Sex Abuse Scandal Catches Up with Religious Orders
by Barbara Bradley Hagerty

All Things Considered
December 31, 2007 ·

When it comes to sexual abuse, the religious orders have flown under the radar.

About a third of all Catholic clerics serve in religious orders — they're the
Jesuits who teach high school or the Franciscans who serve the poor.

The sex abuse scandal that broke five years ago focused on parish priests and
forced dioceses to push big reforms. But when it comes to religious orders,
their reforms are voluntary, and the orders are not accountable to anyone. As a
result, abuses may go undetected.

Reporting Only to Rome

Father Aaron Joseph Cote — known as A.J. — is a Dominican friar, part of a
religious order founded nearly 800 years ago. As a Dominican, he was
entrusted with preaching the Gospel and living a contemplative life — until two
years ago, when he was sued for allegedly abusing a minor.

Cote's case is unusual because, if news accounts are any measure, religious
orders have escaped much of the scandal that engulfed the larger church.

In a deposition videotaped in August 2006, Cote looks grim as attorney Jeff
Anderson questions him. Anderson represents a young man who accused Cote
of sexually abusing him in 2001 and 2002.

Anderson: "Do you have a sexual attraction to post-pubescent adolescents?"

Cote: "I refuse to answer on the ground it may incriminate me."

Anderson: "Do you know the word 'pedophilia'?"

Cote: "I refuse to answer on the ground that it may incriminate me"

And so it went for the better part of an hour.

Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk, served for 12 years at St. John's
Abbey in Minnesota. In those years, he heard one confession after another of
fellow Benedictine brothers who had abused children. Of 300 monks at St.
John's Abbey, 32 were "perpetrators against children," Wall said.

Wall finally quit the priesthood in 1998 and began investigating clergy sex
abuse for victims and their lawyers.

Wall found no shortage of work: He figures he has investigated two dozen
religious orders, ranging from the Franciscans and Dominicans to the Marists
and Salesians. Most recently, Wall turned his gaze on Jesuit missionaries sent
from Oregon to Northwest Alaska. Last month, the Jesuits settled with more
than 110 Eskimos for $50 million.

Wall and others believe the rate of abuse in the religious orders is higher than
among the parish priests — although no one knows for certain because the
orders are not required to submit their records to anyone in the United States.
They report only to Rome. And they are not bound by the charter signed by the
U.S. Bishops in 2002 that promised to stop protecting suspected abusers and
report them to police.

Wall says abusers from the orders are easier to tuck away. A bishop in San
Diego, for example, can transfer a problem priest only so many places. But
religious orders are international, which Wall says is convenient.

"You get them out of the state. You avoid any kind of criminal liability because
you get them out of the area, so that the statute of limitations can run," he said.
"But you keep them in the family so it just looks like, well, 'The abbot assigned
Father Dominic to St. Augustine's in the Bahamas.'"

That is pretty much what happened to Father Cote for more than 20 years.
Cote denies he has abused anyone, and neither he nor his attorney responded
to requests for an interview. In fact, no Dominican official connected to this case
would grant an interview — even after several requests over two months.

But videotaped depositions in Cote's case serve as a rare window into the
Dominicans' world. The depositions reveal a system in which warning signs can
go undetected or ignored, and a problem priest can find refuge in new
assignments for years.

The First Red Flag

In October 1985, Cote, then a seminarian, led a youth retreat near Washington,

In a taped deposition last year, Anderson read an assessment from Cote's file
to Father Raymond Daley, who was the leader of the Dominicans in the 1980s.
The assessment said that Cote paid too much attention to boys and that he
stayed out all night and returned in the morning with a teenager named Will. It
said he had two glasses of wine before the service, that his talk on sex
discussed oral sex and that he bared his chest during his talk.

When asked if he had any recollection of the assessment, an elderly Daley
answered softly, "I do not," a refrain repeated by Dominican leaders throughout
the depositions...
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