U.S. abuse cases find some local parallels
Victims' families want end to reassignments, say attention is relief
By LAURA FRANK
April 28, 2002
As top American Catholic clerics in Rome last week wrestled with the problem of what to do about child-molesting priests, Nashvillians who faced the same issue here said this city's experience could offer some lessons.
Some say those are "how to" lessons others say they're "how not to."
Three years before molestation revelations in Boston erupted into a national scandal that caught the attention of the populace and the pope, Nashville faced its own priest-child sex abuse crisis. It came to light when former priest Edward J. McKeown was arrested in January 1999 on charges of raping a 12-year-old boy.
McKeown admitted molesting 20 more boys dating to 1973, and said an unidentified priest had molested him as a boy. Some victims also named fellow former priest Franklin T. Richards, who later admitted molesting some 25 boys during the same time frame.
McKeown and Richards were reassigned to new parishes after victims alerted church officials in the 1980s. However, as was the case in Boston, church officials did not warn the new parishioners of the abuse.
Compare Nashville's experience with those in Boston and other cities, and two differences stand out:
- The law in Tennessee requires any citizen who suspects that a child has been abused to call authorities. Lawmakers in Massachusetts and other states are working to change reporting laws.
- While officials in several other cities have followed reports of clergy abuse with requests that diocesan officials hand over the names of accused priests spanning back decades, that has not happened here.
And it is not likely to happen, said Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson.
"I'm not sure a blanket dredging-up would be very helpful to anybody,'' Johnson said. "I believe that the issue has been adequately addressed.''
Given the amount of media attention in the McKeown case, Johnson said, he thinks any other suspects probably would have been reported to police by now. Nashville Diocese officials say they are certain that no accused abusers are active in the ministry here.
"We have no one working in the ministry who's been accused of sexual misconduct with a minor,'' spokesman Rick Musacchio said. "I think there have been people certainly concerned about what they see in the press. Once people understand how different the situation is here from other dioceses, I think they feel a lot better.''
John Allbert disagrees.
Allbert, 53, calls himself a survivor. He was one of the people who contacted the Nashville Diocese in 1999 after officials there asked victims to come forward.
"I think they should hand over names,'' Allbert said. "I think if they know who abused McKeown, they should name him.
"The situation in Nashville is just as bad as Boston or New York or Illinois. Scores of boys have been abused. The Nashville Diocese transferred priests who were abusers.''
In many ways, Allbert is right, says the former Nashville assistant district attorney general who prosecuted McKeown.
"The same thing that happened all over the country happened right here,'' said Helen Donnelly Marrone, a civil attorney for an Atlanta law firm. "From my investigation in Nashville and from what I've learned in civil practice deposing numerous priests, it's clear the Catholic Church has demonstrated that it's not very good at policing itself. "
Nashville Diocese officials say abuse accusations against McKeown and Richards were reported to them in the 1980s. Both were sent for treatment and then sent to other parishes. Diocese officials say the men were instructed to stay away from children. But McKeown was allowed to help with the youth group at St. Ignatius in Antioch, and Richards taught religion to grade school children at Christ the King, according to church records.
Both eventually were asked to leave the ministry. But, at least in McKeown's case, the abuse continued. McKeown is serving a 25-year prison sentence without parole. Richards lives in Florida. He was never prosecuted because his victims were teen-agers at the time, and under the law then, abuse of teen-agers had a statute of limitations, which had expired by 1999.
During an interview with Nashville police in February 1999, Richards said he had undergone psychiatric treatment for his pedophilia. He said the treatment worked, that he hadn't touched a boy sexually in 15 years, and that he no longer had the desire to do so.
Church leaders say allegations against both men were reported to state authorities, as the law requires, in the 1980s at what is now the Department of Children's Services. However, no evidence exists to support that claim.
Diocese officials have described abuse by McKeown and Richards as isolated incidents. But Allbert says abuse by clergy in Nashville stretches further back than McKeown and Richards. And so, he says, does the cover-up.
"I can't trust the church anymore,'' Allbert says. "I've had lots of anger. I've had therapy. I had gotten over it a little bit. Now this is bringing it all up again.''
Allbert said a priest named Paul Frederick Haas raped him in June 1963 at the St. Ann's Catholic Church in west Nashville. Haas died in 1978.
When Allbert contacted the diocese, officials there "took him at his word,'' Musacchio says, but did not attempt to determine whether Haas might have abused anyone else. "This was someone who left the ministry and subsequently died,'' Musacchio said.
Haas' brother, J.R., said he knew of no allegations made against Haas. Church officials did send him away for "rest" at one point, after a mental breakdown, he said.
Allbert believes that Haas was shifted from diocese to diocese after incidents of abuse, just as McKeown, Richards and priests in Boston and other cities were.
The two-day emergency summit in Rome last week addressed the issue of reassigning accused molesters but failed to settle on a specific response. The U.S. Conference of Bishops will meet in Dallas in June to finalize a national policy. Reassignment is expected to be a top issue.
Church leaders in Rome agreed that "notorious" abusers should be removed from the priesthood immediately. What remains is the question of what to do after a single allegation is made.
"They're making something very simple into something very difficult,'' said Donnelly Marrone, the former Nashville prosecutor, who is Catholic.
"The first move should be to call police. The second move is, if a priest has had sexual contact with a child one time, he should be defrocked.
"Right now, we're sending the message to every pedophile in the country that not only will we (the Catholic Church) let you in and let you near children, if you're caught, we'll cover for you and enable you to abuse kids again.''
Donnelly Marrone has been openly critical of how the church she grew up in has handled child sex abuse allegations. She has not been alone.
But church officials point to steps they took after McKeown's rape conviction as ones worthy of repetition across the country.
The Nashville Diocese set up a hot line to collect names of victims and to offer counseling. It also started a child abuse prevention program in its schools. Since 1985, the diocese's policy has called for church leaders to follow child abuse reporting laws. "I think Nashville has developed good, solid policies," Musacchio said
The mothers of two boys whom McKeown molested after leaving the priesthood say the attention to the issue of child sex abuse by clergy has opened painful wounds but also has salved the sting left when many doubted their original claims of abuse.
"Even people we knew who wondered about our story, this has shown them the reality that it has happened all over the country,'' said one mother, who is not identified in order to protect the identity of her son. "It doesn't make it any easier, but it removes a small piece of the shame they tried to put back on us."
The mother of the boy whom McKeown was convicted of raping said the national attention to the problem was "a relief.'' McKeown was working in the Davidson County Juvenile Court clerk's office after he left the ministry and was actually given custody of the boy by the court after the boy abused another child.
"It's finally getting some attention,'' the mother said.
"They might finally make some changes. I have to feel that what we've gone through has helped other children. I'd like to see them register offenders so that when they kick them out of the church, what happened to us won't happen to others."