Accused priests finding refuge

SUNDAY, SEPT. 12, 2004

ROME – Pope John Paul II summoned U.S. cardinals to the Vatican two years ago, at the height of the church’s sex abuse crisis, and made a stirring pronouncement.

“People need to know,” he stressed to them, “that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.”

Yet today, one block from the Vatican, a fugitive priest lives in a church building with rooftop views of St. Peter’s Basilica and the pope’s apartment.

The Rev. Joseph Henn’s superiors have let him stay with them, even though they say he has refused their instructions to go back to Phoenix and face charges that he molested three boys.

A short cab ride north, the Rev. Barry Bossa, an ex-con and fugitive, has found similar sanctuary in a leafy neighborhood of sidewalk cafes and low-rise apartments. His religious bosses hastily moved him out of the United States two years ago as his criminal record and new allegations began to emerge.

Here in the heart of Catholicism, church leaders are giving refuge to priests who face allegations of sexual abuse in other countries.

The Dallas Morning News located the men – some of them admitted abusers – as part of a yearlong investigation into the global movements of accused priests.

Some are stationed in the comfort of their religious orders’ world headquarters. One strolls by St. Peter’s Square en route to his job. Another leads English-language tours at ancient church burial grounds. And until recently, one man was serving his house arrest across the street from the Vatican. The priests would not discuss their cases at length. Their supervisors said they did not assign the men to Rome to help them elude law enforcement or victims. The goal, they said, was to give the priests a place to live and work away from children.

“It’s not the worst place in the world; that’s true,” said the Rev. Michael Higgins, the Passionist order’s American leader. Last year, he sent to Rome a priest who had been investigated, but not prosecuted, on abuse claims. “But it’s not a reward.”

A former top administrator at a Catholic college near the Vatican said placing accused and even fugitive priests in Rome was “very detrimental” – especially at a time when the church is trying to restore its battered image.

“I don’t think they understand taking those people over there is a scandal,” said the Rev. Lawrence Breslin, a retired priest who was the second-in-command at Pontifical North American College. “Rome is the center of the church. People see it as a holy place. It is not a place for harboring criminals.”

Several of the priests’ superiors said they did not notify the Diocese of Rome about the men and were not obligated to do so because they were not staffing parishes. The bishop of the diocese is Pope John Paul II.

Of the seven accused priests the News located in Rome, Henn was the only one registered at the diocese’s offices, according to the Rev. Marco Fibbi, a diocesan spokesman. Neither Fibbi nor Henn’s bosses would say whether the diocese was told about the criminal charges, which were filed after Henn arrived.

Fibbi referred further questions to the pope’s chief Vatican spokesman even though none of the seven priests lives within Vatican City. Joaquin Navarro-Valls did not respond to interview requests.

Navarro-Valls previously declined to comment on the News’ investigation, which found more than 200 accused priests, brothers and other Catholic workers hiding across international borders and living in unsuspecting communities, often with the church’s support. About 30 of the men were wanted by law enforcement in another country.

Prosecutors filed charges against Henn and Bossa last year and have asked the U.S. government to seek their extradition from Italy. State Department and Italian officials would not comment on the status of the requests. The two countries generally cooperate on extradition matters, but the process can take years nonetheless.

One of those prosecutors, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, of Arizona, was rebuffed last year when he asked the Vatican to use its authority to order two other fugitive priests to surrender. They had fled Phoenix for Mexico and Ireland.

The prosecutor’s letter to the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was sent back resealed, along with a note: “The item, here enclosed, is returned to the sender because refused by the rightful addressee.” Romley said he saw no point in writing the Vatican when Henn was indicted about a month later.

“Clearly there are formal charges here,” said Romley, who was raised a Catholic. “They (priests) give a vow of obedience. It seems like it is real easy to say, ‘You shall return, and if not, we defrock you.’ “

President Bush’s chief representative to the Vatican – the only religious institution recognized as a sovereign nation – refused to comment on its handling of clergy abuse matters. Ambassador Jim Nicholson “does not comment on church business,” his spokeswoman said.

The president told the pope during the 2002 scandal that he was “concerned about the Catholic Church in America” but appreciated John Paul’s leadership.

Slow to react

Despite the pope’s tough talk, the Vatican has moved slowly in dealing with a scandal that has cost the church hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to victims and led to the resignations of several bishops who sheltered priests.

Shortly after the pope met with the cardinals in spring 2002, leaders of the U.S. church gathered in Dallas and passed an aggressive “zero tolerance” policy for molesters.

But the Vatican balked, saying several parts of the policy were not in line with church law, and ordered changes. Among them: imposing a deadline for complaints, which in effect allows many abusers to go unpunished.

Even after Rome and the U.S. bishops hashed out the policy’s details, the Vatican continued to employ an acknowledged abuser as a foreign diplomat.

The Vatican had promoted the Rev. Daniel Pater despite his 1995 financial settlement with an Ohio victim and two warnings from Monsignor Breslin. Then in late 2002, it moved him up again, this time to temporarily run the papal embassy in India. He stepped down last year, as the News was preparing a story about the case.

And the Vatican has kept former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, the U.S. church leader most associated with protecting priests, on several decision-making panels and recently gave him a job leading a historic Roman basilica.

“There is this gulf between saying the right thing but not appropriately following through with the right actions,” said Barry Coldrey, of Australia, a church historian who has written extensively about clergy abuse.

Four years ago, the Vatican made Coldrey, a member of the Christian Brothers order, remove from the Internet his book, “Religious Life Without Integrity: The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church.” A Vatican letter to Coldrey said: “We question the prudence of publishing such a document.”

“The response should be cleanup,” Coldrey said, “but it is still all too often cover-up.”

The Vatican has long refused to address why it has not acted on numerous abuse complaints made against a close ally of the pope, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the revered founder and leader of the Legion of Christ order in Rome.

Two of his nine accusers appealed several times to the Vatican in the 1970s and 1980s, with no results.

The Vatican finally agreed in 1999 to review the alleged incidents, which the men said happened in Spain and Italy when they were young boys and seminarians. But a few months later, the Vatican mysteriously suspended the inquiry without ever taking testimony from the men, according to “Vows of Silence,” a new book by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, investigative journalists who first reported the Maciel saga.

Alberto Athie, a former priest who had worked at a charity run by Mexico’s bishops, told the News that his career stalled after he notified Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera and Vatican Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about the allegations against Father Maciel. The cardinals wouldn’t comment.

“I was told that Maciel was very beloved of the pope, that he had done a lot of good for the church, and that it wasn’t convenient to do anything to look into the accusations,” said Athie, who subsequently quit the priesthood.

Maciel, who has repeatedly declared his innocence, continues to enjoy support from John Paul. The pope celebrated the Legion’s 60th anniversary in St. Peter’s Square in 2001 and told a crowd: “I extend a particularly affectionate greeting to your dear founder, Father Marcial Maciel, whom I heartily congratulate at this significant juncture.”

‘Lost in the crowd’

The sidewalks and streets around the Vatican are brimming with clergy, seminarians and Catholic pilgrims of all nationalities. Cardinals and bishops, in their scarlet and purple vestments, meander through the scores of people. Police cars whiz by occasionally, escorting limousines with foreign dignitaries into the Vatican.

“You can stand out there in St. Peter’s Square and hear 50 languages spoken. You’re just lost in the crowd,” said Monsignor Breslin, the former college administrator in Rome. “No one will look at you and think you’re a criminal.”

Each day, the tourists walking to St. Peter’s Square pass the Salvatorian order’s world headquarters and its signature large green double doors.

Joseph Henn, a fugitive, lives behind those doors. He comes and goes easily, just one more anonymous person on Rome’s streets.

His accommodations are pleasant. The headquarters’ first floor has a tranquil garden courtyard with a fountain and begonias, a hotel and a tourist information center. Upstairs are offices, a chapel and a large kitchen and cafeteria, where the pope ate lunch during a visit a few years ago. And the rooftop patio offers a panoramic view of imposing St. Peter’s Basilica and other Roman landmarks.

Henn already was living here, doing administrative work, by the time authorities began targeting him last year as part of a broader abuse investigation into the Phoenix Diocese.

Church officials had received complaints long ago from parents that he was fondling their sons, records show. The diocese had even made a confidential payout to one accuser in the early 1990s. But those allegations were not forwarded to law enforcement, according to the Maricopa County, Ariz., attorney’s office.

When a reporter approached Henn in the courtyard, he was exasperated by questions about his criminal case and his life in Rome.

“I was hoping the lawyers had worked to make sure that everything was sort of finished,” he said, declining to specifically address the allegations. “What I’m a little bit frustrated (about) is you may be opening everything back up to prosecution.”

Salvatorian officials would not agree to an interview or address when and why Henn was sent to Rome. They said in a written statement that it was their “clear expectation” that Henn would heed their request to go back and answer the 13-count indictment against him.

He has refused. And the order has let him stay.

“That doesn’t sit well with me,” said one of Henn’s accusers, Rick Rivezzo, who is suing the Phoenix Diocese. “He knew what was going on, and he was there for a reason – to hide.”

Romley, the prosecutor, said his office tried to talk Henn into returning voluntarily. The costly, cumbersome process of extradition is the only resort now. Romley knows from experience that he can’t count on the Vatican’s help.

“It doesn’t seem like they’re putting forward the very best foot to really make a difference and say, ‘You will be held accountable, and this is not going to occur again,’ ” he said. “And that’s the bottom line.”

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