VOL. 125 | NO. 68 | Thursday, April 8, 2010
Diocese Struggled With Approach, Court Docs Show
By Bill Dries
The Catholic Diocese of Memphis had, by the mid-1990s, adopted a policy of suspending priests accused of child sexual abuse and sending them for counseling, as well as providing counseling for their victims.
But there were problems in carrying out the policy that caused it to change even as a teenage boy who had complained privately in 2000 went public in 2004 with a Circuit Court lawsuit.
And only after media attention in 2005 did the diocese report any abuse allegations for possible criminal investigation.
Details of the internal debate and the policy changes are included in hundreds of pages of church documents made public this week from the 2004 John Doe lawsuit.
Diocesan guidelines established by the mid-1990s were not followed in at least one instance and the Diocesan Review Board, a panel of laypeople who advise the bishop, called for better guidelines and investigations as late as 2005.
It was the year after the John Doe lawsuit was filed alleging a cover-up of child sexual abuse by Juan Carlos Duran, a Dominican priest with an extensive history of child sexual abuse allegations in his native Bolivia as well as in St. Louis.
He was assigned to Raleigh’s Church of the Ascension.
The lawsuit was settled in early 2009 for a combined $2 million.
Memphis Bishop J. Terry Steib’s deposition in the Duran case was taken in three sessions, from August to December 2006.
He reviewed transcripts of the sessions in February 2007 and added a handwritten note reading: “I am not aware of any instance in which a priest against whom credible allegations of abusing minors was made, was transferred within this diocese or from this diocese to another one. I did not mean to imply in my testimony that this had happened.”
Steib also wrote that part of the December deposition transcript “gives an inaccurate impression and should be changed.”
Those three pages include an exchange between Steib and John Doe’s attorney, Gary K. Smith, in which Steib agreed with Smith that many priests, not just those in Memphis who had a history of child sexual abuse, were moved to different parishes.
He also agreed parishioners in the new and old parishes weren’t told of the priests’ histories.
“And that was true in this diocese as well, wasn’t it?” Smith asked.
“Generally, I think, yes,” Steib answered after an objection by the attorney for the diocese.
“In other words, you are agreeing that the congregants were not told?”
“Yes,” Steib answered again.
Still later, Smith asked: “And in the past, there were times where an allegation would surface of sexual abuse by a priest in this diocese and the result of that would be that that priest would be moved either within this diocese or sometimes outside this diocese; that is true, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Steib answered.
Two years after the Diocesan Review Board went to work, the procedures the diocese had put in place for dealing with priests accused of child sexual abuse were still changing.
One of the board members received a call in 2006 from the mother of a former St. Benedict High School student, who said the Rev. Richard Mickey, then at the St. Francis of Assisi parish, had given her son a ride home from school in 1997.
During the ride, the boy said Mickey talked about the confession of a boy who couldn’t stop masturbating. The boy riding with him was upset, and told his mother he never wanted to see Mickey again.
When Blain and Blair Chambers filed their lawsuit against Mickey and the diocese in 2004 alleging repressed memories of abuse in the 1980s, the woman told St. Francis Pastor John MacArthur of the incident. This was a few weeks before the Duran lawsuit was filed.
Two years later, the board member urged the woman to call a diocesan official and formally report the incident.
She did, but the official she was referred to told her he only provided counseling and couldn’t take her complaint. He refused to take down any of the details to pass on to the proper person.
“Board members discussed how the above information demonstrates our processes need further revision,” read the minutes of the July 2006 DRB meeting.
The discussion continued about what were described as “substantial deficits in the current process for handling claims.”
As the board members talked it over and approved a resolution urging some new policies, they asked if there were any other allegations they hadn’t been told about.
That’s when they learned the Rev. William Kantner had been accused by a seminarian under his supervision and investigated by former District Attorney General John Pierotti.
“Apparently the diocese believed the information had been previously provided to the board,” the meeting minutes read.
The board voted to open a new investigation into Kantner, who adamantly denied any abuse of any kind. He remains a priest with no sanctions or restrictions.
The DRB concluded the alleged abuse didn’t involve children.
Pierotti had led the church’s investigation of the claims by the Chambers twins against Mickey before there was a Diocesan Review Board, and had cleared Mickey when the twins’ attorney refused to let Pierotti question them.
DRB member Pat Lawler “raised concerns that … (Pierotti) should probe more deeply in investigating these allegations,” according to the meeting minues.
The board voted to hire a private investigation firm to conduct the investigations, with Pierotti reviewing their findings.
The concerns continued into an “executive session” that led to the board requesting a meeting with Steib. Nothing can be found in that or other meeting minutes about whether such a gathering took place.
Mickey returned in 2004 as pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Jackson, Tenn., with a Mass celebrated by Steib himself.
But as the lawsuit moved toward trial, diocesan officials were concerned about a deposition by a man who said he and Mickey had been a “couple” when the man was a senior at Memphis Catholic High School and Mickey was the school chaplain.
Mickey was sent for counseling.
He wouldn’t reveal the diagnosis, but he is restricted from being on any school campuses. Mickey disagrees with the diagnosis and the restrictions.
Smith closely questioned Robert Ponticello, a top diocesan official involved in the decisions, about whether that behavior might have meant the diocesan investigation of the Chambers twins claims was flawed.
“Did that not lead you to believe that there was some credibility to the allegations being made against Father Mickey?” Smith asked.
“It did not lead to that point, no,” Ponticello said. “It led me to believe that there certainly was some inappropriate behavior.”