2 Paths, No Easy Solution on Abusive Priests
March 3, 2002
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN and JODI WILGOREN
New York Times
ST. LOUIS, March 1 - It has been 20 years since John
Scorfina's family complained to church officials about the
Rev. Leroy Valentine's sexualized horseplay with him and
his two brothers, which they say ended with the priest
molesting 11-year-old John.
It has been four years since the Scorfina brothers took
$20,000 each from the Archdiocese of St. Louis on the
condition they never speak of the settlement, believing
that lawyers for the church had promised to remove the
priest from parish work.
But when the three men recently learned that Father
Valentine, who has denied any wrongdoing, was an assistant
pastor at a church attached to a Catholic elementary
school, the order not to speak could not contain their
"I just don't want any kids to go through what I went
through," John Scorfina said this week.
Across the Mississippi River in Belleville, Ill., the
priests who have been accused of sexual abuse no longer
work in churches. One performs karaoke on Wednesday nights
at the Lincoln Jug restaurant in Belleville and another
pumps gas at his mother's service station in the small town
In the mid-1990's, the Diocese of Belleville publicly
ousted 13 priests accused of inappropriate sexual contact
with children, leaving them in an odd limbo - on the church
payroll yet without portfolio, called "Father" but barred
from administering sacraments or wearing the collar. "In
the church," said one, the Rev. Raymond Kownacki, "you're
guilty until proven innocent."
Here in the center of the country, these two dioceses -
one, in a major city in which a third of the population is
Catholic, the other a sprawling 11,000-square-mile expanse
of small farm towns - have taken divergent paths in
handling accusations of sexual abuse by clergymen.
While Belleville made headlines by removing priests, St.
Louis quietly moved them around. Each diocese has a board
to review the cases. In Belleville, a victim's say-so was
often enough for the board to strip priests of their church
ministries; in St. Louis, many victims said they were
unaware of the board's existence.
As church officials nationwide rethink their approaches to
the issue amid recent scandals, each bank of the river
offers lessons about the intractability of the problem.
Belleville's broad public sweep of priests from the altar
may have eased victims' pain, but it also left some
parishioners uneasy that innocent men were being maligned,
while others worried about potential pedophiles being
released from the rectory, unwatched. The policy in St.
Louis, until this week, of keeping nearly all accusations
secret as the archdiocese moved the priests into new
parishes, retirement, or low-profile posts, angered victims
and may have led to further offenses.
The issue of sexual abuse by priests has taken on new
urgency in recent months after disclosures that the Boston
Archdiocese had known for years about the sexual misconduct
of a priest who was accused of molesting some 130 children.
That case led to repeated apologies from the leader of the
archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law, who reversed his policy
of keeping the matter within the church and gave state
authorities the names of some 80 priests accused of abusing
children over 40 years.
Since then, church leaders in New England and Philadelphia
have informed parishes of similar accusations against
priests, handed priests' personnel files to prosecutors and
relieved some of the accused of their duties. In Los
Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahoney issued a public apology to
victims and released a new policy vowing that a priest who
had abused a child would never return to active ministry.
Here in St. Louis, an archdiocese of 223 parishes, church
officials announced the removal of two pastors today,
saying they had "raised the bar" about who is unfit to
serve in a parish post. The standard, since 1996, had been
that any priest deemed to pose a future risk would be
removed. Since the Boston incidents, they say that any
priest with a substantiated accusation against him will be
ousted. The two priests received treatment after the
accusations, which are 15 and 14 years old, officials said.
"As painful as it is, we're going to keep the trust of our
people," said Bishop Timothy M. Dolan, the vicar for
priests. "We have to be able to say, we have to be able to
believe, that there is no priest in a parish against whom
there is a credible claim of clerical sexual abuse."
Accusations about pedophilia have plagued the Roman
Catholic Church in the United States since the first major
case arose nearly 20 years ago in a Louisiana parish.
Experts warn that, like alcoholism, pedophilia is a disease
that can be controlled but not cured, and that problem
priests should not be reassigned to parishes where they are
at risk of abusing again.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network
of Those Abused by Priests, who lives in St. Louis, says
the experiences of Belleville, while flawed, are a starting
point as bishops review policies. St. Louis, he says, is a
model of what to avoid.
"In Belleville, like virtually every diocese in America,
the survivor who comes forward has a long tough road," he
said. "But in St. Louis, that road is steep, uphill, and
Parishioners Uneasy but Dependent
Father Valentine was
the favorite of many children at St. Pius X, a parish and
school in Glasgow Village, a community of identical
aluminum-sided bungalows in the northern part of St. Louis.
The priest took them out for ice cream and cheeseburgers.
He lavished affection on children like the Scorfinas, who
came from single-parent or troubled families. "He was like
the dad that wasn't there," said John Scorfina, who now
runs a construction company.
Father Valentine, in an interview on Thursday at the
rectory of St. Thomas the Apostle, where he is now an
associate pastor, said he was barred by the legal
settlement from discussing the case. When told that this
was his opportunity to respond to whether there was any
truth to the accusations, he looked down and shook his
head. The senior pastor, the Rev. Henry Garavaglia, who sat
in on the interview, said, "Emphatically, I would say no."
Then Father Valentine looked up and said suddenly, "At the
same time, parents should always be concerned who's working
with their children."
Others who lived in Father Valentine's parish said they
felt uneasy about him, particularly when he wrestled with
groups of boys and slid them over his body in a game he
called "crack your back."
Tom Joseph, 32, remembers a 1982 trip with Father Valentine
to the Illinois River in which he says the priest playfully
tackled him, pulled down his pants and spanked him. Mr.
Joseph, then 13, did not tell anyone, but says that he
never went anywhere with the priest again.
Margie Lewis, a single parent, said that one day she called
home and was surprised to learn from her daughter that
Father Valentine was there wrestling with her son and his
friends. She said that she asked him to come to the phone,
but he would not, and that he left suddenly.
The Scorfina brothers were also home alone on the day they
say that Father Valentine came over, and initiated a
wrestling session. Soon, they say, the priest fondled two
of the boys and then took John into a bedroom and sodomized
"I remember I had a Pittsburgh Steelers poster on the wall,
and he made me name all the players until the deed was
done," John Scorfina said. Asked in his 1998 deposition how
long it lasted, Mr. Scorfina said, "About 10, 15 minutes,
maybe, give or take, say, forever, 26 years."
Katie Chrun, the Scorfinas' mother, recalled that when she
arrived home her youngest son asked: " `Mom, should a
priest touch you like that?' I said, `Like what?' "
Mrs. Chrun said she contacted the authorities, but was told
by pastors and a policeman that it was an internal church
matter and to keep quiet and be forgiving.
Then, three months later, Mrs. Chrun, her mother and her
sister went to meet with Father Valentine in the rectory.
Mrs. Chrun and her sister, Linda Thurman, both say that he
apologized and said that if he did something wrong, he must
have blacked out.
Asked about the meeting, Father Valentine said, "It was an
apology that they had taken something wrongly." He said he
never said anything about blacking out.
Within the month, Father Valentine was removed with no
explanation to the Scorfinas or the parishioners, and in
the next 12 years was reassigned to three parishes, two of
them with schools. Not until the Scorfina brothers filed
their lawsuit, in 1995, were parishioners at the church
where he worked at that time informed that there were
accusations of child sexual abuse against him. The Scorfina
brothers sued the Archbishop of St. Louis and Father
Valentine and the archdiocese settled with the family in
Though they refused to discuss specific cases, Bishop
Dolan, who also handles sexual abuse cases for the
archdiocese, as well as the archdiocese's lawyer and a
psychologist who sits on the review board acknowledged that
Father Valentine had been evaluated and treated by medical
professionals, and that he had been put on sick leave for
In 2000, as Father Valentine was assigned to his current
post in Florissant, a St. Louis suburb, the church's senior
pastor sent parishioners a letter informing them about a
1982 accusation of sexual misconduct against Father
Valentine. The letter said Father Valentine had
"unambiguously denied the allegation" and that therapists
had concluded he posed "no threat to children."
Some Settled, Some Unheeded
court records suggest Father Valentine's is not the only
St. Louis case where accusations led to transfers - or
where victims complained of being ignored by the chancery.
Church officials refused to say how many priests, before
last week, had ever been publicly removed because of sexual
abuse. Doug Forsyth, a lawyer who has handled about two
dozen cases against the archdiocese - 15 of which he said
were settled - and victims' advocates said the only cases
they were aware of in which removal was publicly attributed
to pedophilia were ones in which the priests did not deny
the accusations in court.
One of those priests, the Rev. James Gummersbach, admitted
in a 1994 lawsuit that he had abused boys in several
parishes over decades. Further, in a sworn statement, he
acknowledged that from his ordination in 1954 through the
1990's "the only known action taken by the defendant
archdiocese in response to the accusations that defendant
Gummersbach had sexual contact with minors was to transfer
Gummersbach and instruct him to obtain personal
One man who said his complaints about a priest went
unheeded was Steven Pona. Court records show Mr. Pona, now
33, wrote to the the vicar general in 1983 contending that
that the Rev. Bruce Forman, director of the Young Catholic
Musicians orchestra and choir, tried to seduce him at a
drive-in screening of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Mr.
Pona said the incident followed at least five occasions in
which the priest tried to approach him sexually.
"During the movies he had his arm around me in a funny sort
of way, sort of at the waist," Mr. Pona wrote in a
teenager's cursive. "I pushed his arm back forcefully and
said, "Don't, I'm not that type.'
Diocesan directories show that Father Forman, who did not
return calls for comment, was moved only once in the last
20 years, in 1986, to the parish where he remains pastor.
Mr. Pona's letter, in a sealed envelope, was placed in the
priest's file, marked, "To be opened by archbishop only,"
according to court records.
Mr. Pona's lawsuit, filed against Father Forman and the
archbishop, was dismissed because of the statute of
limitations. But as the issue resurfaced in the news in
January, Mr. Pona said, he went to see Bishop Michael J.
Sheridan, who at first was compassionate but later phoned
to say he had researched the case and found no evidence.
On Friday, Bishop Dolan said Mr. Pona's recent complaint
might have gotten lost because it arrived shortly before
Bishop Sheridan left for another assignment. Bishop
Sheridan did not return several phone calls on Thursday. In
the interview today, Bishop Dolan urged parishioners to
"tell us again" if they were unhappy with how complaints
had been handled.
The archdiocese's new strategy of removing priests based on
substantiated accusations rather than assessment of future
risk has already spawned criticism. Parishioners at St.
Cronan's Church, where the pastor was removed on Wednesday,
gathered that evening to pray for their priest.
"People are feeling that it's sort of an infringement of
our Christian community to have someone taken from us
without any consultation and without any explanation," said
Bill Ramsey, a member of St. Cronan's. "I don't think
anybody wants sexual abuse anywhere, but it's a fact of
life and there are more constructive ways to deal with it
than ordering people away from other people."
Model System Still Falls Short
The church used to shuffle
priests accused of sexually abusing children among the 127
parishes in the Belleville diocese, too.
In a 1995 lawsuit against Father Kownacki, one of the
ousted priests, and the diocese, Gina Trimble Parks
asserted that while she was the priest's teenage
housekeeper, the priest repeatedly raped her over two years
and ultimately fed her a quinine potion to bring about an
abortion. Court records show Ms. Park's family made the
same assertions to the bishop in 1973, and that Father
Kownacki had two previous complaints of sexual abuse
against him from other assignments. He was sent for
treatment and later returned to a parish.
The lawsuit was dismissed because of the statute of
limitations. "I was too old to fight it," he said of his
ouster in a recent interview, adding that his family and
friends "know the accusations aren't the truth."
The Rev. Clyde Grogan, longtime pastor of St. Patrick's in
East St. Louis, said he brought several victims and their
families to the chancery to register complaints in the
1960's and 1970's, and nothing happened.
"You know how it was handled?" asked Father Grogan, raising
his hand and forming a zero with thumb and forefinger. When
victims complained, he added, "The bishop would give lots
of assurances. I think the strategy was, what do the people
want to hear?"
That changed in 1993, after The Belleville News-Democrat
published an article describing how a priest had molested
high school boys aboard a houseboat on Carlyle Lake 20
years before. The accused priest was immediately removed
and church leaders began rewriting their sexual abuse
Four priests were ousted in the weeks that followed and
eight more priests and a deacon were pushed out in the next
two years as the diocese investigated a swell of
complaints, most of which first appeared in The News-
Democrat.One as eventually returned to a parish.
"We were kind of learning as we went," said Msgr. James E.
Margason, Belleville's vicar general, who helped write the
new policy. "We were damaging someone's reputation, we
didn't know if the allegation was true. What drove us was
to protect children."
Margie Mensen, a social worker who was the administrator of
the Belleville review board from its formation until 1998,
said a credible accusation from a victim was enough to
remove a priest, often within days of the complaint. Many
of the priests never presented their side to the board;
only one admitted the abuse. Several refused treatment.
The diocese has since settled at least three of eight
lawsuits (one is still pending in federal court) and paid
for counseling for 49 people, including victims and their
families. Though the state's attorney subpoenaed all the
review board's records, it filed no charges, because the
accusations were years old and lacked corroboration.
But if Belleville has been heralded as a model, many in the
community remain dissatisfied with the process.
Father Grogan says the diocese's 80-some priests are still
divided as to whether they believe the abuse accusations.
Parishioners at one church wore yellow ribbons to protest
their pastor's removal. Donations dipped for years as
people feared the Sunday collection plate would go to
defray legal expenses.
Those who say they are victims remain outraged that the
priests retain their titles, salaries and pensions.
"That's kind of a slap in the church's face, my face,
everybody's face," said Mary Aholt, whose husband was among
those to receive a settlement. "Everybody that's paying
their salary, and that's everyone that belongs to the
Others worried that the church is not properly supervising
the people it had deemed a problem. The Rev. Louis Peterson
works in a restaurant in Lebanon, Ill. Father Kownacki
collects coins and stamps in a dingy first-floor apartment
in Dupo, Ill., where he said he sometimes celebrates Mass
for family and friends, against the rules of his
administrative leave. The Rev. David Crook has left the
"I have a whole new life," said the lounge singer at the
Lincoln Jug Restaurant, Msgr. Joseph R. Schwaegel, who
still faces a federal lawsuit, along with the diocese, by a
California man who asserts that Father Schwaegel repeatedly
touched his genitals and raped him in 1973, when the
plaintiff was 8. Father Schwaegel declined to discuss the
The Rev. Robert Vonnahmen, a former camp director who faced
at least three lawsuits accusing him of luring boys to his
cabin for massages that led to molestations, runs a
Catholic retreat center and a $3-million-a- year tax-exempt
tour company, formerly owned by the church, which leads
Catholic "pilgrimages" to dozens of destinations. (Two of
the lawsuits were dismissed because of the statute of
limitations, a third was settled out of court.)
At his office the other day, Father Vonnahmen wore a
short-sleeved black shirt with Roman collar, button open,
defying the church's sanction. He has denied all
accusations against him, twice petitioned the Belleville
review board to reinstate him and has now appealed his case
to the Vatican. "I'm not going to give up on the Lord or
the church, either one," he said. "I know these things
happen occasionally. I can't imagine the large number of
people in Belleville. There was a rush to judgment."
No Belleville priests have been removed since 1997.
Monsignor Margason said the 800-number set up to receive
abuse complaints has been silent for a year.