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Catholic Diocese in Rural Illinois Struggles to Cope With Sex Scandal : Religion: In six months, seven priests and one deacon from the Belleville Diocese have been ousted, and authorities are investigating an eighth pastor. All are accused of molesting young boys.

October 31, 1993|SHARON COHEN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — The first hint of scandal came at weekend Mass, when the faithful were told the news: Their priest had resigned.

That was the surprise. Then came the shock.

The 61-year-old pastor was leaving because of allegations that he sexually abused a young man more than 20 years ago. That jarring revelation was made in March. It was just the beginning.

Weeks later, another priest in another parish was gone. Then another. In six months, seven priests and one deacon from the Belleville Diocese have been ousted, and state authorities are investigating an eighth pastor. All are accused of sexually abusing young boys, all but one at least 10 years ago.

The reports of sexual abuse that have rocked Roman Catholic parishes and sparked lawsuits nationwide have swept through this quiet corner of Middle America. Charges of cover-ups and admissions of mistakes have forced the diocese to confront ugly memories and grapple with decisions that pit priest against parishioner and privacy against publicity.

"I think it's accurate to describe this like a crisis," said the Rev. James Margason, the diocese administrator. "It shakes people's faith. People are confused. People are angry. People are hurt."

"It's kind of a cloud that hangs over everything," said the Rev. Clyde Grogan, chairman of the Southern Illinois Assn. of Priests, whose members are from the 28-county diocese. "Let's get to the bottom of it, so we can move on."

Criminal charges are unlikely since the statute of limitations would have expired in most cases. But the crisis has led to sensational allegations, from reports of decades-old sex secrets to an anonymous claim of a homosexual ring in a shrine.

Though the accused represent only a fraction of the 110 priests in this largely rural southern Illinois diocese, Grogan said everyone is tarnished.

"When one priest is good, we all benefit," he said. "When one is bad, we all suffer the consequences."

The removal of these priests is new, but the allegations are not, according to some victims who say they reported abuse to former Bishop James Keleher. One man who requested anonymity said he complained for six years--to no avail.

"Survivors tell me he knew of these accusations and complaints years and years ago . . . and they were ignored," contends David Clohessy, head of the St. Louis chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, whose members include Belleville-area parishioners.

Keleher, recently promoted to archbishop in Kansas City, Kan., did not return phone calls. But last summer, he asked for parishioners' forgiveness, acknowledging the diocese's "past failings" in addressing the matter.

Clohessy insists the diocese hasn't gone far enough. He claims some of the 15 to 20 victims he is aware of have named three other priests still in parishes.

Margason says the diocese isn't investigating anyone else. State and county authorities, however, say they are reviewing abuse allegations against another priest whom the church has decided doesn't present a risk to children.

Despite a flurry of headlines, much of the scandal remains a mystery.

The diocese has identified the eight ousted men and provided a brief description of the accusations. But it won't say how many accusers have come forward, how its new review board--which investigates allegations--determines credibility, or where the clergy are being treated or living.

Four will not return to ministries; the others are on leave pending investigation. They are not in parishes.

Margason defends the new policy of naming the accused, saying protecting children is more important than potentially violating civil rights. He insists the church isn't determining guilt or innocence.

He compares his diocese to a family struggling with sexual abuse.

"There's some denial that this is a real problem," he said. "I get letters telling me . . . 'Stop doing this. Put the priests back in. They're good priests.' . . . There are others who would say I'm not going far enough."

But the church's approach irks Clohessy, of the Survivors Network.

"No institution in society can effectively police itself, nor should any institution be allowed to," he said. "They try to play investigator, prosecutor, spiritual confessor and comforter . . . and they can't."

Most accusers have not gone public. In private, though, they--and lawyers and therapists--detail sordid charges dating back 25 years of diocesan priests showing young boys pornography, buying them gifts, and fondling and raping them in hotel rooms, rectories and private lodges.

Two men have made formal accusations against the Rev. Robert Vonnahmen of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Elizabethtown, one of the eight removed this spring.

Stephen McCaffrey, now a 25-year-old insurance agent in Albuquerque, N.M., has filed a $3.5-million lawsuit, alleging Vonnahmen seduced and sodomized him in 1981 when the priest ran a Catholic summer camp he attended.

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