Tuesday, April 06, 2010

In Defense of Archbishop Gomez's Handling of Abuse Scandals

SNAP, a group representing victims of child abuse by clergy, is making some pretty serious charges about Archbishop Gomez. I was only just informed of these allegations by the kind people at the radio show I was on this afternoon, "Which Way, LA?" The producer let me know about the accusations a few hours before I came on to do an interview about the appointment of Archbishop Gomez. The accusations were new to me. I've been doing some investigating since learning of them.

Let me report what I have found.

Suffice it to say, a close examination of the evidence (as opposed to rumor) reveals that the charges are really baseless. In fact, the more I've read about the cases in question the more impressed I am by the way Archbishop Gomez has handled these situations. As I'll explain, in one case cited by SNAP the victim herself has told the press that while the religious order involved appeared to drag their feet in answering her charges, it was the Archdiocese of San Antonio that helped expedite the investigation of her case. I wish I had known all of what I know now before I was interviewed.

I should add that I'm rushing to get this up. I've got classes to prepare for tomorrow and I number of other things on my plate. I apologize in advance for any embarrassing typos.

Before I move on, I must make a major tip of the hat to the blogger, "James H" who writes the blog The Opinionated Catholic. James wrote an extremely helpful post detailing all of what has transpired. I am drawing largely from him, and I'll quote some of his commentary below.

The guilty must be punished

Before I move on, let me just say that I am absolutely NO apologist for child-abusing priests are church officials who cover-up such crimes. Such evil deserves must be dealt with and the guilty must pay for their crimes.

Let me be clear: I have no interest in protecting criminals. I have no interest in hedging, spinning or massaging messages. As Jesus said, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matt 18:5-6).

The need to be thoughtful . . .

Having said that, we need to be thoughtful and balanced here. Just because some priests and bishops have acted inappropriately does NOT mean that all have! Most priests are good men who have dedicated their whole lives, sacrificing a great deal, including having families of their own, to serve others. We cannot simply jump to conclusions. In fact, sociologists are urging greater caution here, identifying an increasing tendency to "moral panic". See, e.g., this piece by the Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne. Suffice it to say, each case needs to be judged on the merits--we can't simply implicate all priests and bishops in the scandal.

Of course, given the cover-ups committed in some places and the betrayal of trust we have seen in the past, I can completely understand why some victims may be distrustful. But, I think, again, we've got to try to be fair.

The charges against Archbishop Gomez

To avoid the impression that I am somehow creating a "straw man" argument I am going to post SNAP's press-release in full, as it was passed on to me by the producer of the show I mentioned above. It has since appeared elsewhere.

New Archbishop

Statement by Barbara Garcia Boehland of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests 210-621-2177; Cell: 210-725-8329

With Gomez, the Pope is promoting a bishop with a troubling record of recent secrecy and risk regarding child safety. If the Pope is trying to convince us he’s “tough” on abuse, he’s shooting himself in the foot by elevating Gomez.

Just last year, Gomez kept silent about two clerics whose religious supervisors deemed ‘credibly accused’ of sexually abusing teenagers. One of those clerics now apparently works in Rome.

One is Brother Richard Suttle of the Claretian Missionaries, who Gomez is letting live and study in San Antonio. “He sexually abused a teen in the early 1980s in Arizona, according to a public notice from the Phoenix diocese,” wrote the Express-News last year.

The other, Father Charles H. Miller of the Society of Mary “worked at St. Mary's University for more than two decades and was let go in 2007 after his religious order found a claim that he sexually abused a teen in 1980 to be credible. Last year (2008) he was moved to Rome,” the Express News wrote in 2009. Evidently Miller still works for the Marianists there.

In both cases, Gomez let religious orders quietly transfer credibly accused clerics into the San Antonio diocese in recent years. Neither Gomez nor the religious orders apparently warned parishioners or the public.

Then there’s Fr. Larry Hernandez. His religious order suspended his faculties in early 2008 because of credible abuse allegations. Gomez kept it quiet until March 2009.

Furthermore, Gomez hails from the Denver archdiocese which has and continues to distinguish itself by its particularly harsh legal maneuvers against clergy sex abuse victims.

We're very saddened and disappointed by this choice.

Statement by David Clohessy of SNAP (314 566 9790, SNAPnetwork.org)

There are plenty of US bishops who have acted recklessly and secretively in one or two cases during 2009. Unfortunately, the Pope is promoting one who has acted recklessly and secretively in three such cases during the last year.


(SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the world’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. We’ve been around for 22 years and have more than 9,000 members across the country. Despite the word “priest” in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)

Contact David Clohessy (314-566-9790 cell, 314-645-5915 home), Joelle Casteix (949-322-7434), Barbara Blaine (312-399-4747), Peter Isely (414-429-7259), Barbara Dorris (314-862-7688 home, 314-503-0003 cell)

Taking the cases, one at a time

There is a lot here and it deserves a careful treatment. I'm going to take each one at a time.

However, before we move on there is one detail that must be underscored--all of the priests in question are members of religious communities, they are not diocesan priests. Remember that a bishop is the head of a diocese (e.g., the archdiocese of Los Angeles), they do not run religious communities. Members of religious communities report to their "superiors" ("Superior General," "Mother Superior", etc.), who are responsible for those under them. Bishops cannot snap their fingers and make religious communities do whatever they will. Their jurisdiction is over their diocese, and over diocesan priests.

The media might like to make it seem like bishops are "kings" with absolute power--in fact, they are not!

Of course, the response to all of this is: "Well, the Archbishop must at least make such cases public knowledge and work to ensure the safety of his flock." As we'll see, the charge that Archbishop Gomez has kept this information secret is flatly false.

1. Brother Richard Suttle

The story of Brother Suttle begins not in San Antonio but in Phoenix. Here's the report from the Phoenix diocese, which posted this notice on its official website back in 2008. I'll let the brief fill you in on the details. I'll italicize a few points that are especially important to underscore and make some comment in red ink along the way.

The Claretian Missionaries of the U.S. Western Province have notified the Diocese of Phoenix that their review board has found a report of sexual abuse of a minor to be credible against Br. Richard Suttle, a religious brother of the Claretian Order. Credibility does not imply either guilt or innocence but rather that the allegations made in the report are possible. [Notice the investigation was done by the religious community. This is not a matter of a cover-up--they wanted to get to the truth. This was not somehow mandated by legal officials.]

In that report, Br. Richard Suttle, CMF, is accused of engaging in sexual abuse of a minor during the 1982-83 school year while at Sacred Heart School in Prescott, AZ, where Br. Suttle was a teacher and a coach. After becoming aware of the report during the fall of 2008, the Diocese of Phoenix promptly conducted a thorough investigation into the charges and forwarded its findings to the Claretian Missionaries for their review and disposition. [Note the swift action and thorough action taken by the Diocese of Phoenix, which was clearly done in an objective matter--there is no cover-up here.]

To date, the report of the 1982-83 abuse at Sacred Heart is the only report of sexual abuse of a minor against Br. Suttle that is known to the Diocese of Phoenix. Likewise, the Claretian Missionaries have confirmed that they are not aware of any other allegations of sexual abuse of a minor against Br. Suttle. [In other words, while the charge is "credible" it has not been definitely proven. The fact that there has only been one report is significant here--there is no evidence of a pattern of misconduct.]

The Claretian Missionaries have officially informed the Diocese of Phoenix that Br. Suttle no longer resides in Arizona and will not be assigned to the Diocese at any time in the future. The religious order has removed him from any ministry involving minors and has placed him on a plan that restricts and monitors his movements.[Again, it is the religious community who assigns their members, not the bishop.]

The Diocese of Phoenix has confirmed that Br. Suttle was also employed at Bourgade Catholic High School in Phoenix from 1988 to 1998, where he was a teacher and coach, and that he served as principal of Sacred Heart School in Prescott between 2006 and 2008.

The Diocese urges anyone who may know of any sexual abuse or other improprieties by Br. Suttle or who may have any other such information about him to contact the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office at 602-506-3411, the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office at 928-771-3485, or the Claretian Missionaries at 626-289-2009. [Does this sound like a cover-up?]

As always, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and the Diocese of Phoenix encourage anyone who has experienced sexual misconduct or abuse by a member of the clergy or by any worker of the Church to make a report to local law enforcement and to contact Jean Sokol at the Office of Child and Youth Protection at 602-354-2396.

Okay, so we've covered what transpired in Phoenix. Now the story picks up in San Antonio, Archbishop Gomez's diocese. What happened next is this: Brother Suttle moved to San Antonio three months before the accusations were leveled. He was not transfered in order to get him out of dodge.

His move to San Antonio made big headlines there. Let's pick up the story as it was covered in the local press. Again, for the sake of clarity I'm including the entire article, lest anyone think I am simply "cherry-picking". Again, I'm italicizing important lines and adding some notes here.

Brother Richard Suttle, a member of a California-based religious order who is accused of child molestation, has moved to San Antonio [note: he was not invited by the diocese; as a religious he reports to his superiors who decides where he is sent], igniting a campaign by a victims' advocacy group demanding he be stripped of his religious credentials and forced to leave.

The local director of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and her husband protested Suttle's relocation Thursday in front of the Archdiocese of San Antonio's headquarters.

Suttle, a member of the Claretian Missionaries of the U.S. Western Province, denies the allegation of abuse, and his order says he came here in July from Arizona to study for a doctorate. He lives at a residency along with five other Claretians on the campus of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, 617 S. Santa Rosa St., downtown. [Is this a secret? No. It's in the mainstream press!]

The allegation was made public in December when the Diocese of Phoenix issued a statement that a “credible” claim of sex abuse had been made against Suttle. It also said this conclusion didn't mean he was either innocent or guilty, but that the claim was “possible.”

The abuse is alleged to have taken place during the 1982-83 school year at Sacred Heart Parish School in Prescott, Ariz., where Suttle was a teacher, coach and principal.

SNAP Director Barbara Garcia-Boehland said she believes Suttle's emergence here reflects a strategy to conceal the allegation and questions why the archdiocese and the order did not make public his whereabouts sooner. “Obviously, they are not sticking with their own policies and doing background checks,” she said. “We need this guy out of the city. He's a danger.”

The order's provincial superior, Father Richard DeTore, defended Suttle in a phone interview Thursday, citing the public notifications made in Arizona to the police and Catholic communities and the restrictions placed on him while living here. He added that Suttle has not been charged with a civil or criminal offense. [This is entirely reasonable. Note, for that there has been no attempt by the state to prosecute this case. Whether this is because the statute of limitations has run out or not is unclear to me. But realize that this has all transpired as part of the new policies regarding transparency enacted by the religious order itself and diocesan officials.]

DeTore said Suttle came to San Antonio in July exclusively to study for a doctorate — three months before the allegation was made. At that point, DeTore said he put Suttle on a “restrictive safety plan” that keeps him away from children and young people by banning him from all ministry. He is also required to sign in and out of the residence and declare where he's headed and for how long. [This is an extraordinary measure. He has not been convicted a crime--yet he agrees to live, of his free accord--in the religious community and abide by all of these limitations!]

DeTore said there was a brief period when Suttle was helping to distribute Communion as a Eucharistic minister at Immaculate Heart parish, which is run by
the Claretian community. DeTore said that once he learned of the situation, he put a stop to it. [He can't even distribute communion at a Mass in public!] “We are currently putting together an investigation for ourselves and allowing Richard, who claims he is innocent of these charges, to bring forward a defense against these charges,” DeTore said. [C'mon, really. Does this sound like a cover-up to you?]

Deacon Pat Rodgers, archdiocesan spokesman, said the religious order is primarily responsible for handling the matter since Suttle is living with them and he has no ministry assignment for the archdiocese to manage. And so far, Rodgers said, the order's actions have been appropriate. “We have a long history with the Claretians, and there is no reason to think the safety of the parish is threatened,” he said. [It certainly seems clear to me that the diocese has good reason to think that this man is being carefully restricted and watched by his religious community. Of course, and let's underscore this, the bishop runs the diocese and not the religious community to which this priest belongs. Furthermore, the order had already informed the police and the local community of the charges and of his whereabouts. And, again, his guilt has never been proved. The authorities here are simply taking the word of the accuser because his charges were deemed credible.]

Garcia-Boehland of the victim's group demanded that San Antonio Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantú meet with her in the archdiocesan lobby since Archbishop José Gomez was out of town. She wanted to hand-deliver a letter of concern. Rodgers assured her he'd give the letter to Cantú, but not before a tense exchange filmed by TV news cameras and watched by a couple of security guards.

Garcia-Boehland eventually left the letter at the front desk after chiding Rodgers and the archdiocese.“What are you waiting for?” she asked Rodgers. “For him to rape children here before doing anything?”

The Opinionated Catholic sums this up pretty well, making some key observations:

We have one allegation that has surfaced coming from 1982. It appears the sstem was working. We have a finding of "credible" which is described as this abuse possibly could have happened which is a much lower standard than Preponderance of Evidence which is used by Grand Juries to file a indictment. [Very important consideration.]

It appears the Order is working to find the truth of the matter.

It also appears that while this investigation is happening the Brother is just living members of his order while he attends school.

He is now it appears on something similar Bail requirement where he has to sign in and out and has restrictions where he can go. NOTE THIS WOULD NOT BE HAPPENING IF HE WAS OUT OF THE CHURCH.

Now this is the touchy issue. We are dealing with a complant that is "Possible" and appears to be under investigation still. What is the standard do we need to apply to "possible". Let us say that you were a LAY Catholic Youth Minister and are accused of something that occurred in 1982.

It is the only complaint and there has been no litigation Civil or Criminal. Lets say you moved to a different State where you attend Mass . Does the Church need to put an ad in the paper and announce to the Diocese and to the local church that have you been accused. If that happened to me I would be contemplating a huge ole lawsuit!! If we were talking School systems instead of Dioceses and Teachers instead of Priests [or] brothers that is exactly what would happen. [A key point!]

In summary, I don't think there is any reason to charge the Archbishop of San Antonio with covering something up. The Order has notified people of this man's presence. They are closely monitoring him. There is yet another internal investigation under way. At the present time, this man is largely living under a kind of self-inflicted house-arrest. The bishop, I think, has good reason to think that the Order has done everything correctly here. In short, there is no evidence of a cover-up or of his "mishandling" of the case.

2. Fr. Charles H. Miller

I'm not going to go into a lot of depth here. Let's just cover a few things.

1) Fr. Miller is also a member of a religious order. He is a Marianist.

2) Yes, he was moved to Rome. However, let's highlight something. In the case of Brother Suttle SNAP complained that he was allowed to live in the diocese of San Antonio. In this instance SNAP complains because he was sent to Rome. So which is it? Do they want the accused priests to remain in San Antonio or be moved? It seems to me, there's a great deal of inconsistency here.

3) Why didn't the story get bigger press? Why was he simply sent to Rome? According to the press, it was the victim herself who asked that the finding not be made public! The priest was moved to Rome to work in the Order's house and to be closely supervised. Here's how it was reported:
The order has kept the matter private, saying the victim wanted it that way. The woman, now 47, said that when the finding wasn't made public, as she requested, she came forward this week out of frustration.

In the letter, the order said it barred Miller, now 75, from public ministry, forced him to resign from St. Mary's and placed him on a “safety plan,” which includes monitoring his whereabouts and keeping him away from children and youths.

He was sent to the order's General Administration building in Rome to live and work, the order's spokeswoman said.

Sex-abuse victims aren't identified by the San Antonio Express-News. The woman has not sought criminal charges or a civil suit because the statute of limitations prevented it, she said. She also said she hasn't requested money from the order.

The woman first contacted the Marianist order in 2005. At the time, Miller was director of the Roamin' Rattlers, organizing overseas trips for former students and university associates.

During his roughly 25 years at St. Mary's, he was a theology professor and dean of the humanities department known for his expertise in the Holy Land.

In May 2007, the Marianists review board backed the woman and offered her therapy.
The article is long so I'm not going to include here it in its entirety.

Here however is the crucial part of the story I want to underscore.

Reviewing old family photos in 2005, she began to unlock her memories, she said.

Increasingly upset and feeling violated, she said she wrote Miller a letter that same year, asking him to acknowledge the abuse. She also wrote the Marianists a letter notifying them what happened, she said.

She said she assumed the letter would trigger a full investigation. Instead, the order didn't consider the letter a formal complaint until she wrote another letter in early 2007 specifically requesting its review board take up the matter.

She also wrote the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which she thinks helped expedite her complaint.

So what made the difference here? The answer: contacting the diocese of San Antonio. Is Archbishop Gomez involved in a cover-up? No. Just the opposite. The ball only started to get rolling after the archdiocese was brought in here. The victim thinks contacting the people working for Gomez helped "expedite" the process. Again, if you're looking for evidence of a Archbishop Gomez cover-up this is also a dead end.

3. Fr. Larry Hernandez

Once again we are here dealing with a member of a religious community, not a diocesan priest.

Did Archbishop Gomez keep this story a secret as SNAP suggests? While other bishops have been guilty of cover-ups, Archbishop Gomez is NOT one of them.

First off, the story about the allegations against Fr. Hernandez first broke back in 2008. The story ran in a Catholic paper in Washington, D.C. You can read the whole sorted account there. I'd just like to note that it underscores that the religious order immediately contacted the police and alerted them of the accusations. In addition, the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. handled the case extremely well. As soon as the allegations were made a letter was read at the parish level, alerting the people in the pews. The archdiocese asked any other possible victims to please come forward to help the investigation and to receive assistance from the archdiocese.

In 2009, after an investigation, the Archdiocese of San Antonio came out publicly and made it clear to the press that they found the accusations "believable". Again, the whole story was covered in the mainstream press. In short, contrary to the claims of SNAP, there was nothing secret about this whole episode. The Archdiocese of San Antonio, of its own initiative, publicized their findings regarding not only Fr. Larry Hernandez, but other priests.


In none of these cases is there evidence at all of a cover-up. On the contrary, the Archdiocese has gone out of its way to publicize such stories. In one instance, the victim credits the Archdiocese of San Antonio with expediting the process of investigation.

In summary, the charges against Archbishop Gomez do not hold up to close scrutiny. In fact, the good archbishop has acted in good faith and demonstrated a real commitment to transparency.


Anonymous said...

Big typo - are you sure you meant to say Fr. Larry RICHARDS?

Michael Barber said...

Oh my--no.

I just fixed it. Thanks.

James H said...

Thanks for the shout out. I am glad I was of assisatnce. As soon as I saw that press release I wnet oh boy but figured the facts were a lot more complicated.

It is a tricky and sensitive business when dealing with SNAP. Like I said I understand their anger. However it does disturb me that a group that is demanding truth and transparency quite bluntly put out a misleading press report.

Again I understand their rage and how it is truly again one aspect fo the crimes against them that have caused this.

Still I think these charges have to be dealt with in a firm but charitable matter

Daniel said...

Interesting how difficult it seems to have become to protect an innocent priest that has been wrongly accused. It seems like all three of these cases involve a single accuser of abuse from several years ago, and at least one case involved "unlocked memories". There is another case that involved a single accuser with "recovered memories", and when the priest tried to fight back by taking the accuser and SNAP to court it seems to have been tossed because he was not being sued, rather the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He was then ordered to pay the other side's lawyer fees. The guilty must be punished, but what about the innocent?

Anonymous said...

While we must have compassion for real victims, one must wonder about the tactics used by SNAP. In their way of thinking, accusation equals guilt - or guilty until proven innocent. And if SNAP cannot continue to find victims, there are no jobs for the top brass at SNAP.
SNAP has never let facts get in the way of a story.

Florentius said...

Excellent article, Prof. Barber. Thank you so much for consolidating all this information in one place.

I don't envy Archbishop Gomez a bit. He is walking into a real hornet's nest in LA, none of which is his making. Yet, he will be held responsible for all that his predecessor allowed and/or overlooked.

He has been presented with an Herculean task and we all need to pray that he is up to it.

Saint Francis de Sales, pray for him!

Anonymous said...

Brother Suttle was active in our parish while studying. He became the choir director for a children's choir. He also sang in the men's choir and volunteered in the parish.

At some point, the previous San Antonio archbishop, either requested or demanded that he not be involved in any way as a "minister" or volunteer at our parish.

He ceased even attending the parish.

This was before he went where ever his order has placed him now.

I know that a broad-brush of blame cannot be extended to all priests, brothers, or bishops. However, the church should obey the law, do background checks, and whenever any allegations, credible or otherwise are presented to the church authorities, they should immediately be referred to the police for an investigation. The sexual abuse of children is not a "slip" or a mistake, it is a crime.