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Posted at 10:42 AM ET, 12/ 6/2010

Inside the priests story: Searching for the abusers

By Michelle Boorstein

The story started the way some of the best ones do, with a basic sort of question, the kind of question someone tosses out casually at the dinner table: What ever happened to the Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse in our area?

Literally, where are they -- are they still in ministry? How were their cases handled? What happened to their faith? After years of the subject being on The Post’s back burner, new scandals were emerging this spring in European parts of the church and questions were being raised about Pope Benedict’s connections to old cases – the subject was in the news, which led us on The Post’s religion staff to have this dinner-table-like conversation one day this spring. Little did we know what we were ourselves getting into.

Eight months later, our attempt to answer that question ran on The Post’s Web site and in the paper this weekend. It was one of the most convoluted reporting challenges I’ve had in my nearly 20 years on this job, and in truth, reporter Willian Wan and I weren’t able to comprehensively answer our own question. This is due to several major factors: church secrecy, basic privacy rights, priests being either dead or unwilling to be interviewed, and the simple passage of time. People forget details. Records get lost.

As we launched our project to find these men who had been at the center of such a sensitive, charged part of the Catholic Church narrative, we were stopped in our tracks. There was no list of names to work off. The church gives a number of how many men were accused, but the names aren’t all public.

And different dioceses – or regional branches – have different methods of list-making. Washington says it only counts those credibly accused; Arlington counts all accused, credible or not, through 2004, and after that it counts those that meet the diocese's standard of credibility. Some dioceses count men in religious orders, others don’t.

Then there is the whole issue of who belongs on the list, and victims’ advocates keep their own lists. Until the very last hours before the story was published, we were still debating: Does the priest who was accused of psycho-sexual harassment belong on the list, even if he never touched anyone sexually? What about the man who wasn’t based in our region, but just happened to be here when the alleged abuse occurred?

We spent months wading through dozens and dozens of cases, trying to piece together interviews with victims, parishioners, lawyers, neighbors, and friends, along with information from court files and newspaper clippings, to find the men and what happened to their psyches and lives.

Church officials were polite but not eager to help with such a project. They didn’t keep track of men who had been removed from ministry – as the vast majority of accused priests have been – and they didn’t keep the data we were requesting, such as how many were defrocked (stripped of their priestly status)? How many are dead? How many wound up in jail? Church officials were willing to tell us what they knew from memory and a quick look at the files they did maintain.

We concluded pretty early on that the men accused in the greater D.C. area were almost all out of ministry now; a few were on extended leaves because of ongoing investigations and a few had somewhat gray circumstances. No smoking guns, no ex-priests running day cares.

As the project dragged on through the summer, we went down multiple roads: How many men had wound up in internal, private church trials? How many were still receiving financial support from the church, and was that a sign of proper care by the church or a slap in the victims’ faces? Many accused priests had never had a trial of any sort, never been proven guilty in any standard sense. We hit endless brick walls as so many of the cases are private church matters if criminal authorities don’t pursue alleged crimes from decades ago.

Actually finding the men we did find was not easy. Most people have a trail of public records our researchers can sniff out: mortgages, utility bills, relatives, listed phone numbers. Priests live in church housing with bills paid by the church; they are invisible in that regard. Being removed from your career with an accusation of pedophilia hanging over you also makes these guys unlikely to leave the typical tracks: They have no money. They live with relatives, lay low and tend not to appear in newspaper clippings. They keep their numbers unlisted.

One priest was tracked by his victim to a New Jersey suburb. Another was a registered sex offender with a public address. Another came up on a basic 411 search. Still another runs an independent church on Capitol Hill and has a Web site.

Church officials told us fragments that led us to other clues. We held out hope that some of these dozens of men would talk with us and share the so-called “other side.” People talk about accused priests all the time, but rarely do you hear their voices, their stories. This led to many close calls. I spent a week on long interviews with a priest – not from our area – who amazingly was able to shake the stigma of his allegations and become a professional public speaker, paid by big companies and the federal government to talk about ethics.

He was anxious to talk about the nuances of clergy sexuality and accusations he considered unfair -- until he learned I’d be contacting his victims. He cut me off. My editor decided we couldn’t use his name without his permission, even after he had cooperated with us for a time.

I hung out at a Gaithersburg motel until I saw Rev. Aaron Cote, a registered sex offender and Dominican priest now living an isolated existence in a room with a number on the door. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I told him why I had come. It was a combination of shame, indignation and something that looked like practiced anger.

Church officials were mostly patient with us over the many weeks, sharing many details and going back to check dates when they felt they could. They couldn’t share some details, they said, such as about priests who had already died when they were accused, or if court settlements barred them from releasing information.

But many details remained mysteries to us. A new case popped up late in the game that church officials hadn’t mentioned. Since publication of the story, we’ve learned of other allegations we will pursue, but my broader conclusion is that many of the wounds related to this subject are not, despite church officials’ desires, closed. Many Catholics and abuse advocates want more transparency and accountability, even in decades-old cases. When I consider hurdles we never overcame, even with months of Post resources, it makes me wonder whether people involved in this issue – on both sides – will ever find peace.

By Michelle Boorstein  | December 6, 2010; 10:42 AM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, More on the story, The inside story  
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Comments

"How many were still receiving financial support from the church, and was that a sign of proper care by the church or a slap in the victims’ faces?"

In our experience, few predator priests are defrocked. Most are still on the church payroll. And the reason, we believe, is self serving.

Bishops fear that ending financial aid to pedophile priests may prod them to share what they know about church corruption (sexual and financial) with police, prosecutors, journalists and others. Since their primary goal remains safeguarding their own reputations and keeping the cover ups covered up, bishops take a shrewd, bare mimimum approach: they suspend predators from active ministry, but keep paying them so they'll keep quiet.
Barbara Dorris
Outreach Director for SNAP
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
314-862-7688
SNAPdorris@gmail.com

Posted by: snapdorris | December 6, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Michelle, thank you for you work to cover this story,

I notice you mention Rev. Aaron Cote in your article again. Did you know that he was also accused of sexually abusing kids in the Columbus, Ohio diocese? ..and yes, I'm sure the diocese officials do have documents and records about abusive priests in the diocese, did you ask to see the records in their "Secret Archives"?

Speaking of Ohio, as of right now there is a priest who was removed from ministry over 3 years ago for sexually abusing a child. This case still happens to be within the criminal statute of limitations, yet he was not indicted, even though it is public knowledge and there are diocese and police reports from another victim of sex abuse against this same priest which had happened 10 years earlier. The bishop told victim back then that this priest did not need jail, that he needed treatment...and that he would never be allowed around kids again.

Yet... in 2006, there he was, back in a different parish within the same diocese...

A very curious component to this accused priest, he was removed from priestly ministry in Nov. 2007, he was NOT indicted in Oct. 2008..yet he still has NOT been put back into ministry by the bishop... In fact we are not sure 'where' or 'what' this accused predator priest is doing as of today.

Another priest in Ohio was indicted by a grand jury earlier this year for sexually abusing a 10 year old boy on a trip to West Virginia several years ago. This case too is still within the criminal statutes of limitations, yet on the Friday before the trial was to begin, the priest's two attorneys managed to get the trial dismissed on a technicality. .. and it was only about 2 weeks later, this priest was put right back into the parish where he had been removed to continue his priestly duties, even though the judge had given the prosecutor 90 days to appeal to supreme court.

It is frustrating for victims and for reporters when they go to the church officials for answers and they never get the answer they are looking for, that which is the 'TRUTH"

Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, 636-433-2511, snapjudy@gmail.com

Posted by: snapjudy | December 6, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Michelle, and others, many thanks for your hard work in trying to search for the truth. It seems this is a never-ending-story that the church hierarchy just wants to go away, and that many church faithful find too difficult to comprehend. Anyone wishing to learn more of how sexual abuse touches a victim's life, please see www.vimeo.com/13900438. Three victims of abuse (male and female) tell how their lives had been marked by abusers (clergy and non-clergy) as children and vulnerable adults.

Posted by: bostonpadre | December 6, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

The horror of what the priests have done to the innocents in their care is incomprehensible. But what is also to be considered is the situation in which a priest is accused but either acquitted or never proven guilty.

I objected to your listing priests in your article who were not found guilty. In this country, each of us is entitled to be assumed innocent until guilt is proven. By all means list the guilty or admittedly guilty in your article, but why also include the presumed innocent? What if, in fact, these men are truly innocent? Your action will have devastating consequences.

As an aside, many diocese hesitate to laicize a priest (the correct term for what you called, "defrock") because with that action the Church loses any authority or supervision over the man in question. A quote or detailed explanation from the Church in this area would have been beneficial.

I applaud the work of all who expose the cancer of child abuse in any insitution, including the Catholic Church. However, you were wrong to list men who were accused but not convicted.

Posted by: lanthonyprice | December 6, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I echo lanthonyprice's comments about the horror of what some priests have done in sexually abusing kids.

But SNAP, you can't have it both ways. You want the Church both to laicize priests and then, after they're laicized, you want the Church to keep track of them. It doesn't work that way. I'm a lay member of the Church. My bishop doesn't keep track of me or any of the thousands of other laity in his diocese. Once a priest is returned to the lay state (laicized), that's it. The unique relationship between the bishop and the priest is over and the priest is now free to go his own way without any connection to the Church's hierarchy, just as I am.

So Barbara, you claim that the Church wants to keep them on the dole to keep them quiet. But then you complain when they're laicized because the Church doesn't keep track of them. Which do you want? And don't say, "Look to Chicago" because you know quite well that the vast majority of dioceses don't have the resources that a place like Chicago has to keep track of the ones who are laicized.

In addition, did you ever stop to think about the possibility that maybe, just maybe, some bishops have learned something from this crisis and those bishops want to keep offending priests where they know they can keep track of them? Don't you think that's a bit safer than just letting them out into the wild? Has that thought ever occurred to you? Or is that type of thought even within the realm of possibility in the mind of SNAP's leaders?

And Ms. Boorstein, I don't believe your story is all that groundbreaking. If I recall correctly, The Detroit Free Press did a series on priests who fled the U.S., as did some local California television station. And I know another major newspaper did something similar about what happens after priests leave the ministry (maybe the L.A. Times?). So while this may be enlightening to readers in the local D.C. area and it serves to refresh the outrage of the SNAP and Bishop Accountability people, many others are *yawn* wondering how much more mileage the secular press are going to try to squeeze out of this story.

How about something new -- like an investigation into how many public school personnel are sexually abusing kids and getting away with it? Wouldn't that be novel?

Posted by: pinecone | December 7, 2010 1:16 AM | Report abuse

Many thanks to Michelle Boorstein and William Wan for researching and writing this important story, and thanks to the Post for running it. The situation is even more disquieting than the story suggests.

As Boorstein and Wan explain, the U.S. bishops have received credible or "not unsubstantiated" allegations of abuse by 5,768 priests and deacons between 1950 and 2009. Yet we know the identities of only 3,137 of these men - which means that by the bishops' own (low) numbers, 2,631 accused priests have been living and working incognito in U.S. communities. So the stories that we read in this remarkable feature in the Washington Post need to be multiplied, for every diocese in the country, and for all the priests whose identities are still being kept secret. The cost for that secrecy is being paid at this very moment by the families who encounter these men.

For detailed information on the priests discussed and listed in the story by Boorstein and Wan, readers can consult the Database of Accused Priests at www.bishop-accountability.org, an online archive of the Catholic abuse crisis that I founded in 2003.

Posted by: TerenceMcKiernan | December 7, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

As the parent of a survivor and his family, I understand and appreciate the effort undertaken to research and attempt to communicate another aspect of this issue. No one wants this to be a problem of the past more than I do; however, anyone objective observer knows that is untrue. I was born and raised Catholic and, up to the time immediately following my son's disclosure, was somewhat of a devoted Catholic. The remaining problem and its eventual solution lies with those who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders - a chain of laying of hands that dates back to a child, born into the most humble of circumstances. I do believe most priests were called by Christ to shepherd His flock. I hold hope that He will give them the grace, humility, and compassion to restore His church from this cancer. Perhaps part of this story will serve as the impetus for some of them.

Posted by: SurvivorParent | December 7, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

I also want to thank Michelle Boorstein and William Wan.
I fully support the work that you have done on this story. You did exactly what the free press that in this country should do, which is to report the good, the bad and the sometimes very ugly truth.
My life and that of my child and family has been forever altered by the sexual abuse of my child, by a priest. It has been said that when you abuse a developing child, you write on the tablet of who they are. So true. So completely devastating.
We all need to continue to see the uncovering of this issue. Only by having continued light shed on it, does it stand a chance to be cleared out completely. Our children will only stand a chance to live in a safe world, if we adults do the hard work of confronting the secrets as well as those in positions of authority, who choose to keep this heinous behavior in the dark where it has been hiding for hundreds of years.
Keep doing what you are doing Michelle and William. We are counting on you. Thank you.

Posted by: survivor42 | December 8, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

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