By Jody Paterson, Victoria Times Colonist
August 7, 2010
This feature originally appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist on Sunday, May 5, 2002
Father Phil Jacobs was something to see on that awful Sunday after Sept. 11. He moved among his riveted parishioners, speaking passionately about how it felt to be an American at that moment, of the pain in the world and the need for a new kind of humanity.
It was an electrifying sermon, recalls Kathleen Stinson, a member of the congregation at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Saanich. The priest’s words brought tears to his parishioners’ eyes and hope to their hearts. Stinson’s mom was in town visiting her that weekend and had accompanied her to the service, and couldn’t stop talking afterward about how lucky her daughter was to have stumbled upon such a fabulous priest.
Jacobs’ cousin Doug knows what Stinson means. He has many fond memories of hanging out with his intelligent, articulate older cousin when he was a kid growing up in Columbus, Ohio. Everybody always thought Phil Jacobs was just the smartest guy.
But Doug has other memories too, from the summer of 1976 when he was 14 and stayed overnight at the young priest’s cottage on Buckeye Lake, just east of Columbus.
He and his cousin — Phil was 28 at the time and had been a priest for three years — played a round of golf together that afternoon on a course not far from the cottage.
As it grew dark, they returned to the cabin to cook dinner and then went skinny-dipping. Later, Phil asked Doug if he had ever masturbated.
He hadn’t, but reluctantly gave in to his cousin’s insistence that he try. When the humiliated teenager couldn’t maintain his erection, Phil brought out an adult magazine to help the process and then began masturbating the boy himself.
He quit after the stricken teenager pleaded with him to stop. Don’t tell, the priest cautioned the boy, reminding his young cousin that “no one would believe you anyway.”
“The next morning, I got up and went right home,” Doug Jacobs recalls now. “That was the last time I allowed myself to be in that position with him again.”
Tim Kreider has similar memories from Buckeye Lake. He says knows of at least two other men who do, too, all of them youngsters in the Catholic parish in Ohio where Jacobs was priest in the late 1970s.
Kreider was 12 when it started. He was frequently in Jacobs’ company: The priest golfed with Kreider’s dad, and the family was included on the list of favoured parish families invited to spend weekends at the cottage on the lake. The abuse occurred several times over a four-year period.
“He was a great guy, and there were some fun times with him,” says Kreider. “But there was this other side.”
Father Phil Jacobs, age 52. Respected theologian. Gifted orator. Brilliant thinker. Sexual abuser.
There is no easy way to reconcile the conflicting parts of his personality, the fact that so much good existed alongside such bad. But that’s how it was for Jacobs.
Victoria’s Roman Catholic diocese knew about his past when it hired him six years ago. He’d gone through treatment after Kreider reported his abuse to the diocese in Columbus, Ohio, in 1993, and his file was disclosed in full when the Victoria diocese hired him in 1996.
But the 1,000 or more parishioners in the region he has ministered to since then, the youths who enjoyed his company on camping trips, overnight stays and family vacations, were not let in on the secret.
That ended last week when details of Jacobs’ past finally surfaced in the news media. Stunned parishioners learned much more than they ever wanted to about their favourite priest’s transgressions. Some pushed to have him fired immediately, while others lobbied to have him stay on in the heated days that followed.
But as the debate continues in the wake of Jacobs’ resignation on Tuesday, the question of whether the priest had conquered his sexual weakness for teenage boys is barely the issue any more. The “cat is out of the bag,” notes Msgr. Peter Schonenback, general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the challenge now is to repair a broken trust.
“He was the perfect priest, if that’s the way you want to put it,” says Agnes Cooper Berard, a St. Joseph’s parishioner for eight years and one of the few who wanted to comment. “But his past has caught up with him. And it was all because the church kept secrets.”
HEAR NO EVIL
It’s all about secrets. Tim Kreider didn’t tell anyone his secret for 20 years. Neither did Doug Jacobs. Two successive bishops in Victoria got wind of their star priest’s past and kept the secret too, as if not to speak of such terrible things was the next best thing to them never happening.
Kreider was the first to break the silence, telling his wife Emily and then the Columbus diocese in 1993 about his abuse. Father Jacobs, a parish priest and college instructor at the time, was sent off for treatment.
Jacobs’ therapist eventually cleared him to return to ministering. But the Columbus diocese no longer wanted him and cut him loose. Jacobs landed in Victoria three years later; Bishop Remi de Roo, who was in charge of the diocese at the time, hired him on the recommendation of a local priest who was acquainted with Jacobs.
His first posting was as parish priest at St. Rose of Lima, a small church on the outskirts of Sooke with a congregation of 300. His parishioners wondered how they had ever managed to land such a marvellous priest in their tiny parish, as did more than a few at St. Joseph the Worker in Saanich after he moved there in 1998.
“Guys like him usually shoot up the ladder,” says parishioner Kathleen Stinson, who has attended St. Joseph’s since moving here from Ontario 18 months ago. “I guess we all know now why he didn’t.”
Jacobs’ skilful oratories and homilies soon earned him a reputation at St. Joseph’s as a priest who could put plenty of “bums in the seats” on a Sunday morning. The parish thrived under his guidance. Donations increased. Volunteers for church events became easier to find. The Sunday crowds grew. Jacobs’ predecessor had been worn out mentally and physically by the time he left, and the new priest’s charismatic presence captivated parishioners.
“Phil is the kind of guy who walks straight into difficult issues,” says Jacobs’ friend Bruce Lemire-Elmore, who met him first as a pastor at St. Rose de Lima. “The things I’ve seen him accomplish — as a hospital chaplain, with the First Nations community, in our own church. He’s an incredible man.”
He is also a respected academic with a doctorate in philosophy and science, hand-picked by the diocese as its representative on the board of UVic’s Centre for the Study of Religion in Society. Jacobs chaired the centre’s advisory board for the past two years.
But secrets can’t be kept forever. So while Bishop Raymond Roussin was not told anything about Jacobs’ past when he took over from Remi de Roo in 1998, he found out soon enough. Officials of B.C.’s Children and Families Ministry called two years ago to say they had had a complaint about a sex abuser working as a priest.
The tip to the ministry had come from Kreider, who had just discovered that Jacobs had made his way to Victoria and was working as a parish priest. The ministry launched an investigation of Jacobs and came to the same conclusion as his U.S. therapist had: that the priest was no longer a risk to children.
“I can see how that would happen, because you have to know Phil,” says Doug Jacobs, who believes his cousin will always be a risk. “My guess is that Phil was a hell of a lot smarter than anyone he ever spoke to for those tests.”
Like everyone before him, Bishop Roussin tried to keep the secret once he knew of Jacobs’ past. He informed five people — priests and lay workers — and told them to keep an eye on Jacobs and meet with him weekly. Parishioners were told nothing.
But all that changed just over a week ago, when stories on Jacobs came out simultaneously in the Columbus Dispatch and the Times Colonist.
Doug Jacobs had gone to the Dispatch after hearing the Columbus diocese boasting of how it had dealt openly with abuser priests and never moved them quietly from parish to parish. Aware of his cousin’s parish posting in Victoria — and of a photo on the St. Joseph’s Web site showing Jacobs in a swimming pool with teenagers — he felt he could not let the diocese’s comments go unchallenged.
St. Joseph’s parish was torn apart by the news. Some parishioners blamed the media for bringing on trouble; when a Times Colonist reporter pulled into St. Joseph’s school parking lot to talk to people last week, the police were called. Many have declared their support for Jacobs. “Can’t there be forgiveness?” asks one.
But others spent the past week in long and worried conversations with their children. Their families were put at risk and their trust has been betrayed by a man they held in considerable esteem. And it hurts.
“It was an awful deception that was served, and Father Phil was a part of that,” says Stinson, one of the few parishioners willing to talk about the issue this week. “You confess to the priest because he’s there as the object of God to offer you forgiveness. How can you do that with someone who made such a serious assault on the most vulnerable of people?”
The terms of Jacobs’ secret deal with the Victoria diocese was that he not be alone with adolescents. But there is evidence now that he was, and more than once. Chagrined parishioners want to know why they weren’t told sooner.
Bishop Roussin isn’t sure they could have handled finding out.
“What do you do? Do you stand up in the church and tell them?” the bishop asked in an interview with TC reporter Jeff Rud. “Some say, ‘You could have done it in small groups and it would have gone over well in the parish.’
“But I think there would always have been a fair number of people who would say, ‘I don’t care what the psychiatrists and the courts are saying. If he’s done it once….”
Msgr. Schonenback, of the national bishops’ conference, says the diocese’s biggest error was to try to keep Jacobs’ past a secret.
“That’s certainly something that goes against the fundamental rule we follow, and that’s transparency, being open and honest in whatever you do,” says Schonenback, whose organization advises Canadian bishops.
The right move would have been to organize a parish meeting — ideally at the time of Jacobs’ hiring — and ask parishioners how they felt about his past, he says. Maybe they would have rejected him right then and there. But they also might have welcomed him, and this time with their eyes wide open.
“Where it really goes wrong is to think that you can do it without anybody finding out,” says Schonenback. “The chickens always come home to roost.”
As two clinical assessments of Jacobs have made clear, he is not a pedophile, the term for people who have a sexual desire for pre-adolescent children. His behaviour with Kreider and Jacobs suggests instead that he would likely fall into a group known as hebophiles, who are attracted to adolescents.
Hebophiles are much more common than pedophiles among priests who commit sexual offences with minors. Of the 500 Roman Catholic priests and monks who have been treated for sexual dysfunction at the Jemez Springs centre in New Mexico in the past two decades, more than half were sent there for abusing boys between the ages of 12 and 17. Experts say they are more amenable to treatment than are true pedophiles.
There are many theories as to what creates a sexual offender, and no single predictor. But factors thought to be at the root of sexual dysfunction — things like long-term isolation, lack of romantic attachment, no sexual outlet, a feeling of being unloved — can be present for those who devote themselves to the priesthood.
“I think a lot of what has been so difficult for priests is the things they give up in order to serve God,” says Dr. Jordan Hanley, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Vancouver who treats sex offenders.
One of B.C.’s most infamous sex offenders was Robert Noyes, a bright and beloved elementary-school teacher who cut a swath through five school districts from 1970 to 1985, molesting more than 65 children. Secrecy was a major factor in that case as well: Districts knew of Noyes’ predilections for years, but let him move from one school to another without detection simply to get him out of their own district.
Noyes was what the experts call a fixated pedophile, consumed with an insatiable sexual desire for children. He was under a psychiatrist’s care for his deviance the entire time that he was offending, but never quit. It’s the toughest kind of deviance to treat.
Jacobs appears to fall into a different category. A desire for adolescent boys can still last a lifetime, acknowledges B.C. prison psychologist Douglas Boer, but treatment is much more effective. Many would-be offenders can learn to manage their urges.
“We have an excellent track record in this region of helping manage people like that,” says Boer, senior psychologist at Mountain Institute in Agassiz.
“We have 175 men on day or full parole in our communities, and none of them have reoffended in the past year or two at least.”
But if unwanted desires are going to be kept in check, people around the offender must be informed, says Boer. An offender needs support to keep him on the straight and narrow following treatment, and that’s best accomplished by surrounding him with people who are in the know.
While Boer is not personally familiar with Jacobs’ case, he believes the priest should have told his parish.
“It’s not appropriate for someone in a position of trust and authority to be ‘found out’,” says Boer. “It’s the responsibility of the offender to come forward and say, ‘There’s this issue in my background, but I’m working on it.’ The onus is on the offender to disclose.”
Parishioner Agnes Cooper Berard agrees.
“I hate all these secrets of the church,” says Cooper Berard. “They stand up in the pulpit and preach to us to be truthful, but they don’t do it themselves.”
The assessments done on Jacobs in Ohio and again in B.C. deemed him no longer a risk to reoffend. And indeed, a recalcitrant sex offender might never offend again, says Hanley. But he questions the wisdom of putting that to the test, as happened when the Victoria diocese put Jacobs into a parish.
“Zero risk doesn’t exist,” says Hanley. “One of the first things we teach people is that even thinking that there’s no risk will increase the risk. If you’ve done it once, you could do it again.”
Scott Matson, research associate for Maryland’s Center for Sex Offender Management, says the best place for a past sex offender is far away from temptation.
“I think it’s safe to say that if an offender has one or more offences against a certain group, it might be a good idea to keep him away from that group in the future,” says Matson.
Treatment of sex offenders has come a long way, adds Hanley, but there are no guarantees. “Even if you’ve gone through treatment, how good an idea is it to return to working where you know there’s a risk you could reoffend?”
Jacobs’ Ohio victims, Doug Jacobs and Tim Kreider, cite that as the reason they eventually told their churches about those summers on Buckeye Lake.
“It would be a shame to see Father Phil ridden out on a rail,” Kreider says. “By all accounts, he’s an excellent teacher at the college level. But it’s my opinion that he just shouldn’t be in a parish anywhere.”
In the end, the secret of Father Phil Jacobs simply grew too large for the Victoria diocese to control.
He was back in Columbus visiting his mother when the story broke last week and it appears that he won’t be returning. The diocese has gratefully accepted his resignation, quickly distancing itself from a former favoured son now that his past is known to all.
From now on, there will be no second chances for abusive priests in the Victoria diocese. Catholic dioceses throughout the U.S. are moving towards a “one-strike-and-you’re-out” rule as well, their long-standing habit of quietly relocating past offenders no longer tolerated by their parishioners.
“While in the past, a positive recommendation in therapy plus supervision might enable a bishop to put a man who had been involved in this activity back into ministry in a carefully chosen assignment with no ministry to children,” Ohio Bishop James Griffin told an American clergy conference Monday, “in this new atmosphere, our people will not accept this kind of arrangement.
“It pains me greatly to say this, but to be honest with you, I say that even a single occurrence of this type of activity now jeopardizes the future ministry of that priest.”
Tim Kreider and Doug Jacobs have unexpectedly found peace in the eye of the storm; Doug says he feels like “a 400-pound elephant” has been lifted from his shoulders. They stepped forward to prevent other boys from being molested, and think that has been accomplished.
“Even if he remains a priest, at least people know now,” says Doug. “If people will make sure he’s never alone with kids and he never has the opportunity to do this again, then I’ve done my job. I’ve done God’s work.”
As for the parishioners of St. Joseph’s, the healing will take time.
Some still wish Jacobs could have been forgiven and welcomed back into the fold. Friend Bruce Lemire-Elmore, who used to take Jacobs along on family vacations, says he would happily have stayed in the dark forever about Jacobs’ past because he is certain the priest will never reoffend. He says his own four children have “nothing but admiration for the man.”
Others are survivors of childhood sexual abuse themselves, and have reacted with considerably more alarm to the revelations of Jacobs’ past.
“I sat in the church on Sunday listening to all the parishioners saying, ‘Oh, he only did it once.’ Well, I know from past experience that abusers don’t only do it once,” says Cooper Berard. “The church seemed to think we’d all be OK with this situation, but they don’t know us.”
Parishioner Stinson recalls the psychological damage done to her uncle, sexually abused by a Christian Brother at a Newfoundland boarding school.
“His whole life was taken from him,” she says. “He never married, was never happy, abused his own body through eating. When the story on the school’s past was about to break back east, he was so filled with shame that he ran away to Victoria. I found him working at a soup kitchen.”
Bishop Roussin sought assurances a few days ago from Jacobs that the priest did not commit any sexual offences during his time in the region. Jacobs said he had not. Roussin wants to believe him.
“I’m very confident,” says the bishop. “I just hope I’m not proven to be wrong.”
He is planning a parish meeting to sort things out at St. Joseph’s. A new priest will eventually be found, but the memories of Father Phil Jacobs will linger for some time.
“You regret the loss of a priest who was so effective, but also you regret the distrust and the anguish that this is causing,” says Bishop Roussin.
“Parents are left to wonder: Just what did happen during these last seven years?”