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SNAP of Tennessee

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - Tennessee 

Dioceses reacting to priests' sex crimes


Dioceses reacting to priests' sex crimes

March 16, 2002

Nashville office has 'response team'  ready

By ANITA WADHWANI

 Staff Writer

 The Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville has in recent years added an internal "response team" of church officials and a mental health expert that is called into action to examine complaints of sexual abuse brought against priests.

 The diocese also began a safety education program in its 17 schools and church-based religious classes that includes teaching children how to spot, prevent and report such abuse.

 None of the diocese's 84 active or retired priests has been accused of pedophilia or any other misconduct involving children, diocese spokesman Rick Mussachio said.

 In light of a growing pedophilia scandal that began in Boston last January, Catholic dioceses across the country are revealing how they handle allegations of priests abusing children.

 While some dioceses are making accusations public, the Nashville diocese says it is not going to answer questions about whether priests no longer with the diocese have been accused of such acts, whether the church's response team has ever been activated, or whether police have been contacted or victims have come forward.

 In declining to comment, a Mussachio cited concerns about confidentiality involving personnel and possible victims. The diocese is also obligated to abide by a protective order not to discuss matters relating to a multimillion-dollar lawsuit involving a former Nashville priest.

 Edward McKeown, who admitted molesting 21 boys and was convicted in 1999 in the rape of a 12-year-old boy, is serving a 25-year prison sentence. A lawsuit filed against the diocese by two of Mc-Keown's victims and one of their mothers was dismissed by a judge last June but has been appealed.

 "I'm not going to talk about any reports we might or might not have made," Mussachio said. "It's our policy to not talk about any kind of personnel issues. ... If the police need to make that public we would certainly abide by that decision."

 Catholic dioceses in Knoxville and Memphis have come under scrutiny in the past week, as have dioceses across the country in response to the growing scandal in Boston. In recent months the Archdiocese of Boston has turned over the names of more than 90 priests accused of sexually abusing children.

 Last week, Florida Bishop Anthony O'Connell - the founding bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville - admitted inappropriately touching a teen-ager 25 years ago. Earlier this week the Catholic Diocese of Memphis went public with news that two priests had been removed from the diocese in the past 12 years for sexual misconduct involving teen-agers.

 This week the lawsuit against the Nashville diocese - the subject of national media attention when it first went to trial - has received renewed attention. People magazine and ABC News have contacted attorneys for the teen-age boys requesting to see court papers, said John Hollins Jr., attorney for one of the teens.

 Many of the documents in the case are sealed.

 In light of the growing scandal, some dioceses have responded by combing through old personnel files and handing over names of offenders to the police. Others are formulating new policies for reporting allegations.

 Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis and his staff decided about a month ago that they would release information on request about the two former priests there, but not their names, diocese spokesman John Morris said. Morris said that the diocese formulated a protocol in 1997 for handling abuse complaints against priests.

 In Knoxville, the diocese issued a statement immediately after O'Connell's revelations expressing sympathy for the victim. The diocese did not return calls for comment for this story.

 In Nashville, there have been no changes because policies have been in effect for several years, Mussachio said.

 "The bishop has repeatedly encouraged any potential victims to come forward, and we have pledged to fully cooperate with any investigation," he said.

 "We have no one serving in ministry or any capacity who's been accused of sexual misconduct with a minor. We have a policy of fully cooperating with law enforcement. We abide by state law" that requires most adults to report suspected incidents of sexual abuse involving children, Mussachio said.

 Mussachio would not comment on whether any victims of such abuse involving McKeown or other priests have come forward or whether any investigations are ongoing.

 The Metro Police Department and the Tennessee Department of Children's Services are not able to indicate in their records whether a priest has been accused of sexual abuse, according to police and the state.

 The diocese continues to defend itself against a lawsuit brought by one teen, his mother and another teen who accuse the church of not reporting former priest McKeown to authorities even though they knew he was an admitted pedophile.

 Church officials directed Mc-Keown to get treatment for pedophilia in 1986 and forced him from the priesthood in 1989.

 The lawsuit against the church was dismissed because the judge said the abuse, which began in 1994, occurred too long after Mc-Keown left the priesthood.