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, D.C.
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...