“Audit Finds Sexual Abuse Was Topic Decades Ago” & related article

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online (JS Online)

A regional province of the Capuchin religious order that had fought allegations of sexual abuse for decades decided last year to open its files dating to the 19th century to three independent auditors, in what the order claimed to be a first in the long-running Roman Catholic Church abuse scandal in the United States.

The auditors’ report, released on Tuesday, found that sexual abuse by friars in the St. Joseph Province of the Capuchin Order was discussed at meetings as far back as 1932, the first year for which minutes of meetings were available.

After more than a dozen students at the province’s St. Lawrence Seminary in Wisconsin accused nine friars of abuse in 1992, it cost the province’s insurer nearly a million dollars — but 89 percent of that went to lawyers to defend the Capuchins and only 11 percent to victims for settlements and therapy, the report said.

“One of the very sobering findings,” the Rev. John Celichowski, the Capuchins’ provincial minister, said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters, “is through much of our history as a province, we have failed victims and survivors.”

The audit is unusual because the Capuchin province commissioned it voluntarily, claimed to allow the investigators unfettered access to original files and documents, and included on the panel the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a prominent whistle-blower who has often testified against the church in court cases.

Most Catholic dioceses undergo annual audits on abuse, but those are based on self-reporting by the dioceses, and the auditors are usually not given access to internal personnel files.

The Capuchin Province of St. Joseph, which is based in Detroit, runs social service programs, schools and parishes in Michigan, Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, Wisconsin, Nicaragua and Panama. The province, which has 169 members, is a regional division of one of several Catholic religious orders that profess to follow the example of St. Francis of Assisi by caring for poor and marginalized people and the environment.

In addition to Father Doyle, the panel that investigated the Capuchins included a lawyer and a psychologist with experience handling sexual abuse cases. They concluded that the underlying problems were poor record-keeping and “clericalism,” which they defined as the attitude that priests and friars are “inherently superior to laypeople and entitled to undue special deference.”

The auditors said that the files often contained “coded language” and euphemisms to refer to sexual abusers. Friars were said to suffer from “immorality” or “evil actions and speech,” and some documents record friars sent for treatment for alcoholism when sexual abuse was clearly the issue.

Peter J. Isely, who was abused by a Capuchin friar at St. Lawrence Seminary in 1970s, praised the province for commissioning the report, but said he suspected that the order had either destroyed documents or withheld them from the auditors. Mr. Isely, the Midwest director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said that he had provided court documents to the auditors that were not in the province’s files.

Asked about this discrepancy, Father Celichowski acknowledged that “file management was historically a significant problem.”

After reviewing information on 1,101 friars, the auditors found 46 who allegedly sexually abused minors — 23 of those with confirmed, substantiated reports of abuse. The Capuchins failed to follow the church’s own canon law and report the abuse to civil authorities, even though they were mandated to, the audit concluded.

“I hope that this report and this process will lead other entities in the church — dioceses and religious orders — to have the courage and the Christian decency to do the same thing,” Father Doyle said.

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