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Priest Accused of Abuse Dies in Apparent Suicide

April 05, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND — A Roman Catholic priest under investigation for child molestation died Thursday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, church officials said.

Father Don A. Rooney, 48, who was reported missing the day before by church officials, was found by a police officer slumped over in his car shortly before noon in the parking lot of a CVS Pharmacy in Hinckley, Ohio. He was taken by helicopter to a medical center in nearby Cleveland but was dead on arrival.

The apparent suicide of a priest marks the latest in an escalating crisis for the U.S. Catholic Church, which has grappled with allegations of long-ignored sexual abuse of children by priests in many of its dioceses. Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla, criticized in recent weeks for failing to act quickly when allegations of abuse were made against priests in his diocese, had moved aggressively to change the perception that he was doing too little.

Last week, Pilla suspended a 40-year priest on the basis of a single allegation.

Rooney came under scrutiny Monday when a woman reported to the diocese that the priest had sexually abused her 22 years ago when she was still a minor--the first such allegation against him, according to church officials.

Rooney was assigned to Sacred Heart in Wadsworth, Ohio, in the Cleveland area, at the time of the alleged abuse.

Rooney, a lifelong area resident, was ordained in 1979. He previously had served at St. Anthony of Padua in Parma, Ohio, a working-class suburb just across the city line.

Bob Tayek, a spokesman for the Diocese of Cleveland, said Rooney's death shocked church officials, who had been urgently trying to locate him since he missed a Wednesday morning meeting with Pilla.

"Our bishop simply told me our concern at the moment is for the tragic death of a priest and for a grieving mother and family," Tayek said late Thursday. "And our continuing concern is for the alleged victim who made this allegation."

Tayek said church officials had tried to reach Rooney on Monday at the church rectory when the allegations were first made. Informing a priest promptly about an allegation against him has been official church policy here since 1989, Tayek said.

Church officials spoke to Rooney on Tuesday, summoning him to a meeting the next day at the diocese offices. He was not told the reason for the meeting.

When Rooney did not show up Wednesday, church officials grew alarmed, calling a family member to help find him.

But they also moved ahead with the investigation, alerting Cuyahoga County Child Protective Services of the allegations, as well as local law enforcement officials in Wadsworth, where the alleged abuse took place. When the family member could not find Rooney, church officials filed a missing person report with the Parma police.

"After we made the attempt to meet with him, we felt it necessary to follow through with our procedures when such allegations are made," Tayek said.

The church in this heavily Catholic region has been under pressure from its members, as well as local media, to do more to help those who said they were molested by priests. The Plain Dealer in Cleveland last month printed a multi-part series on the Diocese of Cleveland's record in such matters, painting an unflattering portrait.

Before the allegations against Rooney were made public, Pilla had warned this week that new cases should be expected.

He told the local Fox television affiliate Wednesday that he had failed to do enough to comfort victims, saying that if he was "ever convinced that it would be better for the church for someone else to be bishop of the diocese," he would resign.

Thursday evening at the Parma parish, where Rooney was known for organizing skate parties for children and taking an active role in parishioners' lives, several cellophane-wrapped bouquets had been placed against the rectory door.

"Father Don, we will miss you," read one card. "Love, your friends."

He is survived by a mother and three siblings, church officials said.

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