Suffer the little children

Survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests accuse the church of protecting pedophiles and neglecting their victims

And they brought young children to Him, that He should touch them: and His disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.

Mark 10:13-14

As the sun rose on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011, David M. Jarboe Jr. stepped into the parking lot of downtown Owensboro’s Blessed Mother Catholic Church. A few blocks from the Ohio River, Blessed Mother is a flat, ranch-style structure featuring just one church-like fixture: a small, white spire in its central narthex, pointing to the sky. The resulting architecture makes it a bit unorthodox-looking for a Catholic church — no flying buttresses, stone gargoyles or giant stained-glass windows — but it fits right in with the surrounding neighborhood of modest one-story homes.

It’s impossible to know what Jarboe was thinking, gun in hand, on that frigid morning, but according to multiple news reports, we are able to make an educated guess. The former Owensboro Catholic High School football player had posted a six-page note on his Facebook page earlier that morning alleging that he had been the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of parish priests when he was a child.

“Let my life be a testimony,” Jarboe wrote. “The abuse of this church is real. Let it be known. It doesn’t make you a non-believer. It doesn’t jeopardize your fate. It’s the right thing to do. Religion is not a bad thing. But destroying free thought is. However, never once will I ever agree with the molestation of children. And never once will I agree with an institution that chooses to not acknowledge it … I hope this message will save at least one child from the pain and torment that I have gone through. A child is precious to God, and using your authority as a church official to take advantage of someone is one of the foulest things imaginable. Perhaps your parents don’t see, perhaps those you know don’t see, know that God sees. And God never forgets.

“So farewell,” the note concluded. “I have loved, I have lived, I have finally forgiven, I have no regrets. I am finally at peace.”

Less than an hour before classes began next door at Owensboro Catholic’s grade 4-6 campus, Jarboe shot and killed himself in Blessed Mary’s parking lot shortly before 7 a.m., according to an account published in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer. He was 23 years old.

On the following Monday, the Owensboro Catholic Diocese issued this statement:

David’s parents, sisters and extended family are visibly part of the vital fabric of the Catholic Church of this community. The prayers and comfort of all of us in the church are extended to them in this moment of tragic loss. David’s funeral Mass was held today at Blessed Mother Church.

In the hours following Thursday’s tragedy, it came to light that David had left a lengthy Facebook posting that was distributed to perhaps hundreds of his family and friends. Within this posting David spoke of pain he had endured as a consequence of sexual abuse within the Church, perhaps at the hands of a Catholic priest.

In light of this information, the Most Reverend William F. Medley, the Bishop of Owensboro, convened the Diocesan Review Board on Saturday, February 5, 2011. Bishop Medley and the Diocesan Review Board examined the information in David’s Facebook posting. Chaired by Ms. Teresa Henry, the Diocesan Review Board is a 13 member group formed in 2002 as mandated by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Members of the Review Board include lay psychologists, educators, law enforcement personnel, social workers, a practicing attorney, an Episcopalian priest, a woman religious and a Canon Lawyer priest.

Acting as a kind of Catholic tribunal, the review board is attempting to corroborate Jarboe’s claims of sexual abuse and ferret out his alleged abusers in accordance with the aforementioned “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops drafted in response to the explosion of sexual abuse claims in the early part of the last decade. The so-called “Restoring Trust” charter mandates that “for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor — whenever it occurred — which is admitted or established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon is to be permanently removed from ministry and, if warranted, dismissed from the clerical state.”

In other words, if credible evidence of a sex crime is presented, then the offending party will be removed from active service, possibly even laicized (i.e., defrocked).

And although a tribunal is investigating Jarboe’s claims of abuse — perhaps the most tragic of its kind in recent memory in Kentucky — members of a Catholic sexual abuse support group maintain such action is an aberration.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, aka SNAP, provides evidence and personal anecdotes indicating that the church often disregards abuse claims and ignores the “Restoring Trust” charter, instead opting to shuffle pedophile priests to and from different parishes in an effort to minimize the attention generated by their crimes. Giving credence to this claim, documents SNAP members shared with LEO Weekly show that Fr. Medley and other local clergy members — including the de facto leader of the dioceses of Kentucky and Tennessee, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz — have ignored the concerns of abuse victims, and further allege that, far from being laicized, known sex offenders continue to receive room, board and health benefits from the church, in addition to having access to minors.

There’s a saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” that’s eerily prescient in light of recent news stories chronicling the worldwide phenomenon of pedophilia within the Roman Catholic Church. A January 2011 story by Irish public broadcast network RTE´ revealed that as early as 1997, the Vatican instructed Irish bishops to disregard policies requiring that sexual abuse be reported. Signed by Archbishop Luciano Storero, the two-page document says the Vatican had moral reservations about the mandatory reporting of abuse, and that any decision by Irish dioceses to laicize clergy could result in an appeal of that decision by the Vatican.

Last year, The New York Times reported that the Vatican — including then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, better known today as Pope Benedict XVI — declined to laicize a Milwaukee priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys between 1950 and 1974. The March 24, 2010, article also reveals that the Vatican office that decides whether to laicize clergy, known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, brought only 20 percent of the some 3,000 cases of abuse to trial between 2001 and 2010.

That culture of denial and inaction is something SNAP members are all too familiar with — especially, they claim, when it comes to Archbishop Kurtz, who was named archbishop of Louisville in 2007 after serving eight years as archbishop of Knoxville.

They just think we’re out there making up stuff,” says Susan Vance, director of SNAP’s Tennessee chapter. “We weren’t making anything up.”

Vance recalls an April 9, 2010, press conference held outside the Diocese of Knoxville in which she confronted Kurtz’s successor, Archbishop Richard Stika, about pedophile priests who had abused children within the diocese.

“I had a poster board numbered one to 11,” she says, “and I filled in the first four slots with four names of pedophiles who were known to have been in Knoxville, two of whom abused very prominently.” One was the Rev. Edward McKeown, who was convicted in Nashville in 1999 for raping a 12-year-old boy four years earlier, two decades after admitting sexual misconduct to church officials and receiving treatment for pedophilia, according to court documents. The other was the Rev. Frank Richards, who “has never been charged with a crime, but diocese officials, prosecutors and an attorney for his victims say he admitted raping three boys at Knoxville Catholic High School in 1984,” according to a July 4, 1999, story in The Tennessean.

As SNAP conducted their press conference, the unexpected happened.

“Suddenly, Bishop Stika came out,” Vance says. “No one had ever done that before, but he came out, and in the course of this press conference, it really became a showdown on the street, actually, kinda like the OK Corral.”

After their confrontation on the sidewalk, Vance says Stika called her to apologize and tell her that, after reviewing the diocese’s canonical files, the instances of abuse SNAP was protesting had, in fact, occurred, unbeknownst to him.

“I said to him, ‘So Bishop Kurtz did not think enough of the situation in Knoxville to tell you about the pedophiles who had been here? Did he care so little for these victims … that he did not even leave the files, or records, or any information? … did not have a conversation with you about these priests who had abused so profusely in Knoxville?’”

Vance also claims Kurtz failed to remove pictures of his predecessor — the Rev. Anthony O’Connell, who admitted to molesting a teenage boy — from the walls of churches and buildings throughout the diocese.

“We have such a pedophile-friendly diocese,” she says. “When you keep a bishop’s picture on the wall after he admits to being a molester, you create an atmosphere where people are not going to come forward. They come to us — and this is what’s really bad — because they’re afraid to go to the diocese.”

Even those who had been close with Kurtz recall a coldness when confronted with abuse.

“I met Susan … in 2004 when I was going through some outpatient counseling at a hospital for depression,” says Paul Suerth, 37. “At that time, I had some emotional issues that required me to get counseling, and my mother actually found SNAP and contacted (SNAP). They visited me in the hospital one afternoon, and really helped me out a lot.”

Following his parents’ divorce in the mid-80s, Suerth moved to Tennessee with his mother by way of Quebec and Chicago. “My mother had found a kind of — and this is an odd choice of words, a bit of irony — a kind of father figure for me in one of the parish priests,” Suerth says. “His name was Ed McKeown.”

The same Ed McKeown who, according to the website, may have molested upwards of 30 boys.

“He’d invite some boys to come over for, you know, weekend trips, stuff like that,” Suerth recalls. “It seemed like there were never enough sleeping areas for somebody, for all the kids that were over there, so it would always be one kid’s turn to sleep with (McKeown), in his room. One weekend, it just happened to be my turn. Anyway … I don’t know how much detail you want there.”

Suerth was 11 years old.

For nearly 20 years, he blocked out the memories. As a young man, he considered studying law before settling on computer science, and found a place for himself as a member of the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, an all-male Catholic charity. Shortly after Kurtz’s arrival in Knoxville, Suerth befriended his older brother, George.

“Georgie had Down syndrome, was in the Knights of Columbus, and they needed somebody that could go help drive him to the meetings,” Suerth says. “Some people could have difficulty with that, but I didn’t mind it. I liked him. We got along OK.” Suerth says he would often serve as a kind of interpreter to help George express his thoughts at meetings.

“Anyway, (George) passed away, and everybody kind of recognized it was a good long life for somebody with Down syndrome,” adding that he was about 60 at the time of his death. “I kinda fell out of (Knights of Columbus) because I was kinda upset about that, you know? He was my friend.”

As Suerth distanced himself from the organization, old memories began to haunt him.

“I started having anxiety attacks and outbursts of anger,” he says. “Seeing stuff on the news, stories about abuse in the church, particularly about the abuses in Boston with Cardinal (Francis Law), I didn’t know why I was upset. All the memories and stuff I had repressed had started to bubble up. I was having I guess what they call a crisis of faith. Given what I was feeling at the time, though, there wasn’t much faith to it.”

Confused and unsure what to do, Suerth’s personal life began to unravel. Just as he began counseling, his wife became impatient with the process of healing. “My soon-to-be ex-wife asked me to leave when I was two weeks into my (counseling) program,” he recalls, “and that’s when I told her and our marriage counselor that I had had a suicide plan. She decided she didn’t want to wait for me, that two weeks was long enough for me to deal with my issues. She asked me not to come home anymore. About a month after that, my father passed away. So when (SNAP) found me, they encouraged me to go tell the bishop because he was my friend. It happened here locally, and somebody needed to know any information about (other potential abuses), to notify other people, to reach out and be aware, basically.”

Yet, according to Suerth, Bishop Kurtz was less than supportive.

“He said a prayer for me and said thanks for coming in,” he says. “I was this guy’s friend, I thought. I was at his brother’s funeral, I had been in his home, hung out, you know? He said he’d pray for me, but that I really needed to go to (the Nashville Diocese) and tell them what had happened. I don’t know what I was expecting: sympathy, I guess, somebody to share my pain a little bit.”

In retrospect, Suerth believes Kurtz was legally protecting the diocese by referring him and his problems elsewhere.

“Judging from what I’ve been able to learn on my own and from the experiences of friends I’ve made over the years, I think (Kurtz’s reaction) was flat, one-dimensional. I don’t think it was a, ‘Wow, the Diocese of Nashville should really help this guy out so I’m gonna refer him over there.’ That’s not what happened in that room that day. Not even close. I mean, obviously I didn’t have 100 percent complete information about why he did what he did or said what he said, but judging from the reaction of other parishes and bishops and cardinals … Kurtz was just practicing standard (cover-your-ass) business. Never mind that kids are being abused.”

But Cecelia Price, chief communications officer for the Archdiocese of Louisville, tells LEO Weekly, “I don’t know of particular instances like that (involving Kurtz).”

In addition, Price points out that since 2003, the Archdiocese of Louisville has offered a victim assistance coordinator to those claiming to have been abused by clergy. She also says Kurtz’s predecessor, Thomas C. Kelly, offered to meet with victims that were part of the massive 2002 lawsuit against the archdiocese that involved hundreds of allegations of abuse. “It’s obviously a very difficult situation.”

Closer to home, Kurtz has been named in a lawsuit filed by a former employee of Louisville’s St. Therese parish in Germantown. The suit, brought by Margie Weiter and her husband, Gary, alleges that the Archdiocese of Louisville knowingly allowed a pedophile priest, the Rev. James Schook, to live at the parish rectory and be around children without supervision, and that when Margie brought the information to the attention of St. Therese, she was fired from her job as a parish bookkeeper.

Schook was removed from the priesthood in July 2009, after the archdiocese deemed the allegations brought against him — that he abused several boys in the 1970s and ’80s — were credible. Additionally, the suit claims that St. Therese pastor Fr. Anthony Olges covered up this information. Further, the suit alleges Schook wasn’t laicized, meaning he still is eligible for health care benefits and retirement compensation from the church.

Per the “Restoring Trust” charter, the couple believes Schook must go.

The suit also says that when the Weiters attempted to confront Kurtz about the issue, they were referred to the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Human Resources Department. According to the lawsuit, human resources representatives did not offer the Weiters support, instead telling them to join another church and that Gary should “‘get over’ his emotional distress.”

Earlier this month, the Weiters expanded their lawsuit, claiming the head of the parish’s volunteer board, Bruce Ewing — a former priest who in 2007 was convicted of third-degree rape for sexually assaulting a teenage girl in the 1970s — played a direct role in snuffing out Margie Weiter’s concerns over Schook. Ewing resigned from his position last week, and the archdiocese released an apology.

All employees and volunteers who work with children in Catholic parishes and schools must undergo background checks and participate in training,” the statement read. “In Mr. Ewing’s case, it was assumed that since he was not working with children, his volunteer service on the parish council was acceptable. Per our sexual abuse policies, this is not correct and will not continue.”

Prior to Schook’s shepherding to St. Therese, the suit states that he lived in the Bishop David Apartments on Dixie Highway, as of April 2010, “where, upon information and belief, the Archdiocese of Louisville houses priests whose abuse of children has been substantiated.” Bishop David Apartments, it should be noted, is located 1,000 feet from Holy Cross High School, and also houses the Rev. Edwin Scherzer, a former priest who Gary Weiter alleges repeatedly abused him in the mid-1960s. Scherzer was indicted in 2005, pleaded guilty to abusing boys at St. Therese and St. Edward Church in Jeffersontown, and was placed under house arrest.

When asked about the Bishop David Apartments, Price, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, acknowledges it is a retirement community for priests, but she will not comment on whether pedophile priests live there. “There may be priests living there who have been directed to lead a life of prayer and penance,” a directive that she says can be a result of being charged with sexual abuse. “But I cannot comment on an ongoing suit.”

In the living room of Colleen Powell’s East End home, sitting around a table replete with bowls of mixed nuts and sugar cookies, the members of Louisville’s chapter of SNAP share some distressing news with a fellow member.

“Kurtz has been elected now the second in command of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops?” says Warren Tucker. “I’m blown away by hearing this, and very upset to hear this, because I feel that we still had time to stop that. We did not, then?”

“No,” Powell says. “We did not.”

The group meets once a month to share stories in what Tucker, 45, calls “a journey for justice.” All of them, in some capacity, have been sexually molested by a member of the clergy.

“Here’s the most callous bishop that a lot of people have ever met, that is now the second in command for the council of bishops in the United States of America,” Tucker says. “Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Powell says.

“OK,” says Tucker nodding, his eyes glazing over. “So now we have to accept that slap in the face. What do you even call this kind of an organization while still being polite? What do we have going on here, in this country, by this foreign nation? What exactly is going on? Why can’t the U.S. government and the attorney general investigate? Why? The European countries have, right? Yet we say nothing. The Vatican has a seat at the United Nations, and we can do nothing about it.”

It’s an emotionally charged meeting. Powell’s gray cat slinks through the legs of the coffee table. Another member, Cal Pfeiffer, provides documents showing Kurtz disregarded letters Pfeiffer had written him about Fr. Medley, the newly minted bishop of Owensboro. In the letters, Pfeiffer argued that Medley has a history of protecting pedophile priests. Atop the stack of documents is a copy of a letter Pfeiffer says he hand delivered to Kurtz on Feb. 8, 2010.

“Fr. Medley’s promotion seems to be consistent with other dioceses throughout the U.S.,” Pfeiffer wrote. “Where those who participated in protecting sexually abusive priests and moved them from one assignment to another, who did little to protect the most vulnerable, are promoted instead of reprimanded or arrested.”

On Feb. 16, 2010, Kurtz responded, telling Pfeiffer that he didn’t share his concerns about Medley despite the accompanying documentation that Pfeiffer had provided: several pages of official archdiocesan correspondence in which Medley exhibits knowledge about numerous pedophile priests. Specifically, the letters reveal that Medley knew about certain “matters that necessitated restrictions” on the movements of Fr. Louis Miller in the 1990s. Ultimately — in June 2002 — Miller pleaded guilty to molesting 21 children.

“The more these guys get in trouble, the more they promote them, to keep control of them,” Pfeiffer says. “That’s what a lot of this documentation shows.”

Pfeiffer also has a map showing how abusive priests are juggled throughout the state.

“We’ve got a map that tracked four or five of these priests, and we have the dates where they were,” he says. “You can see how they bounce around: down into Marion County, or Nelson County, and, once they think people have forgotten, then they come back.”

To this end, SNAP is especially critical of the Diocese of Nashville, which refuses to cross-reference the listing of priests with other dioceses, thus making it harder for them to identify what they claim to be a revolving door of abusers. But the difficulty is something they’re used to by now, although it doesn’t make it any easier.

Tucker, who has battled alcoholism as a result of his abuse at the hands of indicted Kingsport, Tenn., priest William Casey, recalls meeting former Tennessee SNAP Director Ann Brentwood, a former nun who died in January 2010.

“I remember the first time I talked to Ann about really going forward with this, back in August of ’09,” Tucker says. “She said, ‘Are you ready to begin this journey? You think you’re tough, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think I’m pretty tough. I think I can take it.’

“She said, ‘That’s what they all say, Warren. It’s harder than hard times 10.’ And I have found that out. It has been harder than hard times 10. I’ve had threatening letters sent to my home from apparent supporters of this pedophile. I’ve had threatening phone calls — two in the last month — threatening not only me, which wouldn’t bother me as bad, but threatening my family as well, if I continue this quest to put this so-called ‘good man’ in prison. By the way, he’s confessed, yet they still send me those letters.”

While upset that Kurtz hasn’t come out to condemn the letters, Tucker isn’t surprised. It’s further proof of the indifference survivors say they face not only from clergy, but from friends and family, as well.

“I needed to have the people I went to school with know that there was somebody out there coming forward in case that was an issue for them to have the courage,” says Powell, who recently traveled to Kettering, Ohio, to file charges against the deceased priest she claims abused her when she was a child. “Lots of times, we think we’re the only one, and that if we speak up nobody will believe us because that’s what we were told. That’s what the priests would tell us: Keep your mouth shut, nobody will believe you. The priest that abused me told me that I sinned by making him do what he did to me. That’s twisted. That’s really twisted, but the sad part is I believed it.”

Finding strength in numbers, the members are able to transcend their own pain, and give one another a space to feel understood.

“We want survivors to come to us and talk and feel supported and let their story be known,” Tucker says. “It doesn’t make it go away. It’s a burden that can be lifted from your shoulders to let it be known. It doesn’t make it go away. It doesn’t substitute for the years of therapy. But at least it gives you a place where you know that every single person around you understands exactly what you’re talking about.”