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Pope Francis: Remove the USA’s Predator Priests!

General_audience_with_Pope_Francis_7_on_March_18_2015_Credit_Daniel_Ibanez_CNA

When Pope Francis lands in the US this month, news reports will tout his latest pledge regarding the continuing abuse and cover up in the church: a first-ever tribunal that will reportedly consider cases of complicity by Catholic officials in child sex crimes by clerics.

But few if any news accounts will look at a more simple but equally crucial part of the crisis: how US church authorities are abiding by a much earlier pledge: to remove credibly accused predator priests from ministry.

This won’t be examined because it’s considered “old hat”. It’s become a widely accepted truism that since 2002, bishops in this country promptly oust clerics who are alleged abusers when the first report of wrongdoing surfaces.

This does happen, of course. But not nearly as often as it should. Today, 13 years after the “Dallas Charter” and its alleged “one strike and you’re out” provision, dozens of priests remain on the job across the US who should not be.

Consider these cases, each of which happened in the last decade or so and each of which involves under aged youngsters. Keep in mind that SNAP is a small non-profit with a tiny staff and no subpoena power or computer savvy. Using only public information found on line, we’ve discovered these reckless, callous cases. It’s frightening to think of how many other similarly situated priests are also still in parishes among unsuspecting church-goers who have never been told about these clerics’ pasts.

Fr. Virgilio Elizondo works as a Notre Dame University professor and for the San Antonio archdiocese training church workers from around the country. Yet in May of this year, he was sued for reportedly molesting a child in Texas. Neither of his employers have suspended him.

Fr. Gregory Yacyshyn is pastor of St. Jude’s parish in New York’s Rockeville Centre diocese. But in January of this year, a 20 year old girl, represented by the most experienced clergy sex abuse attorney in the US, sued Yacyshkyn and Rockville Centre diocesan officials over alleged sexual abuse she suffered when she was 8 years old.

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield heads the Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia diocese. But he was implicated by a victim in testimony about predator priest, Fr. Stanley Gana. A separate allegation against him was revealed by Philadelphia archdiocese in July 2012. But Bransfield remains in his post. He was not suspended nor did he temporarily step aside.

In April of this year, Fr. William Stoltzman was “returned to public ministry” and now “celebrates Masses on a fill-in basis” in the Twin Cities archdiocese. But In 1997, Fr. Stolzman was sent for an assessment because he was accused of having child pornography sent to his home. In 2008, a prison inmate reported to church staff that Fr. Stolzman sexually abused boys on camping trips. That same year, one of those victims wrote the St. Paul Archdiocese describing the crimes. Two months later, Fr. Stolzman retired. (Apparently, there was no announcement of the accusations to parishes or the public).

Fr. Johnny Savoie heads St. Pius church (and its parochial school) in Mobile, Alabama. In February 2014, he disclosed to his parishioners that he had been accused of molesting a child in a nearby town. Earlier this year, the allegation surfaced during a separate civil lawsuit brought by several families charging bullying at Savoie’s parish school. Archdiocesan officials did not publicly announce the abuse report, nor did they suspend or remove Savoie during their purported investigation.

Fr. Jerome F. Gillespie lives at St. Mary-St. Catherine of Siena parish, a Boston archdiocesan parish with a religious education program for kids. (He’s listed on the parish website under “clergy in residence.”). But in a Chelsea restaurant several years ago, he offered to pay a girl and her mom for oral sex. Gillespie has also undergone court-ordered evaluations for alcohol, psychiatric and sexual problems. A court dismissed charges against Gillespie and the Boston Archdiocese said Gillespie was fit to return to ministry.

Fr. Gilbert Dutel pastors St. Edmond Catholic Church in Lafayette, Louisiana (the diocese where, 30 years ago this summer, the first predator priest in the US attracted national headlines). But last year, an investigation by Minnesota Public Radio showed that child sex abuse allegations against Fr. Dutel were made in in the 1990s. Church records show that Fr. Dutel is accused of sexually abusing a boy in Abbeville and of coercing young men into having sex. The documents show no information was ever given to the police or made public regarding the allegations.

Fr. Michael W. O’Connell of Chicago faces two accusations of sexual abuse. But last year, then-Cardinal Francis George put Fr. O’Connell back on the job at St. Alphonsus parish in Lakeview. As late as six months later, many parishioners at St. Alphonsus didn’t know about a Cook County Sheriff Department’s investigation into the parish’s pastor.

Fr. Eric Swearingen of California was promoted last summer. He now oversees four parishes and a school in the Fresno diocese. But in a 2006 civil trial, jurors (by a 9-3 margin) found him guilty of molesting Juan Rocha when Rocha was a child. (On other counts concerning diocesan complicity, jurors deadlocked. So technically, it was a mistrial.) Fresno church officials insist Swearingen is innocent but they settled at least one civil child sex abuse lawsuit involving him.

Fr.  Raymond Larger of Cincinnati was convicted of soliciting sex from an undercover cop, criminally charged with molesting a child (but the case was dismissed) and faced two additional accusations. The Vatican reinstated him saying there was no merit to accusations of sexual abuse against him. After The Congregation concluded that Father Larger is to be allowed to exercise his priestly ministry, he is now working at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral.

Fr. Jeffrey M. Weaver is presumably in a Cleveland parish now. In November 2012, Bishop Richard Lennon announced he would put Fr. Weaver back on the job but refused to say where. But according to records released by prosecutors, Fr. Weaver “bought a teenager a large number of alcoholic drinks,” “then tried to French kiss him” while victim pushed him away in the rectory, “rubbed his legs above the knee, approaching his penis one time,” “locked his legs together over the victim’s legs, saying ‘isn’t this nice,’” and “put the victim’s hands on his (the priest’s) legs.”  A fellow Cleveland priest, Fr. John Wright, wrote a memo saying Fr. Weaver “often talked about the sex in the seminary he attended,” “admits he is gay to them (young people) and is available in a sexual way to them,” and has a pattern which seems to be “waiting until they are 18 years of age, not child, however, this is an example of sexual exploitation.” And according to a 1997 memo from Bishop James Quinn, Fr. Weaver “admits one regretful advance” toward this man, “something would have happened if Fr. Weaver had acted out his initial compulsion.”

Will Pope Francis’ tribunal actually be set up and used to discipline complicit church officials? Who knows? But it’s clear that there are still credibly accused child molesting clerics on the job today. Getting them ousted is “step one.”

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David Clohessy of St. Louis is the Director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.  He can be reached at: davidgclohessy@gmail.com.

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