Monday, October 17, 2005

 

Center destroyed priest sex case records


Jemez Springs, N.M. - What might have been a rich lode of information on the background of abusive Catholic priests and religious brothers has been destroyed by a center in New Mexico where some of them had been sent for treatment.

The material was discarded, according to the head of the order that ran it, following policy and because of concern for medical privacy and storage space. The program was closed in 1995.

It is not clear whether litigants who clearly would have been eager to see contents of the files could have gotten access to them anyway.

One recurring question in the sex abuse scandal involving priests nationwide is whether the church recognized but hid predators and put them in circumstances where they could find new victims. The material once on file might have provided ammunition to press some lawsuits but perhaps to defend some as well. The Catholic Church and other religious orders have paid out sums approaching $1 billion for settlements and jury verdicts over cases alleging clergy sex abuse.

The facility, which operated most recently under the name Fitzgerald Center, in Jemez Springs, N.M., was run for decades by the Servants of the Paraclete, which also has treatment centers in St. Louis and Dittmer. It has treated thousands of priests, brothers and other religious people battling addiction, depression and sexual problems. Among them were some priests who have become infamous locally and nationally for molesting young boys and girls.

All of the patient records have been destroyed, Servant General Peter Lechner said in an interview this month.

"Key evidence"

Minnesota lawyer Patrick Noaker, who says he has filed almost 2,000 clergy or teacher sex abuse cases nationwide, said the loss of the records is frustrating and "highly significant."

Noaker, who has seen some patient records from the Servants, said they often contained information about how many sex abuse allegations had been made and under what circumstances.

"The destruction of those records was really the destruction of key evidence in criminal proceedings," Noaker said.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said, "I just think it's shameful that even one piece of paper that might have helped prosecute one molester would be destroyed."

Texas lawyer Sylvia Demarest, who has sued the Servants, said she thinks the order destroyed the records to protect itself but cannot be held legally accountable for it.

Lechner said the documents were destroyed as part of a longstanding policy - and because of concerns over storage space and the long-term security and privacy of the material.

Lechner said the Servants sought legal advice about whether to preserve records in anticipation of lawsuits or requests for information, and said their lawyers recommended continuing the existing policy.

Citing legal advice, he declined comment on whether the potential for future civil suits affected the decision.

The destruction of the records first came to the attention of the head of the Marianist Province of the United States last month, after a former student at St. John Vianney High School here sued the St. Louis-based order, the school and former Marianist Brother William Mueller, a former teacher and school official.

The suit alleges that Mueller sexually abused Bryan Bacon at knifepoint in 1985, and that school and province officials knew or should have known that Mueller was a threat to children.

Other lawsuits filed last month against the Marianists and the Pueblo, Colo., diocese allege that in the 1960s, Mueller used the anesthetic ether to drug boys before sexually assaulting them. One case claims Mueller fondled one student after convincing him that he would play the trombone better in the nude.

Police investigate

Two police departments have looked into the allegations.

Sgt. Troy Davenport of the Pueblo police said investigators have been hampered by Colorado's statute of limitations, which says criminal charges must be filed within 10 years of the 18th birthday of the alleged victim.

Davenport said that treatment records from Servants could be useful in a criminal investigation.

Kirkwood police Detective Geoff Morrison said investigators' access to the material might have been blocked by patient confidentiality - and that contents if obtained might not have been useful. "It depends on what was said and to whom it was said," Morrison said.

Morrison said an investigation into the allegations against Mueller is still open.

Mueller has not returned phone calls seeking comment.

Marianist Province records show that Mueller went to treatment in New Mexico after resigning in 1983 from St. Mary's High School, where he had been principal. But the documents don't reveal why he quit.

Because there was no paper trail, Brother Stephen Glodek, head of the Marianist Province of the U.S., was forced to seek out former officials and school administrators and tap their decades-old memories.

Province officials told Glodek that Mueller had been accused of bizarre behavior while principal of St. Mary's High School, including hypnotizing or drugging children.

Officials interviewed by a reporter said they were not aware of any sexual allegations involving Mueller.

In an e-mail, former Marianist Provincial David Fleming wrote that he had never heard "accusations of direct sexual contact on William Mueller's part and he strongly denied it in my interview with him when he was assigned for psychological treatment. However, the allegations concerned bizarre behavior, which he admitted to me, and I felt the treatment was essential."

Province and school officials said that Mueller was assigned to Vianney after the Servants' operation in New Mexico offered assurances that he was fit to serve in any position.

Fleming, who is now based in Italy as the superior general of the Marianists, said province policy at the time was "to reassign persons only if the professionals recommended it."

The Marianists' inquiry has not been able to find any paperwork to back up the decades-old memories.

In a 1995 deposition, the Rev. Liam Hoare, former Servant General of the Paracletes order, told lawyers that until 1989 or 1990, copies of progress reports and evaluations were sent out from New Mexico with language instructing religious leaders to destroy their copies of treatment and evaluation records or return them to the Servants facility for destruction.

Hoare and Lechner told lawyers then that a patient could block the release of his records to his home parish, order or province.

"Would I like those records? Certainly," said Marianist spokeswoman Dianne Guerra.

"We had to piece together information from a lot of sources," Guerra said.

The Marianists also had to rely on the recollection of former officials that there had been a letter from the Servants clearing Mueller for return to work in any capacity.

"We just don't have it in writing," Guerra said. "It would certainly lend credence . . . if we could have the letter itself."

Lechner declined to comment on specific people who had been treated at Jemez Springs.

In an interview Friday, Lechner said about 12 priests sent to the New Mexico facility in the 1960s and 1970s are known to have later abused minors. He said only one was known to have re-offended after the Servants set up a full-fledged treatment program in the 1980s.

Lechner said that the document destruction would have little effect on civil suits, as he believes the records would have been protected by "priest-penitent and therapist privilege."

Just one priest's file was ever released to lawyers, Lechner said, and that was only because the priest agreed to it.

Noaker disputed that, saying he had received documents from the Servants in other lawsuits.

Lechner also emphasized that the documents would not necessarily be harmful to the Servants in a civil lawsuit, and could be helpful to their defense.


See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.

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