In one case, the Catholic Church transferred a cleric wanted in one country to a nation from which he can’t be extradited.
DALLAS – Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing children are hiding abroad and working in church ministries, the Dallas Morning News found in a yearlong investigation.
From Latin America to Europe to Asia, these priests have started new lives in unsuspecting communities, often with the help of church officials. They are leading parishes, teaching and continuing to work in settings that bring them into contact with children, despite church claims to the contrary.
The global movement has gone largely unnoticed — even after an abuse scandal swept the U.S. Catholic Church in 2002, forcing bishops to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy and drawing international attention.
Key findings of the investigation include:
Nearly half of the more than 200 cases identified in the investigation involve clergy who tried to elude law enforcement. About 30 remain free in one country while facing ongoing criminal inquiries, arrest warrants or convictions in another.
Most runaway priests remain in the church, the world’s largest organization, so they should be easier to locate than other fugitives. However, Catholic leaders have used international transfers to thwart justice, a practice that poses far greater challenges to law enforcement than do domestic transfers such as those exposed in the 2002 scandal. Police and prosecutors, however, often fail to take basic steps to catch fugitive priests.
Church discipline, such as the U.S. bishops’ new policy, doesn’t keep all offenders out of the ministry. Dozens of priests who are no longer eligible to work in this country have found sanctuary abroad.
Vatican officials declined to comment Friday after an overview of the investigation was featured on National Public Radio.
In one case, the Rev. Frank Klep, a convicted child molester who has admitted abusing one boy and is wanted on more charges in Australia, was placed in Samoa, in the South Pacific. Australia has no extradition treaty with Samoa.
Klep said that neither he nor the church feels an obligation to tell anyone about his past. Few, if any, locals are aware of his history.
“I’d prefer to just leave it,” Klep said. “If I felt I was still a risk to their children, then I’d think differently. But I don’t think I am at risk anymore.”
His order, the Salesians of Don Bosco, has long moved priests accused of sexual abuse from country to country, away from law enforcement and victims.
The Salesians, one of the largest Catholic religious orders, concentrate on educating and housing some of the world’s most needy and vulnerable children. Yet influential Salesian officials have spoken out forcefully against cooperating with law enforcement agencies investigating sex abuse allegations.
“For me it would be a tragedy to reduce the role of a pastor to that of a cop,” said Salesian Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez of Honduras, a leading candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II. “I’d be prepared to go to jail rather than harm one of my priests.”
Salesian officials in Costa Rica and Chile are facing criminal complaints, accused of protecting priests who were shuffled across international borders. A judge in Chile is reviewing whether there is enough evidence to try a Salesian bishop on obstruction of justice charges, which would be the first such prosecution of a Catholic leader anywhere.
Klep is living in exile in Samoa, “not a paradise or a tropical resort,” said his boss, the Rev. Ian Murdoch, the order’s leader in Australia and the South Pacific. The priest has no active ministry or unsupervised contact with children, Murdoch said, and is monitored to “the best of our ability.”
Klep’s victims in Australia have tried unsuccessfully for years to have him removed from the priesthood. In Samoa, beyond the reach of police and church discipline, he has worked freely.
He is the top financial official at the Moamoa Theological College. He helps during Mass at St. Anthony Church and at the nearby Salesian schools.
For a time, he supervised the Rev. Jack Ayers, who was accused of raping a student at the Rupertswood boarding school in the 1960s.
Samoa’s top Catholic, Archbishop Alapati Mataeliga, said he was startled to learn about both priests’ pasts. He said the Salesians should not have kept the details from him.
“I think we have to do something about it; justice has to be served,” said Mataeliga, who became leader of the archdiocese last year. “Samoa should not be a place where they send priests like that.”
But the archbishop changed his mind after speaking with the Salesians.
“Although these incidents happened with these two priests, they have dealt with it themselves and with their congregation,” the archbishop’s secretary wrote in a letter. “They are valid and allowed to work in our archdiocese, and we are grateful for their services and hard work up to this point.”
In the theological college’s kitchen, Klep sat at a table and explained that when he gave candy to children after Mass the previous day, it was a spontaneous gesture. He still enjoys “young people’s company,” he said, but limits his contact mostly to adults.
But downstairs, a group of teenage boys lounged on concrete steps, waiting for Klep.
One young man said he met Klep this spring when the priest pulled up at a bus stop where he was standing and offered him a ride. At the end of the short drive, Klep gave him some cash and invited him to church.
Since then, the 19-year-old said, Klep has “come to where I hang out in the evenings” and offered him small jobs around the college.
Also waiting on the steps was a 14-year-old who said he has known Klep for about a year and a 13-year-old buddy he said the priest wanted to meet.
The 14-year-old said Klep has given him spending money and regularly helped him with schoolwork alone in the priest’s bedroom. “He said to me, ‘You are my best friend.’ “
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