Wednesday, February 6, 2019

As Catholic Dioceses Release Lists of Priests Credibly Accused of Abuse of Minors, Important Things to Watch for: The Case of Arkansas

As more and more U.S. Catholic dioceses — but not the diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, which remains "one of the least transparent" dioceses in the nation — release names of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors, I am following those lists to see if I spot names of priests with connections to my diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas. I'm doing this, in part, because I think it's important that we inform ourselves of what's happening in our own back yard as we talk about bigger problems that manifest themselves in more than one place in the world. I also want to note that others who are monitoring these lists have been very generous in pointing me to important Arkansas-themed information in them: this is not a project I'm undertaking all on my own, but a collaborative one.

In several lists of credibly accused priests released by dioceses other than the diocese of Little Rock, I do, in fact, see the names of priests with Arkansas ties, all of whom also seem to have had pastoral positions in Arkansas in addition to the ones they had in other states that have resulted in their listing in those states. Spotting these names — not all of which are on the list released by the bishop of Little Rock, Anthony Taylor, last year — makes me recall three things I told you last November as I commented on how more and more dioceses are releasing lists of credibly accused priests, and that I was being told by people with reason to know that some names of credibly accused priests in Arkansas had not been included in the list the Little Rock diocese released in September.  I wrote:

1. There appears to be very strong reason — survivors and others tracking the abuse situation in the Catholic church across the U.S. are reporting this all over the place — to conclude that even now, with law enforcement officials breathing down their necks and as they claim to be providing complete information about abusive priests within their dioceses, one bishop after another is hiding information as he discloses names of credibly accused priests. 
2. It should also be kept in mind that not all dioceses, by any means, have taken the step to disclose names of abusive priests. For example, the diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, appears to be actively resisting appeals that it release the names of abusive priests — even after news broke in September that that diocese had allowed priests to remain in ministry after reports of credible abuse were made about them. 
3. It should also be kept in mind that we are discussing here only diocesan lists of names of abusive priests. There are Catholic religious communities throughout the U.S. that have not released lists of names of credibly accused members (priests, brothers, nuns) of those communities — and, in more than one case, which appear totally unwilling to take such a step.

Information about the Arkansas-connected priests in recent lists of credibly accused priests in dioceses other than the diocese of Little Rock bears out, I think, what I wrote last November. In the list recently released by the diocese of Forth Worth, for instance, I see the names of two priests from Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas — Father Bede Mitchel and Father Francis A. Zimmerer. Though both priests were from a Benedictine community in Arkansas, both also had pastoral positions in the diocese of Fort Worth. The diocesan statement accompanying the Fort Worth list states, 

The following is the list of bishops, priests, deacons, and religious brothers and sisters who have served in the Diocese of Fort Worth since its establishment in 1969 whom the Diocese of Fort Worth has reason to believe engaged in the sexual abuse of a minor within this diocese.

As I read the documentation compiled for Mitchel at the Bishop Accountability website, it does seem evident to me that he did pastoral work in both Arkansas and Texas; he was apparently ordained at Subiaco and returned there in the final years of his life, dying there. According to a SNAP press release in February 2015, Mitchel taught at Corpus Christi Academy (in Texas) and Laneri High School in Fort Worth, and traveled extensively giving retreats and missions. 

In January 2015, SNAP released a statement indicating that Subiaco Abbey had settled a lawsuit with the husband of a survivor who maintained that Mitchel began abusing her in the Fort Worth diocese when she was 8 years old. As the SNAP statement also notes, Subiaco asserted that it was not admitting guilt by settling this case, and insisted that Mitchel was innocent — though, as previously noted, the list released by the diocese of Forth Worth explicitly states that the diocese "has reason to believe [that priests named here] engaged in the sexual abuse of a minor within this diocese."

The other Subiaco monk who appears on the Fort Worth list — Francis A. Zimmerer — had quite an interesting record of pastoral assignments before his death in 1983 (I'm relying on the summary of information about him provided by the Bishop Accountability site and his listing on the Little Rock diocese website, which incorrectly gives his surname as Zimmer). These assignments spanned the states of Arkansas, Texas, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He appears to have been moved about from place to place with noteworthy regularity and little time spent in any one place; his pastoral career included stints at the Catholic boys' high school at Subiaco Abbey, Subiaco Academy, including periods when he is listed as simply back at the abbey or on "sick leave." As the articles about him provided by Bishop Accountabilty state, he was credibly accused of molesting a number of male minors in the Fort Worth diocese.

Then there's Marist Father Timothy Sugrue, whose name shows up on the Little Rock diocese list but not on the list released recently by the diocese of Baton Rouge, where he also served. As Andrea Gallo notes, a woman in Alabama accused Sugrue of abusing her when she was 8 years old and he was a military chaplain at an Air Force base in Arkansas. This was before Sugrue went to Louisiana. But: "The attorney who represented the woman who alleged abuse by Sugrue told The Advocate that he believes it's likely the priest has victims elsewhere."

As you read Gallo's article, note the candid statements by Arkansas district court judge Chip Welch about how, in the 1993 trial of the case involving the woman who said Sugrue abused her as a child (she was awarded $1.5 million in damages), he "alternated between invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and denying that he had abused anyone." Gallo notes that Sugrue invoked the Fifth Amendment more than 15 times in the trial, especially when asked about his time in Louisiana.

As I've noted, Sugrue and Zimmerer (incorrectly listed as Zimmer) both appear on the list of credibly accused priests issued by the diocese of Little Rock. Bede Mitchel does not, nor does an Arkansas-connected priest who recently showed up in the San Antonio diocesan list — Francis Sales Strobel. Strobel was ordained in the diocese of Little Rock and went to the diocese of San Antonio 13 years following his ordination. He died in Germany in 1969.

In 2003, a survivor reported that she had been sexually abused as a child by Strobel in 1941. The San Antonio diocese found her report to be credible. It is not clear to me what Strobel's specific pastoral career in Arkansas may have been following his ordination in 1905, but the fact that he was not incardinated in the San Antonio diocese until 1918 suggests that he did do pastoral work in Arkansas before moving to Texas. The list released by the diocese of Little Rock is prefaced with the following statement:

The individuals named in this list have served in Arkansas at some point in time, but that does not mean that they abused minors during their service here in Arkansas. 

In conclusion: 

1. As more and more Catholic dioceses (and some religious communities) release names of priests credibly accused of abusing minors, it's important that we monitor those lists to spot "cross-pertinent" information that may be omitted from any given list. In very many cases, priests named in one place have also had pastoral assignments in other places. It's reasonable to suppose, given what we've learned of the pattern of church officials in dealing with abusive priests, that many of these priests have, in fact, been moved from place to place because they were known to be abusing minors.

2. Lists naming abusive priests in one diocese may miss connections those priests have to other dioceses — and may, as a result, discourage vicitms of abuse in other dioceses from reporting their abuse. We should be working towards a comprehensive list which provides cross-listings that show all the places a credibly accused priest served, and where he may have left victims. Bishop Accountability has long done yeoman's work to produce precisely such a list, and is an indispensable source for anyone monitoring the abuse situation in the Catholic church.

3. Once again: it also appears that many dioceses are releasing deliberately incomplete lists of credibly accused priests. Ongoing monitoring and reporting about this is imperative, given the history of lack of transparency of Catholic officials about the abuse situation.

4. Finally, what we're learning from diocesan lists doesn't provide anywhere near a complete account of abuse perpetrated by priests and brothers belonging to religious communities. The appearance of two Arkansas-related Benedictines and one Marist in recent diocesan lists should serve as a salient reminder to us of how many of the cases of abuse about which we have not yet heard were committed by religious order priests and brothers. This is all the more important to recognize when one remembers that Arkansas Catholics are a tiny minority of the total population of the state, and religious order priests an even tinier minority — making it eye-popping that two Arkansas-based Benedictines and one Marist have shown up in recent lists.

And as SNAP has reminded us as recently as three days ago, lists being released by religious communities like the New York Jesuits, are, according to reports of survivors and journalists, far from complete ….

(See also "Michael Iafrate on How Jurisdictional Mentality Protects Abusive Priests by Hiding Cross-Diocesan Connections in Lists of Abusive Priests" and "Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock Updates List of Priests Credibly Accused of Abuse of Minors.")

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