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2 Paths, No Easy Solution on Abusive Priests
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN and JODI WILGOREN
Published: March 3, 2002
ST. LOUIS, March 1— It has been 20 years since John Scorfina’s family complained to church officials about the Rev. Leroy Valentine’s sexualized horseplay with him and his two brothers, which they say ended with the priest molesting 11-year-old John.
It has been four years since the Scorfina brothers took $20,000 each from the Archdiocese of St. Louis on the condition they never speak of the settlement, believing that lawyers for the church had promised to remove the priest from parish work.
But when the three men recently learned that Father Valentine, who has denied any wrongdoing, was an assistant pastor at a church attached to a Catholic elementary school, the order not to speak could not contain their outrage.
”I just don’t want any kids to go through what I went through,” John Scorfina said this week.
Across the Mississippi River in Belleville, Ill., the priests who have been accused of sexual abuse no longer work in churches. One performs karaoke on Wednesday nights at the Lincoln Jug restaurant in Belleville and another pumps gas at his mother’s service station in the small town of Columbia.
In the mid-1990’s, the Diocese of Belleville publicly ousted 13 priests accused of inappropriate sexual contact with children, leaving them in an odd limbo — on the church payroll yet without portfolio, called ”Father” but barred from administering sacraments or wearing the collar. ”In the church,” said one, the Rev. Raymond Kownacki, ”you’re guilty until proven innocent.”
Here in the center of the country, these two dioceses — one, in a major city in which a third of the population is Catholic, the other a sprawling 11,000-square-mile expanse of small farm towns — have taken divergent paths in handling accusations of sexual abuse by clergymen.
While Belleville made headlines by removing priests, St. Louis quietly moved them around. Each diocese has a board to review the cases. In Belleville, a victim’s say-so was often enough for the board to strip priests of their church ministries; in St. Louis, many victims said they were unaware of the board’s existence.
As church officials nationwide rethink their approaches to the issue amid recent scandals, each bank of the river offers lessons about the intractability of the problem.
Belleville’s broad public sweep of priests from the altar may have eased victims’ pain, but it also left some parishioners uneasy that innocent men were being maligned, while others worried about potential pedophiles being released from the rectory, unwatched. The policy in St. Louis, until this week, of keeping nearly all accusations secret as the archdiocese moved the priests into new parishes, retirement, or low-profile posts, angered victims and may have led to further offenses.
The issue of sexual abuse by priests has taken on new urgency in recent months after disclosures that the Boston Archdiocese had known for years about the sexual misconduct of a priest who was accused of molesting some 130 children. That case led to repeated apologies from the leader of the archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law, who reversed his policy of keeping the matter within the church and gave state authorities the names of some 80 priests accused of abusing children over 40 years.
Since then, church leaders in New England and Philadelphia have informed parishes of similar accusations against priests, handed priests’ personnel files to prosecutors and relieved some of the accused of their duties. In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahoney issued a public apology to victims and released a new policy vowing that a priest who had abused a child would never return to active ministry.
Here in St. Louis, an archdiocese of 223 parishes, church officials announced the removal of two pastors today, saying they had ”raised the bar” about who is unfit to serve in a parish post. The standard, since 1996, had been that any priest deemed to pose a future risk would be removed. Since the Boston incidents, they say that any priest with a substantiated accusation against him will be ousted. The two priests received treatment after the accusations, which are 15 and 14 years old, officials said.
”As painful as it is, we’re going to keep the trust of our people,” said Bishop Timothy M. Dolan, the vicar for priests. ”We have to be able to say, we have to be able to believe, that there is no priest in a parish against whom there is a credible claim of clerical sexual abuse.”
Accusations about pedophilia have plagued the Roman Catholic Church in the United States since the first major case arose nearly 20 years ago in a Louisiana parish. Experts warn that, like alcoholism, pedophilia is a disease that can be controlled but not cured, and that problem priests should not be reassigned to parishes where they are at risk of abusing again.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who lives in St. Louis, says the experiences of Belleville, while flawed, are a starting point as bishops review policies. St. Louis, he says, is a model of what to avoid.
”In Belleville, like virtually every diocese in America, the survivor who comes forward has a long tough road,” he said. ”But in St. Louis, that road is steep, uphill, and seemingly endless.”
Parishioners Uneasy But Dependent
Father Valentine was the favorite of many children at St. Pius X, a parish and school in Glasgow Village, a community of identical aluminum-sided bungalows in the northern part of St. Louis. The priest took them out for ice cream and cheeseburgers. He lavished affection on children like the Scorfinas, who came from single-parent or troubled families. ”He was like the dad that wasn’t there,” said John Scorfina, who now runs a construction company.
Father Valentine, in an interview on Thursday at the rectory of St. Thomas the Apostle, where he is now an associate pastor, said he was barred by the legal settlement from discussing the case. When told that this was his opportunity to respond to whether there was any truth to the accusations, he looked down and shook his head. The senior pastor, the Rev. Henry Garavaglia, who sat in on the interview, said, ”Emphatically, I would say no.”
Then Father Valentine looked up and said suddenly, ”At the same time, parents should always be concerned who’s working with their children.”
Others who lived in Father Valentine’s parish said they felt uneasy about him, particularly when he wrestled with groups of boys and slid them over his body in a game he called ”crack your back.”
Tom Joseph, 32, remembers a 1982 trip with Father Valentine to the Illinois River in which he says the priest playfully tackled him, pulled down his pants and spanked him. Mr. Joseph, then 13, did not tell anyone, but says that he never went anywhere with the priest again.
Margie Lewis, a single parent, said that one day she called home and was surprised to learn from her daughter that Father Valentine was there wrestling with her son and his friends. She said that she asked him to come to the phone, but he would not, and that he left suddenly.
The Scorfina brothers were also home alone on the day they say that Father Valentine came over, and initiated a wrestling session. Soon, they say, the priest fondled two of the boys and then took John into a bedroom and sodomized him.
”I remember I had a Pittsburgh Steelers poster on the wall, and he made me name all the players until the deed was done,” John Scorfina said. Asked in his 1998 deposition how long it lasted, Mr. Scorfina said, ”About 10, 15 minutes, maybe, give or take, say, forever, 26 years.”
Katie Chrun, the Scorfinas’ mother, recalled that when she arrived home her youngest son asked: ” ‘Mom, should a priest touch you like that?’ I said, ‘Like what?’ ”
Mrs. Chrun said she contacted the authorities, but was told by pastors and a policeman that it was an internal church matter and to keep quiet and be forgiving.
Then, three months later, Mrs. Chrun, her mother and her sister went to meet with Father Valentine in the rectory. Mrs. Chrun and her sister, Linda Thurman, both say that he apologized and said that if he did something wrong, he must have blacked out.
Asked about the meeting, Father Valentine said, ”It was an apology that they had taken something wrongly.” He said he never said anything about blacking out.
Within the month, Father Valentine was removed with no explanation to the Scorfinas or the parishioners, and in the next 12 years was reassigned to three parishes, two of them with schools. Not until the Scorfina brothers filed their lawsuit, in 1995, were parishioners at the church where he worked at that time informed that there were accusations of child sexual abuse against him. The Scorfina brothers sued the Archbishop of St. Louis and Father Valentine and the archdiocese settled with the family in 1998.
Though they refused to discuss specific cases, Bishop Dolan, who also handles sexual abuse cases for the archdiocese, as well as the archdiocese’s lawyer and a psychologist who sits on the review board acknowledged that Father Valentine had been evaluated and treated by medical professionals, and that he had been put on sick leave for four years.
In 2000, as Father Valentine was assigned to his current post in Florissant, a St. Louis suburb, the church’s senior pastor sent parishioners a letter informing them about a 1982 accusation of sexual misconduct against Father Valentine. The letter said Father Valentine had ”unambiguously denied the allegation” and that therapists had concluded he posed ”no threat to children.”
Some Settled, Some Unheeded
Interviews and court records suggest Father Valentine’s is not the only St. Louis case where accusations led to transfers — or where victims complained of being ignored by the chancery.
Church officials refused to say how many priests, before last week, had ever been publicly removed because of sexual abuse. Doug Forsyth, a lawyer who has handled about two dozen cases against the archdiocese — 15 of which he said were settled — and victims’ advocates said the only cases they were aware of in which removal was publicly attributed to pedophilia were ones in which the priests did not deny the accusations in court.
One of those priests, the Rev. James Gummersbach, admitted in a 1994 lawsuit that he had abused boys in several parishes over decades. Further, in a sworn statement, he acknowledged that from his ordination in 1954 through the 1990’s ”the only known action taken by the defendant archdiocese in response to the accusations that defendant Gummersbach had sexual contact with minors was to transfer Gummersbach and instruct him to obtain personal counseling.”
One man who said his complaints about a priest went unheeded was Steven Pona. Court records show Mr. Pona, now 33, wrote to the the vicar general in 1983 contending that that the Rev. Bruce Forman, director of the Young Catholic Musicians orchestra and choir, tried to seduce him at a drive-in screening of ”Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Mr. Pona said the incident followed at least five occasions in which the priest tried to approach him sexually.
”During the movies he had his arm around me in a funny sort of way, sort of at the waist,” Mr. Pona wrote in a teenager’s cursive. ”I pushed his arm back forcefully and said, ”Don’t, I’m not that type.’
Diocesan directories show that Father Forman, who did not return calls for comment, was moved only once in the last 20 years, in 1986, to the parish where he remains pastor. Mr. Pona’s letter, in a sealed envelope, was placed in the priest’s file, marked, ”To be opened by archbishop only,” according to court records.
Mr. Pona’s lawsuit, filed against Father Forman and the archbishop, was dismissed because of the statute of limitations. But as the issue resurfaced in the news in January, Mr. Pona said, he went to see Bishop Michael J. Sheridan, who at first was compassionate but later phoned to say he had researched the case and found no evidence.
On Friday, Bishop Dolan said Mr. Pona’s recent complaint might have gotten lost because it arrived shortly before Bishop Sheridan left for another assignment. Bishop Sheridan did not return several phone calls on Thursday. In the interview today, Bishop Dolan urged parishioners to ”tell us again” if they were unhappy with how complaints had been handled.
The archdiocese’s new strategy of removing priests based on substantiated accusations rather than assessment of future risk has already spawned criticism. Parishioners at St. Cronan’s Church, where the pastor was removed on Wednesday, gathered that evening to pray for their priest.
”People are feeling that it’s sort of an infringement of our Christian community to have someone taken from us without any consultation and without any explanation,” said Bill Ramsey, a member of St. Cronan’s. ”I don’t think anybody wants sexual abuse anywhere, but it’s a fact of life and there are more constructive ways to deal with it than ordering people away from other people.”
Model System Still Falls Short
The church used to shuffle priests accused of sexually abusing children among the 127 parishes in the Belleville diocese, too.
In a 1995 lawsuit against Father Kownacki, one of the ousted priests, and the diocese, Gina Trimble Parks asserted that while she was the priest’s teenage housekeeper, the priest repeatedly raped her over two years and ultimately fed her a quinine potion to bring about an abortion. Court records show Ms. Park’s family made the same assertions to the bishop in 1973, and that Father Kownacki had two previous complaints of sexual abuse against him from other assignments. He was sent for treatment and later returned to a parish.
The lawsuit was dismissed because of the statute of limitations. ”I was too old to fight it,” he said of his ouster in a recent interview, adding that his family and friends ”know the accusations aren’t the truth.”
The Rev. Clyde Grogan, longtime pastor of St. Patrick’s in East St. Louis, said he brought several victims and their families to the chancery to register complaints in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and nothing happened.
”You know how it was handled?” asked Father Grogan, raising his hand and forming a zero with thumb and forefinger. When victims complained, he added, ”The bishop would give lots of assurances. I think the strategy was, what do the people want to hear?”
That changed in 1993, after The Belleville News-Democrat published an article describing how a priest had molested high school boys aboard a houseboat on Carlyle Lake 20 years before. The accused priest was immediately removed and church leaders began rewriting their sexual abuse policy.
Four priests were ousted in the weeks that followed and eight more priests and a deacon were pushed out in the next two years as the diocese investigated a swell of complaints, most of which first appeared in The News-Democrat.One as eventually returned to a parish.
”We were kind of learning as we went,” said Msgr. James E. Margason, Belleville’s vicar general, who helped write the new policy. ”We were damaging someone’s reputation, we didn’t know if the allegation was true. What drove us was to protect children.”
Margie Mensen, a social worker who was the administrator of the Belleville review board from its formation until 1998, said a credible accusation from a victim was enough to remove a priest, often within days of the complaint. Many of the priests never presented their side to the board; only one admitted the abuse. Several refused treatment.
The diocese has since settled at least three of eight lawsuits (one is still pending in federal court) and paid for counseling for 49 people, including victims and their families. Though the state’s attorney subpoenaed all the review board’s records, it filed no charges, because the accusations were years old and lacked corroboration.
But if Belleville has been heralded as a model, many in the community remain dissatisfied with the process.
Father Grogan says the diocese’s 80-some priests are still divided as to whether they believe the abuse accusations. Parishioners at one church wore yellow ribbons to protest their pastor’s removal. Donations dipped for years as people feared the Sunday collection plate would go to defray legal expenses.
Those who say they are victims remain outraged that the priests retain their titles, salaries and pensions.
”That’s kind of a slap in the church’s face, my face, everybody’s face,” said Mary Aholt, whose husband was among those to receive a settlement. ”Everybody that’s paying their salary, and that’s everyone that belongs to the Catholic Church.”
Others worried that the church is not properly supervising the people it had deemed a problem. The Rev. Louis Peterson works in a restaurant in Lebanon, Ill. Father Kownacki collects coins and stamps in a dingy first-floor apartment in Dupo, Ill., where he said he sometimes celebrates Mass for family and friends, against the rules of his administrative leave. The Rev. David Crook has left the area.
”I have a whole new life,” said the lounge singer at the Lincoln Jug Restaurant, Msgr. Joseph R. Schwaegel, who still faces a federal lawsuit, along with the diocese, by a California man who asserts that Father Schwaegel repeatedly touched his genitals and raped him in 1973, when the plaintiff was 8. Father Schwaegel declined to discuss the case.
The Rev. Robert Vonnahmen, a former camp director who faced at least three lawsuits accusing him of luring boys to his cabin for massages that led to molestations, runs a Catholic retreat center and a $3-million-a-year tax-exempt tour company, formerly owned by the church, which leads Catholic ”pilgrimages” to dozens of destinations. (Two of the lawsuits were dismissed because of the statute of limitations, a third was settled out of court.)
At his office the other day, Father Vonnahmen wore a short-sleeved black shirt with Roman collar, button open, defying the church’s sanction. He has denied all accusations against him, twice petitioned the Belleville review board to reinstate him and has now appealed his case to the Vatican. ”I’m not going to give up on the Lord or the church, either one,” he said. ”I know these things happen occasionally. I can’t imagine the large number of people in Belleville. There was a rush to judgment.”
No Belleville priests have been removed since 1997. Monsignor Margason said the 800-number set up to receive abuse complaints has been silent for a year.