Child-Molesting Priests Often Get Special Treatment, Investigation Shows

A year-long investigation by The Dallas Morning News shows that Roman Catholic priests accused of child moles­ta­tion are often given special treatment by law enforcement officials, and in some cases foreign-born clerics have been allowed to flee the country.

Asserted The News, “Since the clergy sex-abuse scandal exploded anew in 2002, Catholic leaders have taken the brunt of the blame. Overlooked is the role of police, prosecutors and judges – the people expected to hold abusers accountable when the church itself will not. Law enforcement typically has helped through inaction, but sometimes the aid has been direct.”

Reporters Reese Dunklin and Brooks Egerton focused primarily on the case of a priest working in North Dakota who admitted to molesting boys. The priest, the Rev. Fernando Sayasaya, was tracked to the Philippines by the Federal Bureau of Investigation but remains at large.

Sayasaya admitted he had been told to stay out of the United States by an intermediary speaking on behalf of former Fargo Bishop James Sullivan. The priest admits he is working with boys again in Manila but told The News, “I’m trying to restrain myself.”

(Sullivan, who is now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was never interviewed by police about the matter.)

The newspaper cited other examples:

• A priest from Spain assigned to a diocese in west Texas was accused of inappropriately touching a boy. Prose­cutors agreed to close the investigation after church officials agreed to send the priest back to Spain.

• Judges in California and New Jersey have sentenced foreign priests convicted of abuse to probation in their home countries. The News reported that in those cases, the priests were supervised not by law enforcement but by bishops.

• In perhaps the most alarming case, prosecutors in Milwaukee refused to charge the Rev. Simon Palathingal when he was accused of molestation in the early ’90s. Palathingal fled to India, but he later re-entered the United States and was accused of sexual misconduct again. The victim of the Milwaukee abuse later tracked Palathingal to New Jersey and convinced a prosecutor there to file charges. Palathingal pled guilty.

Why are pedophile priests receiving such kid-glove treatment? The newspaper speculated that law enforcement officials are reluctant to aggressively pursue members of the clergy, believing they are more trustworthy.

Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Cardozo Law School in New York City, also said some prosecutors may fear a backlash from voters if they are seen as going after religion.

“The reason for all of this is so plain, it’s scary: it’s political,” Hamilton told The News.

Prodded by The News, law enforcement officials in North Dakota seem to be finally moving in the Sayasaya case. Birch Burdick, Cass County state attorney told the newspaper his office was short-staffed but that he wants to extradite the priest.

“I want that man back here,” Burdick said. “I want to have the man face the court proceedings and whatever justice is divvied out by a jury.”