Los Angeles – The charges of child molestation came too long after the abuse to send Carl Sutphin, a Roman Catholic priest, to prison. Now he is spending his days in a doublewide mobile home, a short walk from day care centres and two elementary schools.
“I won’t say I deny it. I do not deny it, no,” Sutphin, aged 78, said in a frail voice as he leaned on his walker.
There are dozens of accused priests like him, from California to Maryland. To victims’ advocates, that is dangerous.
They say church officials should monitor them in the same way that police track sex offenders and that the church should create special housing to keep predator priests away from children.
“Essentially, you have admitted or credibly accused child molesters walking free among unsuspecting families – and bishops are doing little or nothing,” said David Clohessy, national director for Survivors of those Abused by Priests.
Advocates’ calls raise questions about how far the church can go in monitoring people who have never been convicted, or even charged with a crime.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys in Los Angeles worked with private investigators since October to compile a list of the priests’ addresses, the most comprehensive accounting of the whereabouts of more than 200 clergy accused of abuse in civil lawsuits in that archdiocese.
They hope to use it on Thursday to persuade a judge to recommend the release of all church files for every priest or religious brother ever accused of sexual abuse in the sweeping litigation.
Matter of public safety
Those confidential files are at the centre of a heated dispute that has raged between the church and plaintiffs’ lawyers since the nation’s largest archdiocese reached a record-breaking $660m settlement nearly four years ago.
Plaintiffs want the files – which could include internal correspondence, previous complaints and therapy records – released, saying it’s a matter of public safety. The church is pushing for a more limited release of information.
The list of addresses, obtained by The Associated Press, contains nearly 50 former priests and religious brothers from the LA archdiocese who live and work in 37 towns and cities across California, unsupervised by law enforcement or the church.
Another 15 are scattered in cities and towns from Montana to New York, while 80 more cannot be located despite an exhaustive search by attorneys representing those who have sued them for abuse.
The vast majority of the men have not been convicted – in some cases because the charges came too late – and are therefore not required to register with state sex offender databases.
It’s a situation that has long bothered alleged victims of sex abuse, who have called on the church to do more to monitor former priests even after they have been expelled from ministry or have been laicised.
In Los Angeles, the archdiocese listed 211 names of credibly accused priests – a term the church uses to describe allegations that it believes are likely to be true – or those who had been named in civil lawsuits in a 2004 report to parishioners about clergy abuse.
The list did not include the priests’ past assignments or current whereabouts.
Not enough information
Twenty-three other dioceses nationwide have published similar lists, but don’t list current addresses, Clohessy said.
Like Los Angeles, victim advocates in Boston have also complained that the archdiocese there has not done enough to inform the public about priests who were accused of abuse but never charged criminally.
In January, Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer for Boston-area clergy sex abuse victims, released a new list of accused abusers, including previously undisclosed names of 19 Catholic priests, brothers and one deacon.
They were among those accused in hundreds of cases his law firm settled with the church over the last 15 years, Garabedian said.
At the time, the archdiocese was working to disclose more information, but was concerned about giving priests whose guilt had not been established their due process, said Kelly Lynch, a spokesperson for the Boston archdiocese.
Alleged victims, including those in Clohessy’s organisation, have nevertheless pressed the church to create special, church-controlled housing for credibly accused priests so they can be monitored – even without convictions.
“Bishops want to do the absolute bare minimum with predator priests, so they suspend them on the advice of defence lawyers and insurance companies and that’s it, the priests are free to live and sometimes work and sometimes volunteer wherever they want,” Clohessy said.
Church officials say it’s not fair to expect them to monitor the priests, especially those who are no longer in active ministry.
Archdiocese not responsible
The archdiocese policy has been to remove any credibly accused priest, said Michael Hennigan, archdiocese attorney. Most of those men have been laicised, are in the process of being laicised or have been removed from public ministry, he said.
Laicisation is the Vatican process for ousting a man from the priesthood. Local bishops can also bar an abusive cleric from public ministry, which means the clergyman technically remains a priest but cannot participate in any public church work, such as celebrating Mass in public.
The archdiocese has no more responsibility for a laicised priest than a local school district would have for tracking a teacher who was fired with cause, Hennigan said.
He dismissed the idea of church-run housing for accused priests and religious brothers as impractical and unenforceable.
“We obviously don’t have a police force and our mission has been to cleanse the priesthood, and we think we’ve done that effectively and well,” he said on Monday. “You think we should have a police force or a prison system?
“Once they’re out, it’s up to civil authorities to deal with them on behalf of society. It’s really too much to ask the church to institute a prison system and no one could be forced to comply with it except voluntarily.”
Attorneys representing individual accused priests in California point out that most of their clients have not been charged or convicted.
“What about those who’ve only been accused?” said Donald Steier, who is representing about 30 individual Los Angeles priests. “Should those guys … be treated more harshly than anyone else simply because they wore a collar?”
The idea of a church-controlled environment for problem priests is not new.
In the early 1960s, the head of a Roman Catholic order that specialised in treating molester priests wanted to buy an island to segregate them. He even made a $5 000 down payment on a Caribbean island for that purpose, the AP has previously reported.
“It is for this class of rattlesnake I have always wished an island retreat, but even an island is too good for these vipers,” Reverend Gerald MC Fitzgerald wrote to an acquaintance in 1957, according to the correspondence.
In 1960, Fitzgerald sent two priests from the New Mexico-based Servants of the Holy Paraclete to the island of Tortola to investigate the location – but his dream of an island monastery dedicated to trouble priests ended.
The new archbishop of Santa Fe overruled him, according to an affidavit by his successor, the Reverend Joseph McNamara.
Sutphin is one former priest whose presence in society continues to haunt his many alleged victims.
He was accused of abuse by 18 people and was charged with 14 counts of molestation in 2003 for sexually abusing six boys. The charges were dismissed, however, because of a US Supreme Court ruling that set limits on the passage of time for prosecuting certain types of sex crimes.
One of the priest’s alleged victims said he and his brother were abused by Sutphin the night before a fishing trip when they were in middle school. The brothers have never fully discussed the abuse and didn’t tell their parents for years.
“My mom wrote a letter to the Catholic Church,” said the man, who was granted anonymity because the AP does not typically name people who claim to be victims of sexual abuse. “They said they had addressed the issue and he would no longer come around.”
The man, now 44-years-old, learned of Sutphin’s address from the AP. He lives three miles away.