Tucson a 'dumping ground' for abusive priests

Story of one from LA illustrates only the tip of a sordid iceberg
2013-02-24T00:00:00Z 2014-07-30T17:17:20Z Tucson a 'dumping ground' for abusive priestsStephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

When a young Catholic priest in Los Angeles was accused of sexually molesting a 12-year-old boy in 1983, church officials did not remove him from ministry.

Instead, they sent him to Tucson.

Recently released court documents from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles show church officials allowed Kevin Barmasse to minister in Tucson for seven years after that original accusation.

Once in Tucson, Barmasse worked at three churches in Southern Arizona and was later accused of molesting five local teens who had been members of youth groups he led.

Those five teens, now men in their 40s, later filed lawsuits saying Barmasse abused them. They received a total of nearly $2 million apiece in settlement money from the Los Angeles archdiocese and the Tucson diocese. The settlements in Tucson were part of the local diocese's bankruptcy case.

The now-defrocked priest left "a wake of devastation that is hard to comprehend," one Los Angeles church official wrote in 1998, eight years before the Vatican removed Barmasse from the priesthood.

The documents are yet another example that Tucson was once a dumping ground for abusive clerics, says a California lawyer who represented victims in the Los Angeles Catholic Church cases. A list of past Diocese of Tucson clerics with "credible" accusations of sexual misconduct with a minor against them, for example, includes nine priests from other dioceses.

"If you were a molester, you got sent to one of three places - a poor Latino community, Mexico or the Diocese of Tucson," said John Manly, who represented the five Arizona men who say they were abused by Barmasse. "Los Angeles sent molesters to immigrant communities and parishes. ... It was not an accident, not a coincidence."

Thousands of pages of files on Barmasse and 123 other priests named in abuse lawsuits were recently released on court order by the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The documents offer details about Barmasse's personnel record that have not previously been part of the public record.

Among the new information to surface is that Los Angeles church officials clearly knew Barmasse had a problem and would not allow him to return and minister there. Yet they did not stop him from leading parish youth groups in the Diocese of Tucson.

Letters that are part of Barmasse's 363-page file show that Los Angeles church officials, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, more than once denied Barmasse's request to return to Los Angeles because of the alleged 1983 incident.

"It's a historical document. It's important for people to be aware of it so that it doesn't happen again," former U.S. Attorney for Arizona A. Bates Butler III said after reading the file. "It's just disturbing."

Butler, a Tucson attorney, was court-appointed as the unknown claims representative for the Diocese of Tucson's bankruptcy case. The bankruptcy followed a large clergy-abuse settlement and several potentially expensive lawsuits, also over sexual abuse. In light of the file, Butler added that he can understand why some people are questioning whether Mahony should be involved in choosing the next pope.

Just days after the alleged 1983 incident, the boy's mother alerted officials with the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The mother, a parishioner at St. Pancratius Catholic Church in Lakewood, on Aug. 29, 1983, wrote that on the night of the abuse, Barmasse had offered to take her son to a movie. When her son came home that night, she knew something was wrong. Her son said that instead of taking him to the theater, the priest took him to the rectory where they watched "Jaws," her letter says.

"He continued to tell me that during the evening Father Kevin had asked him to try on his cassock and that Father Kevin offered to massage his back," the mother wrote in the letter to Los Angeles Bishop John Ward. "He said Father Kevin took his shorts down to his knees and his underwear down to expose his butt. … He said Father Kevin massaged him front and back and that he felt very scared and nervous."

The mother goes on to say that she and her husband confronted Barmasse and that he apologized.

"I sincerely feel that my son has been molested and I know that if Father Kevin was not a priest my husband and I would be doing all in our power to have him removed from society and to see that he would get professional help," the mother wrote. "We feel he must be taken away from our boys and Saint Pancratius! We sincerely believe that Father Kevin has no control over these actions."

Documents in the file say that law enforcement was contacted after the 1983 allegation against Barmasse, but that prosecution wasn't pursued because the parents didn't want to subject their child to interviews and because the parents and law enforcement believed the removal of Barmasse from the archdiocese, plus psychiatric treatment for him, "would solve the problem."

A Los Angeles church memo dated Sept. 12 that year says, "This day arrangements were made with the Diocese of Tucson. … While there Father Barmasse will need to undergo some psychological counseling and this office should be given proof that he has indeed taken this care."

Mahony later referred to the 1983 case as a reason Barmasse could not return to Los Angeles.

"Given the history of your particular case, I would strongly recommend that you not return to Southern California for any type of priestly ministry," Mahony wrote to Barmasse on Dec. 1, 1987. "You might be better advised to continue on there in Arizona where you have found a home and new friends in your pastoral work. I would not recommend that you begin looking for another diocese unless your situation should change dramatically, thus requiring such a special step."

In a memorandum to Mahony written in 1989, Monsignor Thomas J. Curry wrote that Barmasse should not be allowed to return to Los Angeles at least for another two years to to protect the archdiocese from legal action. Curry also wrote that Barmasse had never shown any insight into "his problem, or that he confronted it."

Barmasse stayed in the Diocese of Tucson from 1983 to 1991. He was suspended from ministry in 1992. He ministered in three regional churches - St. Andrew the Apostle in Sierra Vista, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Tucson and Blessed Sacrament in Mammoth.

Diocese of Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, who became bishop here in 2003, has said Barmasse should not have been allowed to minister in Tucson or anywhere else, and that such an arrangement would not be allowed today by the diocese's own policies nor the policies the bishops of the United States have put into place.

Kicanas wrote in a letter to parishioners in 2003 that the Tucson diocese accepted Barmasse for ministry with the understanding that he would get treatment related to an accusation of sexual misconduct with a minor.

Documents show Barmasse got treatment, and the professional who treated him believed he would be able to minister safely, yet urged caution.

Five men who had been members of youth groups led by Barmasse in the local diocese later came forward, saying he had sexually abused them. The men say Barmasse, in his late 20s and early 30s at the time, befriended them when they were most vulnerable, often beginning molestations during prayer. He liked the boys to call him "Rev Kev" and took them on outings and trips, including a road trip to California.

The men described a young priest they deeply admired. Barmasse went to their sports games and music concerts, often filling the place of busy parents who didn't have the time.

One of those men was Troy Gray, a Tucson resident and musician who read the recently released Barmasse file. Gray, now 44, was a member of a youth group that Barmasse led at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. A Marana High School student at the time, Gray respected Barmasse so much that he was considering the priesthood as a career. He recalls confusion and sadness when the molestations began during private celebrations of Mass.

Gray was deeply religious and considered Barmasse a confidant. Though he was horrified by the abuse, at the same time he was afraid to lose Barmasse's support and friendship. Like other abuse victims, Gray had a difficult transition into adulthood, and went through several years of heavy drinking and a divorce.

"What shocked me was how Mahony said that the longer Barmasse stayed in Arizona, the less chance of a civil or criminal lawsuit against the church in L.A.," Gray said. "It seemed that they were more concerned about a lawsuit back then instead of truly monitoring Barmasse to make sure no one else would be hurt by him."

Gray was also upset by letters in the files that show Barmasse asked the archdiocese for $50,000 after he became an inactive priest. The archdiocese offered him $10,000 but Barmasse refused because he wanted more, the documents show.

In 1991, Los Angeles church officials arranged for Barmasse to begin residential treatment at a facility in Maryland. After he was discharged, Mahony decided Barmasse was not fit for ministry and the archdiocese paid for his ongoing therapy.

By this time, complaints from youth group members and their parents in the Diocese of Tucson had begun to surface. Among the accusations was that Barmasse tried to get a 15-year-old boy to perform oral sex on him and that he provided the boy and others with beer and pornographic movies. One boy said he'd been fondled on at least seven occasions between 1986 and 1987, the documents say. In 2003 when lawsuits were filed by men who said they'd repressed memories of the abuse, one said he'd had both oral and anal sex with Barmasse when he was 16.

Gray notes that Barmasse's file shows that Mahony did take steps to defrock Barmasse, but that the Vatican took a long time to act on it.

Barmasse was defrocked in 2006, 23 years after his reported sexual abuse of the 12-year-old Los Angeles boy, more than 15 years after the alleged abuse of the five Tucson youths and 14 years after Los Angeles church officials suspended him from ministry.

Barmasse, now 57 and living in suburban Los Angeles, is one of the clerics and other church personnel, dating to the 1950s, whom the Tucson Diocese has identified as having "credible allegations of sexual misconduct involving a minor" against them. The diocesan standard for "credible" is that the abuse not only could have happened but probably did happen.

Current Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez issued a statement to parishioners on Jan. 31 calling the files "brutal and painful reading," and said the behavior described in them is "terribly sad and evil."

"I cannot undo the failings of the past that we find in these pages. Reading these files, reflecting on the wounds that were caused, has been the saddest experience I've had since becoming your archbishop in 2011," he said.

"My predecessor, retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, has expressed his sorrow for his failure to fully protect young people entrusted to his care. … In the weeks ahead, I will address all of these matters in greater detail."

Timeline

Former Catholic priest and accused child molester Kevin Barmasse's assignments in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson:

• St. Andrew the Apostle in Sierra Vista, 1983 to 1986.

• St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Tucson, 1986 to 1988.

• Blessed Sacrament in Mammoth, 1988 to 1991.

To view a list of clerics and other personnel who worked in the Diocese of Tucson and have "credible" accusations of sexual misconduct with a minor against them: www.diocesetucson.org/list.html

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@azstarnet.com or 573-4134.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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