Reprinted from the November 2001 issue of Crisis magazine with permission.

Rudy Kos, former Catholic priest and convicted molester of altar boys, just spent another hot summer in the unair-conditioned Texas prison where he is serving four life sentences for hundreds of incidents of sexual abuse of minors during the 1980s and early 1990s. While Kos, 56, was hardly the first Catholic priest to sexually abuse a child, the court cases that have been brought against him since 1997 have made him one of the most significant. They set the precedent that the Catholic Church itself could be held financially responsible for the harm done by a rogue cleric's sins, bringing the issue of priestly pedophilia into a whole new world of punitive damages. A combination of a jury verdict and settlements in related civil suits required the Diocese of Dallas, where Kos had served as a pastor, to pay eleven victims $121 million, a record sum that threatened to leave a flock of 415,000 Catholics virtually without a Church to shepherd it.

Attorneys for the former altar boys, now in their mid-20s and early 30s, convinced a jury that Bishop Charles Grahmann of Dallas and his predecessor, Bishop Thomas Tschoeppe, who headed the diocese when Kos committed the first of his crimes, and their hierarchy knew about Kos's abuse, did nothing to stop it, and then tried to cover it up.

This pattern, we now know, would surface again and again in dioceses across the country as more cases of priestly pedophilia began to be filed. So far, more than 3,000 Catholic priests in America have been accused of sexual misconduct with minors, and nearly 2,000 insurance claims have been paid. (Kos is one of a few dozen priests to serve prison time.) Without exception, every one of the 188 dioceses in the American Catholic Church has faced or is facing claims of child sex abuse. Victims' organizations and others say the total payout has climbed past $1 billion, with another half-billion pending. Church officials insist the payout is far less, but they won't open their books to provide numbers.

Regardless, the huge payments have come at a time when many dioceses find themselves already selling property, closing schools, and cutting programs in a fiscal crunch that coincides with smaller donations in the weekly collection baskets.

In August, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange, California, agreed to pay $5.2 million to settle a lawsuit against a once-popular cleric, Msgr. Michael Harris, 56, alleged to have molested a high school boy in 1991, according to the Associated Press wire service. In July, the Boston Globe reported, a judge released the admission of Bernard Cardinal Law of the Archdiocese of Boston that he had known as early as 1984 about allegations of pederasty against John J. Geoghan, a since-defrocked priest who is the object of both a criminal prosecution and at least 84 civil suits over the alleged molestation of boys from 1962 to 1995. According to a lawyer for one of the alleged victims, Church documents reveal that Geoghan was removed from his parish but then assigned to another parish in 1985. The archdiocese has already paid millions of dollars in settlements in the Geoghan matter.

Rudy Kos, who went to prison in 1998, may be long gone from the Catholic scene--Pope John Paul II officially decreed his priestly ordination null and void--but the Church has been forever changed. If bishops seem as though they are putting lawyers' concerns above those of their own flocks, it is because sex-abuse scandals have ingrained a litigation mindset into the culture of Church administration. No other organization, save maybe the tobacco companies, has seen liability lawsuits become such an integral part of its business. It is a transformation that is alienating priests who are guiltless of abuse and also many of their parishioners.

Laying Down the Law

In June, Edward Cardinal Egan of New York called his archdiocesan priests to a special meeting at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers. Hundreds of clergymen gathered to hear Cardinal Egan, along with a federal judge and an insurance industry representative, lay down the law regarding sexual abuse and misconduct among priests. An archdiocesan spokesman would not release a copy of the policies presented at the meeting or disclose in any specific detail what was discussed. But according to priests who were there, the cardinal's message was stern, solemn, and clear: This was still a very real problem, one the diocese could no longer afford.

"The two words he wanted us to leave with are 'Alert! Alert!'" one attendee, who did not wish to be identified, told the New York Post.

When then-Archbishop Egan (he was made a cardinal in February) was appointed to succeed John Cardinal O'Connor, who died in May 2000, his first priority was to save the archdiocese from potential financial breakdown. New York had been operating for a decade with a $20 million budget deficit, and that didn't include individual parishes and schools that were also operating in the red. Cardinal Egan did not announce the details of his plan at the time, but rumors ran rampant through the chancery about what might be cut back. After little more than a year at the helm, he shut down more than a dozen church offices, laid off 26 employees, and closed two of New York's three seminaries.

The politically influential archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York, survived Cardinal Egan's ax but was turned from a weekly into a monthly. He warned six schools that they might close, and in the end, three did, unable to raise funds to save themselves.

At St. Anthony of Padua Church in the South Bronx, hundreds of parishioners from all over that impoverished part of New York gathered, some carrying signs, to plead with Cardinal Egan to save their schools and churches, many of which were on the chopping block because they had fallen into a costly state of disrepair. Sister Lucila Perez-Calixto of Instituto de Jeronimas de Puebla, in white habit and black veil, stood before the six-foot, four-inch archbishop pleading with him to save one of the poorest South Bronx churches, 131-year-old St. Jerome's. "They have nothing, absolutely nothing," she said. "Will you walk with us? Are you willing to help us? Come see our church and meet our people."

"Sister," he responded, "I have a question for you: If a piece of the ceiling falls down on this lady's head, will you assume the responsibility?" For Cardinal Egan, there was no escaping legal realities.

Officially, the Archdiocese of New York's fiscal woes have nothing to do with sex-abuse litigation. "They are not connected," insists spokesman Joe Zwilling. Asked how that could be possible, considering the number of new sexual malfeasance cases that are still being filed and the fact that insurance companies have set limits on what they will pay, he reiterates, "Because they are not connected."

But even as Cardinal Egan proceeds with his fiscal cleanup, the sex-abuse charges don't stop surfacing. Two of his priests were arrested in May, one for allegedly soliciting sex over the Internet from an undercover FBI agent posing as a 14-year-old boy, the other for three years of alleged abuse in a parish rectory starting in 1998. Then in June, less than two weeks after Cardinal Egan's meeting at the Yonkers seminary--where the cardinal reportedly demanded that archdiocesan priests report any evidence of clerical child molesting immediately and directly to him or his vicar--four priests in the Bronx were sued by a 21-year-old man who accused them of molesting him as a teenager and then roughing him up in an attempt to intimidate him so he wouldn't tell authorities.

It is likely that Cardinal Egan learned some management lessons about dealing with such matters from his experience as the bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, before he arrived in New York. There, he was able to keep his diocese fiscally solvent in the face of dozens of molestation lawsuits. That meant closing some schools, consolidating others, and going through the same general downsizing process he is undertaking now in New York. That doesn't mean the priestly pedophilia problem has been eradicated from his former see. In March 2001, when the Bridgeport diocese reportedly settled lawsuits involving six priests accused of molestation and 26 alleged victims for a relatively paltry $10 million, Cardinal Egan proved he knew how to keep the nine-figure lawsuits away.

Near-Bankruptcy in Dallas<>
A few years earlier, the Dallas diocese had bluntly admitted that its $121 million liability in sexual abuse cases threatened to bankrupt it. The former altar boys and others who had brought the suits against Kos and two other Dallas priests also alleged to have molested minors said they didn't want to hurt the lay faithful of Dallas and eventually settled for around $31 million. After a legal battle with its insurance company over coverage, the Dallas chancery still found itself $11 million short. Land and other disposable assets were sold immediately and staff positions cut. Eventually, though, diocese officials had to consider closing schools.

The first school to be so threatened was St. Anne's, which had served a poor Mexican-American community for generations but which also happened to be situated on one and a quarter acres of prime real estate in the resurgent downtown Dallas arts district. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The diocese got its first good press in years, as the public generally sympathized with its plight: having to choose between shutting down the school or going to court to file for bankruptcy. In the end, the school would be saved--not by the diocese but by the city, which declared the 120-year-old building a historic landmark, meaning that it couldn't be torn down. The land underneath it was suddenly worth almost nothing.

Meanwhile, financial stresses were causing schisms in many parishes and schools all over the diocese. Documented in letters and reports by parish finance councils was a growing distrust of Church institutions, even when allegations of child molesting were not at issue. At All Saints Church in Dallas, where Kos and the two other alleged pedophile priests once served, the pastor, Msgr. Robert Rehkemper, insisted on building a school that 80 percent of the parish had voted against. "No one knew why the monsignor wanted it so bad, but he wasn't going to let the parish stop him," remembers David Bellavance, All Saints's lay finance administrator. "The numbers just didn't add up. We didn't know who we could trust."

Conspiracy theories abounded at All Saints: Parishioners attributed the pastor's decision to everything from an attempt to hide diocesan assets that would otherwise go to pay victims in the Kos cases to an aging monsignor's desire to see his name on a building somewhere in the diocese before he died. Bellavance, along with six others on the finance council, resigned and left the parish. He now worships at the Southern Methodist University Catholic student center in Dallas--which just had its budget slashed by the cash-strapped diocese. "We have 1,500 kids here who could really use some help," says Bellevance, who claims he is not surprised that students who generate little in donations to the diocese are seeing their funding cut. "We feel abandoned. But what can you do?"

The feeling that pedophilia has become as much of a financial crisis as a sexual one for the U.S. Catholic Church was reaffirmed in July 1999, when Bishop James Sullivan of Fargo, North Dakota, made diocesan employees sign a covenant saying they had not and would not commit a list of 14 specific sins. The list included pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, causing a pregnancy outside marriage, sexual harassment, and homosexuality, along with embezzlement and drunk driving. But the list didn't include other obviously immoral acts such as bank robbery and terrorism. It didn't take long for North Dakota Catholics to realize what these 14 sins were--all offenses for which the diocese, as an employer, could be sued. (Bishop Sullivan eventually withdrew the covenant after eight employees left their jobs, 18 hired lawyers to launch a legal challenge in protest, and four diocesan priests set up a legal defense fund to support the employees.)

Disaster in Santa Rosa

A few weeks later, a lawsuit against the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California, would show Catholics how ugly--and expensive--sexual malfeasance in a church can get. Like other dioceses around the country, Santa Rosa had experienced a handful of costly sexual abuse lawsuits in the early and mid-1990s. By 1995, the settlements exceeded $5.4 million. In accordance with legal accords and as a long-awaited show of compassion, then-Bishop Patrick Ziemann pledged to pay for counseling for any person claiming to be molested by a clergyman. Five years later, records would show that Bishop Ziemann kept his promise. In 1995, he was spending about $1,000 a month for the psychological treatment of pedophilia victims. That amount would grow to $28,000 a month before another lawsuit forced him to resign from office.

This time it was a priest who signed on as plaintiff--and his alleged abuser was the bishop himself. The suit claimed that Bishop Ziemann had blackmailed the priest, who accused the bishop after being accused himself of stealing money from the collection plates, for sex. The bishop at first denied any sexual relationship--until faced with DNA and taped evidence, at which point he insisted the sex between him and the young priest was consensual.

The revelation, followed by Bishop Ziemann's resignation a few days later, spurred the Vatican to send in Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco to survey and clean up the tawdry mess. In the months that followed, the public learned about a different kind of wrongdoing: On Bishop Ziemann's watch, the diocesan treasury had been raided. The chancery had covered these losses by dipping into millions of dollars in a consolidated fund used by parishes and other entities in the diocese. Money collected for school construction, parish maintenance, missions, and church charities was gone. The diocese had also stopped paying money into its pension funds for priests and lay employees. Some $16 million turned out to be missing-and that was on top of a $12.8 million budget deficit.

Furthermore, from 1995 to 1999, Bishop Ziemann's personal discretionary account had zoomed from $135,000 to nearly $2 million, with more than a quarter of that amount going to counseling costs for clerical sex abuse victims in Santa Rosa and elsewhere. That money was in addition to the $2 million the diocese had to pay to cover what insurance wouldn't in the 1995 settlements. No doubt priestly sex scandals were expensive, and the cost would be felt by everyone in the diocese.

Parishioners from all over the diocese signed a letter to Archbishop Levada demanding "honesty at all levels, not spin control" in his handling of the Bishop Ziemann affair. Archbishop Levada seemed to comply to some degree. Members of one parish, St. Mary of the Angels in Ukiah, for example, learned that more than $1 million of their own church and school's savings had been wiped out. Archbishop Levada also revealed that Bishop Ziemann, along with the diocese's financial administrator, Msgr. Thomas Keys, had invested $5 million in a shady Luxembourg-based firm under investigation for fraud by the U.S. government, and that other diocesan money had gone into an illegal pyramid scheme.

With Bishop Ziemann now at a Pennsylvania treatment center while investigations into the charges against him continued, Archbishop Levada borrowed $6 million from his fellow California bishops to meet immediate operating expenses in Santa Rosa. He cut the chancery administrative staff in half, halted $12 million in building programs, and ended subsidies to parochial schools. "For Sale" signs went up in front of a diocesan retreat house and a 16-acre tract alongside the Cathedral of St. Eugene in Santa Rosa--land that had served as collateral for a $5 million dollar operating fund loan that Bishop Levada had taken out to meet expenses.

Many lay members of the diocese, in letters and at public meetings, demanded prison for Bishop Ziemann. But a five-month investigation by police ended with no criminal charges filed. Diocesan officials maintained that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the bishop. But the Santa Rosa police chief, Michael Dunbaugh, disputed this: "The simple fact is that the diocese failed to cooperate fully." The district attorney, Mike Mullins, echoed this assertion, saying that diocesan authorities had told police they wanted to handle the Bishop Ziemann problem "internally."

One parish school threatened with closure was St. Bernard in Eureka. Its families managed, in just six months, to raise $1.6 million to keep its doors open. But that money came on the strict condition, set down by donors large and small alike, that none of the money be turned over to the diocesan office. That was a common sentiment around the Santa Rosa diocese, and St. Bernard's established a fund that allowed it to operate independently.

Many Santa Rosa priests felt both unjustly smeared with wrongdoing themselves and demoralized by the scandal and its fallout. Rev. Hans Ruygt, pastor of St. Mary of the Angels, for example, took medical leave after learning that his church had lost $1 million in the financial crisis. Father Ruygt "felt he just couldn't walk through town with his Roman collar on anymore," says another former Ukiah pastor, Rev. Gary Lombardi, whose own parish, St. Vincent Catholic Church, in Petaluma, California, lost $2.2 million.

A Plague of Scandals

Sadly, and perhaps unfairly, sex scandals and the Catholic Church have become practically synonymous. At least five U.S. bishops and archbishops resigned during the 1990s amid claims of illicit sex. Two cases involved affairs with women, two involved child molestation, and one, Bishop Ziemann's, involved an alleged affair with a priest. And the situation hardly seems to be improving. In recent years, Catholics have seen at least two U.S. seminaries--St. Thomas's in Denver and St. Anthony's in Santa Barbara, California--closed at least partly because of reported sex between teachers and seminarians. The Kansas City Star reported in January 2000 that priests were dying of AIDS at four times the rate of the general U.S. population.

One theory held by many who have studied pedophilia in the Catholic Church is that a much bigger secret sexual world exists within the priesthood. But no one really knows how large this world is, possibly because if the Church conducted thorough research, it might expose rampant violations of priestly celibacy, even among the high-and-mitred--something few Catholics likely want to think about.

The suits against Rudy Kos named not only the Dallas bishops, exposing the diocese itself to legal liability, but also the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and its political arm, the U.S. Catholic Conference (the two have recently merged into a single entity, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). The lawsuits contended that these national organizations oversaw a nationwide conspiracy of clerical sexual cover-up, with pedophilia as its crown of thorns. The court, however, refused to extend the suit to the national bodies, partly because both held themselves out as mere consultative organizations that lacked supervisory power over individual bishops.

Nonetheless, an NCCB document distributed to every U.S. bishop in 1985 had forthrightly acknowledged that clerical pederasty was a widespread problem and proposed a plan for dealing with it that the bishops ultimately rejected. The existence of that secret, 92-page report--written by canon lawyer Rev. Thomas Doyle and Ray Mouton, the Church attorney in the first-ever multimillion-dollar priestly pedophilia lawsuit--convinced the Texas court that the Dallas bishops knew enough about the pedophilia crisis they were facing to justify holding the entire diocese liable in the Kos lawsuits. The document also asserted, "At the rate cases are developing, [losses of] $1 billion over 10 years is a conservative cost projection." That was in 1985, 16 years ago, before verdicts the size of Kos's were even imagined.

Now the Church is being needled on the sex-abuse front not just by lawyers but by grassroots lay Catholic groups. Clerical molestation victims first started organizing and collecting data and documents in Illinois after the Archdiocese of Chicago was hit with a rash of pedophilia suits and criminal prosecutions in the 1980s. In depositions in those suits, evidence surfaced that seemed to suggest that high Church officials were covering up their own sexual activities--hence the climate of secrecy. Stephen Brady was finally fed up, and in 1996, he formed a conservative watchdog group, Roman Catholic Faithful, Inc. (RCF), based in his hometown, Petersburg, Illinois, claiming that his own complaints about homosexual clerics typically fell on deaf ears. "If the bishops won't correct the problems, then the bishops need to be taken care of," Brady says, "exposed publicly, as the Scripture tells us, so the rest will fear."

He found many conservative priests who, feeling similarly squelched by an unsympathetic Church bureaucracy, were looking for a venue in which to express their own frustrations. They notified RCF of gay-priest Web sites, where content ranged from the disrespectful (calling Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger "Uncle Ratz") to the vulgar (graphic tips for oral sex). Brady printed the bulletin-board exchanges in his magazine, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. The publication often attempted to "out" allegedly gay priests and those affiliated with gay Catholic splinter groups such as Dignity/USA. Brady and his writers proffered theories about a "boys' club" of bishops that consisted primarily of once and future leaders of the NCCB.

One RCF target, Bishop Daniel Ryan of Springfield, Illinois, resigned in October 1999, a year before reaching the usual retirement age for bishops of 70, and a week before a still-pending civil lawsuit was filed against him alleging that he had failed to act against an alleged pedophile priest in his diocese because he himself was involved in homosexual misdeeds. Bishop Ryan denied the charges, and a diocesan spokesman told the local press that "there is no connection" between the bishop's resignation and the lawsuit. Bishop Ryan, meanwhile, although formally retired, has been sporadically performing confirmations in Illinois.

Quick, Quiet Settlements

After a brief surge of openness following the Kos case, the U.S. Church has returned to handling sex abuse quietly and quickly, lawyers and victims say--although prompt suspensions of accused priests are now the rule, instead of the parish transfers of the past. The Evanston Insurance Company (affiliated with Lloyds of London) now underwrites a policy specifically tailored to churches and clergy that covers "any act of unlawful sexual intimacy, sexual molestation or sexual assault" up to $1 million. That means dioceses can now obtain insurance, at a cost of about $2,500 per cleric per year, against criminal acts.

The standard operating procedure now is for dioceses to offer victims and their families cash up front, with their silence on the matter as a condition of the settlement. In addition, victims' groups with which the Church used to consult, such as Linkup and Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, say that the hierarchy has now cut off contact with them.

"Things have gotten better, and things have gotten worse," says Tom Economus, head of Linkup. "It's handled with a more caring hand now, but really, all they've figured out is how to manage the situation better."

Improving diocesan fiscal accountability--implementing measures that could have prevented the Santa Rosa fiasco--has been a recurring goal of the bishops' conference since as early as 1971. But despite work by a variety of ad hoc committees leading to new resolutions, the conference says it has found it difficult under canon law to force a bishop to perform an annual audit, let alone one signed off on by lay diocesan finance councils or released to the public. (And doing so could add a whole new level of liability to future molestation lawsuits.) While a unanimously approved resolution at last November's bishops' meeting attempts to make individual bishops more financially accountable, ultimately, a conference spokesman admits, some diocesan bishops will end up essentially reporting only to themselves.

Because child sex abuse in the priesthood has proved to be so widespread, it has actually become easier for the Church to handle cases quietly. As the shock of contemplating a man in a Roman collar molesting a youth has diminished, and because legal documents related to such matters are more often than not sealed, new lawsuits get little attention from the press even when they are not quickly settled.

So where does that leave the good priests? They, too, have been tarnished by the unearthing of a sexual underworld among men of the cloth. Many say they now no longer feel comfortable simply giving hugs to children, and some say they worry that a single allegation against a priest, even if it's unfounded, can derail a career. And in many dioceses, priests say they have grown to expect the bishop to pay less attention to their concerns than to those of the Church's lawyers and insurance companies.

Of course, if the U.S. bishops can't help but see their priests as potential legal liabilities, it's only because--thanks to the dastardly stereotype created by the likes of Rudy Kos and more than 1,000 others--they no longer can afford not to.
more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad