Maryland center claims success treating priests

Abuse: The scandal of Catholic clergymen molesting children has focused new scrutiny on St. Luke Institute, its methods and results.

April 11, 2002|By Gail Gibson and John Rivera | Gail Gibson and John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Tucked away on a 43-acre suburban campus in Silver Spring, the St. Luke Institute boasts garden courtyards, tennis and handball courts and, by its own account, extraordinary success over the past two decades in treating the dark and complex problem of clergy sexual abuse.

But as the Roman Catholic Church struggles with the latest scandal involving the sexual abuse of minors, the efforts of the church-run psychiatric center and its self-reported success rate are under new scrutiny, with critics saying the facility has been too willing to let potentially dangerous priests return to the ministry in order to please church officials heavily invested in the priests' training and recovery.

"These centers, particularly one like St. Luke, do a big, big business with the church," said Gary R. Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist who has closely studied the Maryland center and similar facilities. "It's the same problem consultants have - when you have one big customer, the tendency is to treat them nicely and have things go the way they want it to go."

Current and past officials with St. Luke dispute that suggestion. They say that far from being part of the problem in the roiling Catholic sexual abuse scandal, the center - with its blend of progressive art and drama therapy, drug treatment and exhaustive group and 12-step counseling sessions - is part of the solution.

An internal study of the more than 450 priests who underwent the center's six-month treatment program between 1985 and 1995 showed only three of the men relapsed - a conclusion based on reports from the men themselves, their church supervisors or law enforcement officials.

Center officials say few of the priests they treat are ever returned to their old duties or allowed to work again with young people.

"I never had pressure from any bishop to send a priest back and, in many cases, we had people who we thought were able to go back, and we had a hard time convincing any bishops to take them," said the Rev. Canice Connors, a past president of St. Luke.

The current church crisis, however, has focused new attention on St. Luke's role in advising the church on whether known sexual offenders should be returned to ministry. In several high-profile cases, church officials knew about sexual abuse allegations - and had priests evaluated or treated at St. Luke - but still shuttled them from parish to parish.

In Boston, former priest John J. Geoghan, accused of molesting more than 130 people, underwent weeklong evaluations at St. Luke in 1989 and 1995, according to court records. He was treated for three months at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., a secular facility that, like St. Luke, has been widely respected for treating clergy accused of sexual abuse.

Another defrocked priest from Boston, Paul J. Mahan, was reassigned to a parish after a 1993 evaluation at St. Luke found he was sexually attracted to teen-age boys. Mahan, who underwent a six-month treatment at a Canadian facility and was evaluated again by St. Luke in 1997, is accused now of molesting a young nephew between 1993 and 1995.

A priest from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., Andrew Millar, was sent to St. Luke in 1999 after he was accused of sexually abusing a 10-year-old altar boy eight years earlier. Millar retired after completing treatment and was allowed to celebrate Mass at a parish where nobody was informed of the charges against him. In May 2000, he was arrested and charged with sodomizing a learning-disabled teen-age boy in a park bathroom.

As those and other cases unfolded, they exposed rare fault lines between the church and the psychiatric facilities it has relied on for years.

The staff at the Institute of Living, reacting to a suggestion from New York Cardinal Edward Egan that the church relied on faulty psychiatric evaluations in reassigning priests accused of abuse, said recently that church leaders gave them limited background information on troubled priests and then ignored their treatment advice.

The head of the St. Luke Institute, in an interview last week, drew a sharp distinction between the center's role and the church's in placing priests who are known sexual offenders. The Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti said his facility can only make a recommendation about a priest's future - it is up to the church to decide what happens after that.

But Rossetti, who said he could not talk about Geoghan or other cases, signaled that St. Luke continues its close, cordial relationship with the church.

"There's the impression that people are being given, that [priests accused of sexual abuse] are all going back" to their parishes, he said. "That's just not been my impression.

"What I've been seeing is the bishops take it very, very seriously. They send them to treatment and, the majority of times, they're removed from ministry completely."

St. Luke's treatment regimen has been praised for years as one of the country's most rigorous programs for child abusers.

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