Monday, May 06, 2002

Many Catholics demand disclosure

But church leaders prefer not to reveal allegations

By Dan Horn,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Catholics in two Greater Cincinnati communities are asking the same question this week about priests recently accused of sexual misconduct:

        Why didn't church officials tell them about earlier accusations against those priests?

        The question has been asked countless times this year as Catholics from Boston to Pittsburgh to Cincinnati learned of sordid allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

        Many parishioners say the answer is to publicly disclose everything — even vague, unproven allegations — so they can protect themselves and their children from potential predators.

        The church, they say, has a moral obligation to not only call police, but to share the information with the parish.

        Church officials, however, say they also have an obligation to protect the rights and reputations of good priests. They say publicly airing just one false accusation can ruin a career.

        “It's a delicate balance,” said Bruce Lyons, a Florida defense attorney and past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It's a problem with no easy solution.”

        Solving the problem is especially difficult now, with scandals erupting almost daily across the country.

        Complaints of cover-ups and mismanagement have fueled suspicions that church officials resist public disclosure because they have something to hide.

        Those suspicions surfaced in Greater Cincinnati last week when two priests were accused of sexual misconduct.

        The Rev. Thomas Hopp was forced out of his job as pastor at Queen of Martyrs church in Dayton, Ohio, after a former parishioner, a man now in his 30s, accused the priest of molesting him in 1980.

        The Rev. James Kiffmeyer took a leave of absence from his teaching job at Elder High School in Price Hill after he was accused of inappropriate behavior involving an 18-year-old former student.

        In both cases, officials with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati have acknowledged they received at least one prior complaint about the priests' behavior.

        Catholics in both communities have expressed disappointment and, at times, outrage over the church's decision not to notify them sooner of the earlier complaints.

        “The church hasn't figured out the problem yet,” Queen of Martyrs parishioner Bill Wabler said last week. “They don't tell the truth and have been hiding it for years. And they haven't learned how to tell it yet.”

        Archdiocese officials say they understand the concerns of parishioners and take seriously any potential threat to children. But they dispute the notion that immediate public disclosure is always the best course of action.

        “We don't think it would be a good precedent to say that every time someone is accused of something we're going to make an announcement,” said archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco.

        “People have a right to their good reputations until the accusation is proven.”

        In most sexual abuse cases, public disclosure is rarely an issue.

Demand for disclosure

        That's because most cases are regarded as isolated incidents involving one child, or a small number of children, who is abused by a friend or relative.

        But when the accused abuser is a priest or teacher — someone who is around large numbers of children all the time — the demand for public disclosure grows.

        Parents want to know if their kids' math teacher, camp counselor or parish priest is suspected of wrongdoing, no matter how tenuous the evidence may be.

        But even schools are careful with what they disclose. At Cincinnati Public Schools, the emphasis is on removing potential threats rather than on publicly identifying them.

        The schools' attorney, John Concannon, said accused staff members are immediately removed from contact with children if the complaint is deemed credible. Public disclosure may come later, if the employee is fired or charged with a crime.

        “We're not about to ruin someone's career over a rumor,” Mr. Concannon said, “but we will check out every rumor.”

        That's not enough, some say, especially when the accused is in a position of authority or respect.

        “When bishops don't share accusations, they are essentially treating parishioners like dumb sheep,” said David Clohessy, director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “They're saying, "We don't trust them to make sound judgments.'”

        One reason church officials give for not disclosing information is that victims who come forward often ask to keep the allegations confidential.

        Prosecutors across the country, including several in Greater Cincinnati, don't buy that argument.

        They say police and prosecutors discreetly investigate sex abuse allegations and go out of their way to protect victims. Usually, the priest is named only if charges are filed.

        And if law enforcement can't prove a criminal case, prosecutors say, the church still has an obligation to review the evidence and decide if the accused priest is a potential threat to children.

        Sometimes, they say, the best way to protect kids is to disclose that information to parents.

        “Ideally, disclosure should be made,” said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen. “They ought to keep in mind the importance of protecting potential victims.”

        Church officials, however, see dangers in moving too quickly to publicly disclose allegations.

        “If you don't have any concrete or real evidence that somebody is abused ... it can tend to be very unfair,” said Mark VanderLaan, an attorney for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

        He said one of the best illustrations of that unfairness is the case of Steven Cook, a Cincinnati man who in a 1993 lawsuit accused Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of molesting him.

        Mr. VanderLaan said Mr. Cook had been manipulated by a therapist who convinced him he'd been abused by Cardinal Bernardin. Mr. Cook later recanted his claims.

        “It was a terrible, terrible situation,” Mr. VanderLaan said. “There is always going to be residual damage when something like that occurs.

        “There will always be people who remember the accusation but don't remember the retraction.”

A difficult decision

        Although the law is clear about child abuse allegations — any credible allegation must be reported to police — the decision to publicly disclose allegations is more subjective.

        Sometimes, the allegations don't rise to the level of a crime, but they are nonetheless inappropriate. And sometimes it's unclear what, if anything, the priest did wrong.

        In those kinds of cases, it's up to the church to determine the risk and decide whether to publicly disclose the allegations.

        “Any decision to disclose requires a significant need for judgment,” Mr. VanderLaan said. “It's hard to have an absolute rule.”

        Church officials say prior complaints about Father Hopp and Father Kiffmeyer did not suggest either was abusing children.

        The complaint about Father Hopp was made by a parishioner who felt it was inappropriate for the priest to hire a teen-age boy to do janitorial work at the church.

        The parishioner believed Father Hopp should not be alone with the boy, a rule that has been in place for all archdiocese employees for more than 10 years. The boy's parents told church officials they did not believe their son had been abused.

        In Father Kiffmeyer's case, the accuser was 18 at the time of the alleged offense, so child abuse was not an issue.

        Father Kiffmeyer has denied both the old and new allegations. Father Hopp admitted the 1980 molestation allegation against him.

        In each case, church officials say, the early allegations did not indicate the priest was a risk to children. And for that reason, they were not reported to police or publicly disclosed to the parish.

        That doesn't sit well with Mr. Clohessy, who questions the motives and judgment of church officials.

        “You've always got to err on the side of protecting kids,” Mr. Clohessy said. “It is much easier for a (falsely accused) grown-up to repair his reputation, than it is for a child to repair his life.”

        Saturday story: Elder High principal wasn't told about teacher's abuse settlement

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