Catholic Diocese of El Paso faces more allegations of sex abuse
By Diana Washington Valdez \ El Paso Times
Posted: 05/11/2010 12:00:00 AM MDT
EL PASO — The El Paso Catholic Diocese is facing more lawsuits by people who claim they were sexually abused by priests in El Paso and Southern New Mexico.
One law firm, T.O. Gilstrap Jr., has represented or is representing 11 alleged victims in the border region. Of these, six cases were settled, one is on appeal and four are pending.
On April 13, a man identified by the pseudonym “John Doe” filed suit against Manuel Perez Maramba and Rosario Lopez, two former priests who served in Las Cruces. His suit accuses the Catholic Church “of fostering an environment and culture where abuse of children could flourish and in which it was clearly understood that there was no accountability for criminal acts toward children.”
The suit alleges that church officials conspired to conceal sexual abuse of children and failed to report it to legal authorities. In addition, John Doe alleges that the abuse led to a lifetime of emotional agony and problems in his relationships with women and his children.
El Paso Catholic Diocese officials said they do not comment on pending litigation.
In recent weeks, the Vatican has come under criticism for its policies on how dioceses were to handle complaints involving sex abuse by priests.
The Catholic Church in the United States has paid nearly $3 billion in settlements and legal fees. Payments have bankrupted several dioceses across the country.
Organizations such as Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and Bishop Accountability said the Catholic Church was to blame for failing to acknowledge abuse by priests in a timely fashion. These advocacy groups represent victims and their families, and compile histories of priests and bishops accused of sexual abuse.
SNAP also advocates for people who are victims of Catholic nuns and nonclergy staff, and of clergy of Protestant, Jewish and Greek Orthodox faiths.
Perez Maramba and Lopez were priests in the El Paso Catholic Diocese during the 1970s, when Sidney Metzger was the bishop, and before Las Cruces had its own diocese. Both priests returned to the Philippines after the alleged abuses. They were among numerous priests who received transfers after being accused of sexual misconduct.
Metzger, El Paso’s bishop from 1942 to 1978, “knew of rampant sexual abuse of minor boys by clergy throughout the United States … (and) Bishop Metzger repeatedly and significantly participated in these transfers and attempts to cover up the sexual abuse scandal,” according to “John Doe’s” lawsuit.
During Metzger’s term, Monsignor Lawrence Gaynor and four priests — Irving Klister, Arthur O’Sullivan, David Holley and Bruce MacArthur — were accused in sexual abuse complaints involving young boys and girls from the 1950s through the 1960s.
Leon J. Podles, author of the 2008 book “Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church,” published by Crossland Press, wrote about these five clergymen. A Catholic and a former federal investigator, Podles said he blamed the bishops who concealed the abuse.
According to the “John Doe” lawsuit, O’Sullivan was the head priest at St. Matthew’s Parish on the West Side. After another boy said he too was sexually abused by O’Sullivan, Metzger transferred O’Sullivan to the diocese in Fort Worth.
Gaynor resigned his priestly duties at St. Pius Parish. He was treated for psychiatric problems at St. Vincent Hospital in Missouri, and was allowed to continue serving as a priest in other states, the lawsuit alleges.
Klister was transferred from El Paso after allegations surfaced that he had abused numerous boys, mostly from St. Pius, according to the Joe Doe lawsuit.
In the mid-1960s, Klister went to Via Coeli, a rehabilitation center for pedophile and alcoholic priests in Jemez, N.M.
The Servants of the Paraclete order ran Via Coeli. Over the years, numerous priests accused of sex abuse were treated there and then served as priests elsewhere in the United States.
Attorney T. O. Gilstrap, Jr., who represents alleged victims, said the center’s founder, the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, did not believe pedophile priests could be cured and recommended that they be exiled to an island in the Caribbean. But the church hierarchy rejected the suggestion.
Klister continued his pastoral duties for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. A U.S. Postal Service investigation alleged that Klister had purchased child pornography by mail, according to the agency’s investigative report.
Holley arrived in El Paso in 1972, after he was accused of sexually abusing boys in Massachusetts. In 1969, he began treatment at the Seton Psychiatric Institute in Maryland. Later, he worked in the Archdiocese in Santa Fe, and also served at St. Jude Mission in Alamogordo, and in El Paso at Our Lady of the Valley and St. Raphael parishes.
In spring or summer of 1977, the lawsuit alleges, Holley was caught sexually abusing boys from the El Paso Diocese. “Bishop Metzger transferred Holley to the Diocese in San Angelo, Texas,” according to the lawsuit filed by John Doe.
Concerning Holley’s transfer, Metzger said in a letter to San Angelo Bishop Steven Leven, “You and I know from our experience with such unfortunate matters that such cases are always a calculated risk,” the lawsuit alleges.
In 1993, Holley was sentenced to more than 275 years in prison for sexually abusing eight underage boys in Alamogordo, according court records of New Mexico’s Twelfth Judicial District. He died in prison of natural causes in 2008.
Phil Saviano said he was one of Holley’s victims.
In a telephone interview, Saviano, 57, said he was 11 years old when Holley sexually abused him and a friend of his, also 11, in a parish in East Douglas, Mass. He said Holley arrived in the small town in 1964, and left suddenly a year and a half later.
“He zeroed in on a couple of us who lived near the rectory,” Saviano said.
He said the abuse included exposing the young boys to pornographic images, exposing himself to them and sexual acts.
“The experience shut me down emotionally,” Saviano said. “I became extremely anxious and insecure. It affected my ability to form a solid sense of trust with a partner.”
Saviano decided to go public and sue Holley after learning that Holley had continued in the priesthood for years after leaving East Douglas. Saviano also found that others had accused Holley of molesting them before the priest was assigned to the parish in Massachusetts.
Church officials settled Saviano’s lawsuit against Holley for $12,500.
MacArthur, another former El Paso priest, transferred to El Paso from Sioux Falls, S.D., and served at St. Patrick Cathedral from 1974 to 1978.
The lawsuit against Perez Maramba and Rosario Lopez alleges that Metzger also knew that MacArthur had been accused of sexually abusing girls in the Sioux Falls Diocese.
“While at the El Paso Diocese, Father MacArthur engaged in further sexual abuse,” according to the lawsuit.
A nurse’s aide allegedly caught MacArthur sexually assaulting a nursing home resident who was disabled. He was convicted of this crime, and spent three years and three months in a Texas prison before he was released in 1981, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
MacArthur was 83 years old when he was charged in 2006 in Wisconsin with sexually abusing girls in the 1960s.
Brother Sam Martinez, a former principal of Cathedral High School and a member of the Christian Brothers order, also was accused of molesting students.
Cathedral is a top private Catholic high school in the El Paso region, and Christian Brothers was under contract to run the school.
The Brothers of the Christian Schools, District of New Orleans-Santa Fe prepared a document in 2004 titled “This safety plan is designed for Bro. SM (Sam Martinez).” The Christian Brothers document said Martinez had spent four months at a treatment center in the East Coast.
“Beginning in 1992, several complaints were raised about his improper behavior with students when he served as principal of a high school,” the document said. “These complaints have to do with what allegedly occurred between 1981 and 1985.”
The document also said that two lawsuits (in 2004 and 2007) were filed against him and settled. Martinez could be with the Christian Brothers in New Orleans, but the order did not return phone messages for comment.
In another case, the Rev. David Bentley, who was accused of abusing minors at a children’s home in New York, was transferred in 2000 to the Las Cruces Catholic Diocese.
Bishop Richard Ramirez, leader of the Las Cruces Catholic Diocese, said the controversy over Bentley occurred because the diocese had accepted him. The Las Cruces diocese has 60 priests and oversees parishes in 10 Southern New Mexico counties.
The diocese in Albany, N.Y., paid $70,000 to settle a suit against Bentley stemming from complaints in the 1970s. Bentley was transferred back to Albany, where he was removed from the diocese in 2002.
“There was a misunderstanding. I was led to believe he had molested someone before he became a priest,” Ramirez said. “Then I learned he had molested while he was a priest and before coming here.”
Ramirez recently issued a letter to his parishioners about the problem of sexual abuse by clergy.
“The Catholic Church in the United States serves almost 70 million, yet in 2009, there were six allegations of sexual abuse by priests,” the letter said. “No other institution working with children gets close to this level of safe environment. From this we can conclude that the policies being followed by the U.S. church are working, even though we can still say that even one case of sexual abuse of a child is one too many.”
U.S. Catholic bishops reported that they had received sexual abuse allegations against 5,600 priests between 1950 and 2008; these represented about 5.1 percent of the total 109,694 priests who were active since 1950 in the United States.
A 2004 report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned, revealed several other statistics.
The study looked at different results of 5,681 diocesan investigations between 1950 and 2002. According to the study, 80 percent of the abuse allegations were substantiated, 18 percent were not substantiated and 1.5 percent were found to be false.
The El Paso Catholic Diocese cooperated with the John Jay study, which found that 56 complaints against 25 El Paso clergy between 1950 and 2007. On average, people waited 23 years to report alleged abuses.
Since 2008, the diocese has received complaints against three priests (two who were accused previously by someone else), and against a seminarian and a religious brother, diocese officials said.
The El Paso diocese has paid about $4.6 million to victims or for the benefit of victims, and to settle lawsuits.
Diocese officials said many of the accused clergy are dead. Of those found guilty of sexual misconduct, none was working in El Paso when the judgments were rendered.
“None of the complaints received from 2003 to the present are against priests in active ministry or who even reside in the territory of the diocese,” church officials said in a statement.
The El Paso Diocese says there are about 500,000 Catholics in El Paso. Currently, 96 priests serve in the El Paso diocese, which covers 10 West Texas counties.
El Paso Bishop Armando X. Ochoa called the abuse cases a tragedy.
“I have met with victims of abuse myself and been deeply saddened by their experiences,” Ochoa said. “All of us in the church have suffered because of the actions of those who were supposed to be ministers, but have used their positions to victimize others.
“We pray that the attention given to this abuse on a global scale will prevent any future occurrences and allow those who have been harmed to stop suffering in silence. As always, I would encourage any victim of abuse by a member of the clergy or church personnel to contact our victims’ assistance coordinator.”
Nationally, as of July 2008, clergy accused of sexual abuse included 19 bishops, 3,082 priests, 71 nuns, 193 brothers, 39 deacons and 16 seminarians, according to www.bishop-accountability.org.
In light of such findings and under mounting public pressure, Catholic dioceses throughout the United States have set up procedures to investigate abuse allegations.
But Gilstrap, the lawyer for alleged victims, disagreed. Part of the Gilstrap firm, he said he was skeptical that the church’s process benefits victims of abuse.
“The Catholic Church fights these cases vigorously,” Gilstrap said. “They invoke the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution to fight requests for the disclosure of internal church records of priests who have been accused of sexual abuse.”
Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6140.