After child abuse accusations, Catholic priests often simply vanish
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 10:38 PM
Ten years after the clergy sex abuse scandal first exploded in the United States, lawsuits have been settled, reports issued, policies overhauled. But even as the crisis has shifted to Europe and the Vatican prepares to issue new guidelines on how to handle sex abuse cases, something glaring is missing in this country: the accused priests.
Although the vast majority were removed from ministry long ago - barred from celebrating Mass in public, administering the sacraments, wearing their clerical collars or presenting themselves as priests - church officials say they have no way to monitor where the men are now. Nor do they keep official data on how many were defrocked, or stripped of their priestly status; how many were imprisoned or placed on sex-offender lists; how many are working; and how many are dead.
The priests have largely vanished from public view. Their fates are often a mystery to their victims, their parishioners and even their attorneys.
Independently compiling data about what happened to the men is nearly impossible. Reports by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops show that at least 5,768 priests were accused from 1950 to 2009. Although the church deems most of the allegations credible, the vast majority have never been proved, and many of the priests have never been publicly identified.
The same is true in the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington, where local church officials put the tally of accused priests at 42 without naming all of them. (At least five additional men who belong to religious orders have been accused in the Washington Archdiocese.)
But a comprehensive list of names does not exist. Victims groups often disagree with church officials on who should be included and maintain their own lists.
The Washington Post was able to identify 31 priests accused in the Washington area and locate nine who are alive. All declined to talk about their cases or their lives, but court documents and interviews with those around them offer glimpses. The outcomes vary so much that they defy sweeping generalizations about the way the allegations were handled by the church or the courts.
Many of the cases never made it into criminal court because the alleged abuse occurred decades earlier and fell beyond local statutes of limitations or made evidence difficult to gather. Sometimes the accusers did not want to press charges. But at least 11 men were sentenced to prison, and at least five were sued in civil court. Seven are dead, including Monsignor William Reinecke, longtime chancellor of the Arlington Diocese, who shot himself after a former altar boy confronted him after Mass. At least 10 were defrocked by the Vatican. Four of those convicted of crimes wound up on sex-offender registries.
Some of the accused priests have been able to retire with church pensions and benefits; others were cut off. Yet many have never stopped seeing themselves as priests, even when the pope has forbidden them to wear their collars or to act as clergy.
Edward Hartel is one of them. He has continued to celebrate a private Mass most days at his home in Chevy Chase, where he lives on a church pension, said Joseph W. Jacques, a friend and former parishioner at the Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville.
Hartel was acquitted by a judge of groping an altar boy in the 1970s. But Washington Archdiocese officials maintained that he had admitted to the misconduct in private - an assertion he denied - and refused to return him to the ministry.
"I'm a retired priest now," Hartel, 74, said in a brief telephone interview. "That's the status. That's where we stand."