ST. LOUIS (ChurchMilitant.com) - On Friday, July 26, 2019, nearly a year after announcing his intention to allow Missouri's attorney general to "conduct a review of the Archdiocese of St. Louis with regard to clergy sexual abuse," Abp. Robert Carlson has reviewed 70 years of records and released a list of 61 diocesan priests "who have substantiated claims of sexual abuse of minors against them" and three priests who were found to be in possession of child pornography.
After Abp. Carlson's August 2018 announcement, all three of Missouri's other dioceses followed his lead and agreed to voluntarily participate in reviews of their dioceses. The diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau identified three priests accused of abusing children four decades ago, presumably when Cdl. Bernard Law [deceased] was serving as bishop (1973–1984) before he was made archbishop of Boston.
In December 2018, the diocese of Jefferson City identified 35 priests "credibly" accused of sexual misconduct with a minor.
The Washington Post reports that the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is the only diocese in Missouri that has not produced a similar list, but diocese spokesperson Jack Smith says, "The diocese hired an independent firm of law enforcement professionals in May and projects having a list available in the fall of this year."
The problem with these clergy lists is that some Catholic officials have been underreporting cases of sexual abuse, including ones from high profile states. For example, Church Militant previously reported that the diocese of Buffalo, New York, initially reported that there were only 42 credible cases of priestly sexual abuse, although documents reveal Bp. Richard Malone knew about — but did not reveal — another 64 likely perpetrators of priestly sexual crimes.
In state attorneys general investigations in both Pennsylvania and Illinois, the numbers reported by dioceses and the numbers they found were significantly different.
In December 2018, a New York Times story said, "The preliminary report by Illinois State Attorney General Lisa Madigan concludes that the Catholic dioceses in Illinois are incapable of investigating themselves and 'will not resolve the clergy sexual abuse crisis on their own.'"
The story went on to note that the Illinois AG's report said that "690 priests were accused of abuse, and only 185 names were made public by the dioceses as having been found credibly accused of abuse." Madigan said, "The number of allegations above what was already public is shocking."
After an 18-month grand jury investigation, the state of Pennsylvania reports more than 300 priests connected to sex abuse allegations in its six dioceses. Compare that to Missouri, where Catholic officials have reported 99 priests in three dioceses connected to child sexual abuse.
All these comparisons are made difficult by the varying criteria used to create the lists. In the case of St. Louis, the list is made up of diocesan priests who have had "substantiated claims of sexual abuse of minors." This terminology raises a number of questions:
Church Militant posed these questions to Executive Director of Strategic Communications and Planning Peter Frangie, the diocese's spokesperson, and received no response as of press time.
Frangie did admit that some of the priests named on the list could be subject to new criminal charges once they are turned over to Attorney General Eric Schmitt's office. This means that for at least the past 11 months, the archdiocese of St. Louis has been aware of potential criminal accusations against priests and has delayed turning those names over to law enforcement until now.
Here's what we know about how the St. Louis archdiocese investigation was conducted.
On Aug. 23, 2018, Abp. Carlson announced that he would allow the Missouri attorney general's office to conduct a review of the archdiocese of St. Louis' records related to clergy sexual abuse. Next, Abp. Carlson hired a group of law enforcement "experts" to conduct an internal audit of accused priests and come up with a list.
The names of the experts and their credentials were never revealed. This group then submitted their report to the archdiocese's review board.
"As a professional courtesy," the names of the members of this review board are kept secret. The diocese claims the majority of the members are laypeople, but there is no way to verify that assertion. It also claims the review board is chaired by a layperson, but again, that cannot be verified. The review board then submitted its findings to Abp. Carlson, who published them.
The archdiocese wants the process to appear "hands-off" — and perhaps it was — but the archdiocese has made it impossible to verify its neutrality. Instead, they are forcing the public to trust them.
It is not entirely clear the review board members actually want the professional courtesy of having their names withheld. Frangie claimed the diocese intentionally limited the amount of information about the priests and cases because "we are thinking about the victims in each of these cases and trying to be respectful of their privacy and emotions around this difficult issue."
So "out of professional courtesy" and "respect for the victims," the archdiocese is withholding information about the priests and about the process.
But in the case of abuse victims, they are precisely the ones who are clamoring for more information. According to reporting in St. Louis Today, David Clohessy, with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), "cast doubt that the list reflected the full extent of priests credibly accused of abuse, given that the archdiocese records from a lawsuit in 2014 showed complaints made against 115 priests."
Again, notice SNAP uses the term "credibly accused" while the archdiocese talks about "substantiated cases." Clohessy went on to say, "It's irresponsible to keep silent about a potentially dangerous child molester — or even a deceased one — and wait to disclose this knowledge in groups or bunches when it suits an employer's public relations needs."
In Abp. Carlson's special eight-page tabloid publication about the clergy abuse list, distributed this week to every household in the archdiocese, he advises people to call the Missouri Department of Social Services hotline to report current or past clergy abuse and/or to call the archdiocese Office of Child and Youth Protection. The archdiocese never suggests notifying law enforcement, even though sexual abuse of a minor is a criminal act.
If one calls the Missouri Department of Social Services hotline, that agency then becomes the de facto screener of the sexual abuse claim. Depending on the outcome of their interview with the caller, the claim may or may not move forward.
This is the agency that decides whether law enforcement will be notified. It would be interesting to know — of the calls that come into the Missouri Department of Social Services, how many involve current or past clergy abuse, and of those calls, how many ultimately get passed on to law enforcement?
So the archdiocese of St. Louis is advising the public to call the state's social services agency or its own internal abuse agency as the first line of defense. Church Militant specifically asked Frangie, "Why does the archdiocese not tell people with accusations of child sexual abuse (a criminal offense) to immediately call law enforcement?"
There was no answer from Frangie.
Even though information released by the archdiocese on clergy abuse is limited, there are interesting facts to be gleaned. For example, of the 64 diocesan priests on the list, 31 of them (48%) were ordained under Cdl. Joseph Elmer Ritter. Their ordinations are clustered in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s with the peak in the 1960s.
With only a bit of poking around, problems with the list's accuracy quickly pop up. Take, for example, Rev. John P. Hess. He is listed among those priests with "substantiated allegations of possession of child pornography" — except Hess was never convicted of possession of child pornography. Because of an FBI snafu, he was only charged with and convicted of possession of obscene materials. Those details are available at Bishop Accountability — but not from the archdiocese.
The responsibility for further investigation of Missouri's four dioceses now rests with Schmitt, a St. Louis Catholic insider. Chris Nuelle, Schmitt's spokesperson and another St. Louis Catholic high school graduate, said the attorney general's office was reviewing Carlson's findings and "how they fit into our investigation."
He declined further comment. As Aug. 23 approaches, the one-year anniversary of Josh Hawley's call for a statewide investigation of all of Missouri's Catholic dioceses, the pressure on Schmitt to do something will increase exponentially. Here's a tip for the AG: You have one more bit of room to delay. You can always wait to begin your investigation until the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph provides its list in the fall.
Who knows? Maybe it won't be until late fall, allowing a few more priests to die or retire.
It brings to mind an old Protestant altar call hymn, "Oh why do you wait, dear brother? Why do you tarry so long?"