar or represent himself as a minister, said Gallant.
Brunett made his decision based on the recommendations of a special-cases panel of a priest and five lay experts, including two former sexual-assault prosecutors. The panel is chaired by Auxiliary Bishop George Thomas.
“It saddens me greatly to know that many persons’ lives have been disturbed or damaged by the actions of one of our priests,” Brunett said in a prepared statement. “In the name of the Church, I offer my sincere and heartfelt apologies to the entire community with special sensitivity to those who have been hurt by the actions of Father John.”
The archbishop also stated that in recent weeks, new allegations were made by credible complainants who disclosed to the archdiocese additional charges against Cornelius. “This information has been turned over to the authorities,” he said.
Gallant said all of the new complaints involved abuse alleged to have happened before the mid-1980s. The King County prosecutor’s office could not be reached after hours for comment yesterday but has said in the past that charges are unlikely given the years that have elapsed since the alleged abuse.
A native of Philadelphia, Cornelius was a beloved figure in Seattle’s Central Area, where he served as pastor from 1978 to 1996 at Immaculate Conception Church. Most recently, he had been assigned to Everett’s Immaculate Conception parish.
He was placed on administrative leave in early April after a former television-news correspondent now living in Chicago accused Cornelius of sexually abusing him while he was a student at John F. Kennedy Memorial High School, a Catholic school in Burien. Since then, between 12 and 15 men have come forward, also alleging they were molested as boys or young men.
Cornelius’ involvement with teenage boys had been the stuff of whispers for years. But while there were rumors, there were few official church complaints. What most people saw were his dynamic preaching style, his championing of social causes and his ever-growing list of fans.
In his 18 years as pastor at Seattle’s Immaculate Conception, and as chaplain for the Seattle Police Department, Cornelius counted among his friends some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the city. Through their support, he drove new cars and lived in a big house along Lake Washington.
He turned services into marathon events, infusing usually solemn ceremonies with energy and joy. Church membership swelled.
Among those who came to attend Immaculate Conception were then-Seattle Police Chief Patrick Fitzsimons, community leader Larry Gossett and Marguerite Casey, a member of the Seattle family that founded United Parcel Service.
Among his friends were political leaders Norm Rice and Mike Lowry, and Lenny Wilkens of the NBA. Even the famous civil-rights activist Rosa Parks called on Cornelius when she came to town.
Nothing brought more attention to Cornelius than his official or informal adoption of some 13 black teenagers, starting in the early 1980s. He was an adoption advocate, pushing for a Seattle branch of “One Church, One Child,” a program that encourages church families to adopt black children.
But at the same time that Cornelius was growing in community esteem, the rumors continued.
First complaint arises
The first known complaint to church authorities was made in 1989, when a parish administrator heard third-hand of a sex allegation against Cornelius. The alleged victim was Barquet, a former Kennedy student, and the alleged abuse had taken place in the 1970s. Seattle police and the state’s Child Protective Services investigated the complaint and cleared Cornelius. Barquet maintains he was never questioned by either.
The second known complaint came in 1996, when an Idaho man told the archdiocese that Cornelius had molested him when he was a high-school student and Cornelius was in seminary.
The archdiocese again looked into it, and this time removed Cornelius from his post and placed him at Immaculate Conception in Everett as an assistant priest with limited duties. Cornelius underwent counseling and was assigned a parole officer to monitor him at archdiocese expense.
After the Chicago man filed his complaint in early April of this year, about a dozen more people responding to news stories called the archdiocese, accusing Cornelius of sexual molestation dating back to 1968 and as recently as 1985, with alleged victims as young as 12.
The Chicago man, who asked not to be identified, said he was “glad that the archdiocese has taken the action against him that it has taken.”
But “regardless of what he said and regardless of what action the archdiocese takes,” the man said, “it can’t reverse what happened to us. It can’t erase the painful memories that we still hold in our hearts and minds to this day.”