A Jesuit priest now working in the Diocese of Yakima was removed from ministry last week after a sexual abuse claim against him surfaced in the Spokane Diocese’s bankruptcy case.
The Rev. John J. Morse denied the accusations in a letter he wrote to parishioners of Our Lady of Fatima in Moses Lake, but his Jesuit superiors still asked him to step down as they await the findings of an independent investigation.
The abuse allegedly occurred 35 to 40 years ago at Omak’s St. Joseph Catholic Church, one of 82 parishes that constitute the Diocese of Spokane.
After learning of the allegations early last week, the Rev. John Whitney – provincial or leader of the roughly 250 Jesuits in the Pacific Northwest – decided to remove Morse from the ministry, according to Pat Walsh, a spokesman for the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus.
Whitney, who consulted with Yakima Bishop Carlos Sevilla, immediately told Morse to leave his Moses Lake parish and stay with other Jesuits in Portland, the order’s Northwest headquarters.
Independent investigators are now looking into the allegation, Walsh said.
“I am immediately withdrawing from all public ministry in the church and will go to live with my Jesuit brothers until these charges can be answered and my name cleared,” Morse wrote.
“I want you to know that I categorically deny that I have ever abused another person, and certainly not a child. I am deeply saddened by these allegations and pray that I will be exonerated once a full investigation is complete,” his letter said.
The allegations against Morse were among the roughly 175 sex abuse claims that were filed in the Spokane Diocese’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.
Because of a court order, the identity of the claimants, the names of the accused priests and details of the allegations have been kept from public scrutiny.
One of the claims involved an accusation against Bishop William Skylstad, but it’s not known if other names have surfaced as a result of the filings.
In response, the bishop issued a statement saying he has not violated the vow of celibacy he took 47 years ago. Although the claim triggered a report to the Vatican and was forwarded to the diocesan review board, Skylstad did not relinquish any of his duties.
Morse, 77, was removed from ministry in accordance with the “Charter for the Protection of Young People,” a 2002 document created and approved by the American bishops.
The charter requires all dioceses and religious orders not only to report allegations of sexual abuse, but also to relieve the accused individual with pay during an investigation.
The Jesuits have been working in the Yakima area since 1870, long before the Diocese of Yakima was established. Many have served the area’s large Hispanic population, as well as assisted diocesan priests with parish duties and jail and hospital ministry.
Morse was one of eight Jesuits – including Sevilla – who served in the Yakima Diocese. He worked at parishes in Omak, Seattle and Lewiston before becoming Our Lady of Fatima’s pastor in 1994, according to Walsh.
“I am sincerely sorry for the pain this announcement will cause in this community; yet, I believe it best to be honest with you and ask for your prayers in this difficult time,” Morse wrote. “… I pray that the Lord’s cross and resurrection will lead us, and the whole Church, to the healing and reconciliation we so dearly need.”