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Clergy removed from ministry for reports of sexual abuse; Where are they now?

October 13, 2011

 A story appeared in the Auburnpub.com titled “Banished priest finds a new ministry” about a priest removed from ministry for credible reports of sexual abuse. Auburn is a small city in New York State with a population of just under 30,000. The priest removed was Fr. Dennis Shaw who was placed on leave shortly before Christmas in 2010.The spokesman for the diocese of Rochester reports that Shaw’s case is currently before the diocesan review board. Doug Mandelaro, the diocesan spokesman indicates that the board will make a recommendation to the local bishop, and the case will then be forwarded to the Vatican for review.

A story about a priest removed for reports of sexual abuse is unfortunately not new. What is important about this story is it asks the question “What is Dennis Shaw doing now?” According to the paper Shaw is now conducting bible study groups at the local Methodist church in Auburn. The Methodist church allows Shaw’s bible group to use the church as a meeting space, however the group is composed primarily of Catholics who have stayed loyal to Shaw.

In addition to leading the bible study group Shaw is working in a variety of ministries. He works part time at the YMCA, assists at a funeral home, and has partnered with a psychologist to offer “a combination of clinical psychology and spiritual counseling”. One of his loyal devotees feels that Shaw has been treated unfairly proclaiming that “It’s like they crucified Christ all over again…they treated him like a damn criminal, he didn’t kill anybody”.

The questions raised by this story could be asked about any of the thousands of priests who have had reports of sexual abuse made against them. The Washington Post published a comprehensive story in December of 2010 called “After child abuse allegations Catholic priests often simply vanish”.  The Post found that “The priests have largely vanished from public view. Their fates are often a mystery to their victims, their parishioners, and even their attorneys”. One such priest was Robert Petrella, who had been accused by 25 men of sexual abuse. He was convicted twice but his name is not listed on the state’s sex offender registry because of laws in effect at the time of his conviction. He has since been released from jail and his probation has ended. The Washington archdiocese stated they had no idea where Petrella was.

As the archdiocese of Milwaukee continues through the bankruptcy process the same questions could, and should be asked concerning the offenders in our area who have been removed from ministry.

Where are they now?

BishopAccountability lists 62 individuals from the archdiocese of Milwaukee who have been publicly accused of child sexual abuse. The archdiocese of Milwaukee’s list, which excludes members of religious orders, lists 44 diocesan priests who have been restricted due to reports of child sexual abuse.

Some of these individuals are now deceased, some have been laicized, and some have been restricted from ministry. The vast majority are not listed on the State of Wisconsin’s sex offender registry.

The primary reason why most of these individuals do not appear on the state’s registry is because they were not convicted of a crime.  They were not charged in criminal court for several reasons.  In many cases the victim/survivor came forward to report the crime after the statutes of limitations had expired.  It is now known, that for a variety of reasons, victims of childhood sexual abuse usually come forward long after legal remedies are available to them.  The delay in reporting the crime is often a result of the overwhelming trauma experienced by the child.

Secret church documents that have been released through the litigation process reveal another reason why many of these offenders were never charged in a court of law.  The bishops, aware that sexual abuse had taken place, chose not to report the crime to civil authorities.  Instead they covered up the crime, and when the victim was finally able to muster up the courage to report the assault they found that the statute of limitations had expired.

Archbishop Weakland, in his memoir, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, declared “We all considered sexual abuse of minors as a moral evil, but had no understanding of its criminal nature”.  The criminal nature of child sexual assault has been recognized in legal systems throughout the world for centuries.  Canon Lawyer, Patrick J. Wall, in his expert opinion submitted to the International Criminal Court last month, notes that the sexual abuse of children was considered a crime in the Catholic Church’s own canon law as early as the fourth century.

There are few professions, whose members are given the responsibility to care for children, that are able to conceal their misdeeds due to the statutes of limitations laws.  A doctor, teacher, social worker, or therapist who was known to have sexually assaulted a child, would be unable to retain their license to practice in their respective field. 

These professions maintain a code of ethics which govern the behavior of its members.  The profession does not allow individuals to retain their professional license if they have been found to have violated the profession’s accepted code of conduct.  When violations of professional conduct occur the complaint is reviewed by the occupations licensing board.

In the interest of public safety the findings of the licensing board are made available to the public.  The Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services maintains a database where the decisions made by the board can be reviewed. 

There currently is no such database in the state of Wisconsin where the public can confirm, if a member of the clergy, in any denomination, has assaulted a child.  Wisconsin state representative Peggy Krusick and Wisconsin state senator Tim Carpenter had proposed legislation which would have created a statewide database of clergy sex offenders.

A priest, nun, brother, or deacon who was removed from ministry for sexually abusing a child, who has not been criminally charged, is afforded the opportunity to begin a new career.  That career could possibly involve working with children and families.  Employers and the public are left unaware of the danger that they pose to children.

This danger is especially acute when those clerics belong to a religious order. In the archdiocese of Milwaukee the names of religious order clerics who have harmed children are not published on the diocesan website.  The religious orders themselves have decided not to publish the names of their offenders. These orders have a very large presence in the archdiocese, and include the Jesuits, the Capuchins, the Pallotines, the Franciscans, and the Carmelites.

Victim/survivors, Catholics, and the general public do not know the whereabouts of most of these individuals. They do not know where they are currently employed, if they are working with children, with vulnerable adults, or if they live next door to them. The public does not know if they are providing counseling, working at a day care center, or ministering to the faithful at a new church.

The continued concealment of the crimes of these individuals by church leaders continues to put children at risk today. Families with children and the community at large cannot protect themselves from potential sexual victimization as long as this information remains hidden away in the secret archives of the diocese.

Victim/Survivors have long asked; whose interest is served by keeping the identities of sexual abusers and their crimes secret?  The answer is clearly that the interests of the abusers are given precedence over the safety and well being of children and their families.

As the bankruptcy process continues to unfold victim/survivors and their families will continue to call for the diocese to fully disclose, the names and the records, of all known offenders, including those who belong to religious orders.  In the interest of protecting our children we need to know who they are, and if they are living near, or working with, children and other vulnerable individuals.

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