October 31, 2004 in Region

Priest used church money to groom victims

Associated Press
 

SEATTLE – A former Roman Catholic priest ousted from the ministry for molesting boys diverted thousands of dollars of church money for personal expenses – in some cases showering his alleged victims with cash, gifts and vacations, according to a Seattle archdiocese investigation.

John Cornelius, who was permanently dismissed from the priesthood in September, paid the money back, and the archdiocese later curtailed his ability to deal with parish finances, said Patrick Sursely, financial director of the archdiocese.

The findings, reported in Saturday’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer, were based on a 1991 investigation of funds used from a bequest of about $60,000.

“Our investigation showed there was clear, inappropriate diversion of funds,” Sursely said. The archdiocese found that Cornelius had spent thousands of dollars on personal expenses, but Sursely declined to say exactly how much.

Cornelius has not admitted to sexually abusing his accusers, but apologized in a written statement in 2002, saying, “I acknowledge my responsibility for my failures and want to express my deep sorrow for what I have done. I ask you for your forgiveness.” Reached for a response to the P-I’s story, he said he had no comment.

Experts say many priests accused of abuse used church money to attract their victims.

“Based on all of our research and investigation we have reason to believe that a significant number of priests have used money from the church to groom children that they were sexually abusing,” said Raymond Boucher, a Los Angeles attorney and lead counsel on more than 300 clergy abuse cases. He said he could not discuss specifics of the cases.

A recent study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 18 percent of reported abuse by priests involved gifts. About 21 percent of reported cases involved gifts of cash, liquor and vacations.

“Gifts help increase the trust level of the intended victim, allowing the perpetrator to move closer to his target,” said Tod Tamberg, spokesman at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The P-I found that in more than a dozen nationwide cases of sexual abuse by clergy, the alleged offender also was accused of stealing from the church. While some were convicted of stealing nearly $100,000, others either went unnoticed or church officials did not report them, the P-I said.

Records and interviews show that victims were given cars, motorcycles, leather jackets, jewelry, fishing rods, drugs, alcohol, lavish dinners and stays in four-star hotels. There were also trips to Las Vegas, Europe, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Cornelius “coaxed boys into his web with gifts – food, clothes, alcohol, drugs and money,” said one alleged victim who has sued Cornelius anonymously.

Ricky Barquet, another alleged victim, said Cornelius paid his high school tuition and paid him handsomely for doing odd jobs at the church. Errol Graves, whose son has accused Cornelius, said Cornelius even gave his son two cars.

Alleged victims of former priest James Hanley in New Jersey say they’re confident he stole money from the church for gifts they received.

“We were spoiled rotten with gifts and stuff that he bought,” said Bill Crane, head of the Oregon chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Crane said he and his twin brother, Tommy Crane of Bainbridge Island, were abused by Hanley in the 1970s and ”80s.

“If you are stealing the purity and innocence of a child in a church, how far of a stretch is it to steal parishioners’ money from the till?” said Mark Serrano, an alleged Hanley victim who is on SNAP’s national board of directors.

More than 20 men have alleged abuse by Hanley, who could not be reached for comment.

Many of the country’s reported abuse cases occurred between the 1950s and the 1980s.

“A priest at that time is making $600 a month. Where is he getting that kind of money to spend on children? You just have to do the math,” said John Manly, a Southern California lawyer who helped a client win a $5.2 million settlement from a priest.

Nationwide, church officials acknowledge there was little oversight of church funds before the 1980s. Previously, priests often controlled church accounts. Under new policies, most churches have teams of people to handle accounting, and finance councils oversee the use of donations, Tamberg said.

Information about theft from the country’s 19,000 parishes is not collected, and the church has no national office in charge of overseeing dioceses. Each diocese reports directly to the pope.

U.S. Catholics donate more than $6 billion to the church every year, but “the controls you would expect to be in place are simply not there,” said Francis Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, a network of private foundations that monitors the financial practices of charities and the church.

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