Missouri center treats priests, brothers who sexually offend

Associated Press

May 20, 2006

     DITTMER, Mo. - A Chicago priest, tall and quiet-spoken, said he came to a treatment center here for troubled Roman Catholic priests a broken man, depressed, and keeping "my secret of pedophilia."

     "I knew in my heart I needed help," he told The Associated Press for a rare look inside the Vianney Renewal Center, 30 miles outside St. Louis.

     In 14 months of "hardball" individual and group therapy, a 12-step addiction program, fraternal support, and spiritual direction, the priest said he's "become honest with myself," and been given the tools to face his problems.

     The Chicago man is one of 19 priests and religious brothers from around the U.S. who are being treated at the one-of-a-kind center for alleged sexually deviant behavior, including offenses against minors. Some are registered sex offenders.

     The center, located on four acres in rural Jefferson County, is run by the Servants of the Paraclete, the only Catholic religious order in the U.S. that ministers to "priests and brothers in personal difficulty."

     While the Vianney center is "not a prison," or an "extension of the judiciary," it does work with legal authorities and imposes strict security safeguards, said the Rev. Peter Lechner, the religious community's leader and a licensed clinical psychologist.

     Ten percent are referred by the courts; the rest by their diocese or religious order.

     Many will never be free to return, due to the intractability of their problems or because the required supervision can't be provided by a religious order or diocese. They will live out their lives at Vianney.

     Those who do leave are reevaluated and monitored, and none has reoffended, Lechner said. Everyone has a relapse prevention and safety plan. No one returns to ministry.

     "The goal here is no more victims," said licensed professional counselor William Brown, one of four therapists at Vianney, who also contracts with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

     Brown, who specializes in sexual addictions and compulsions, said the Vianney center's therapeutic team plays "psychological hardball" with the men, and insists on accountability and demonstrated progress.

     "We want them to take responsibility for it," he said.

     Theories about cause and treatment of sexual offenders vary, but Brown insists the "common denominator is that this person didn't grow up in June Cleaver's household."

     Frequently, sexual abuse or other trauma early in life caused them to disconnect and stop developing emotionally, he said. They lead a double life - externally normal - yet sexually deviant - substituting sexual arousal for intimacy they never had. Helping offenders reconstruct their life and learn to make emotional attachments helps prevent relapse, Brown said.

     The Servants of the Paraclete's active members have dwindled to 15 since their founding in Jemez Springs, N.M., in 1947, grounded in the role they believe they have in God's plan for healing broken religious men. The Rev. Liam Hoare, community director at Vianney, likened their work to those who rolled away the stone allowing Christ to raise Lazarus from the dead.

     "We unbind the wounded priests and call them back into life again," he said.

     That doesn't mean getting off easily, or not realizing the seriousness of their offense, Lechner said. In rare cases, the Servants have arranged for offenders to meet their victims and hear their stories.

     Lechner recalled one priest who confided his deep regret that he could never repair the damage to his victims.

     "I said he could pray for them," said Lechner, who'd see the priest in Vianney's chapel praying from night until dawn. "A week after he told me that, he died."

     In April, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests asked the state of Missouri to investigate the center's operations and provide adequate oversight to ensure community safety.

     "We find it troubling that the state regulates cosmetologists and undertakers but not Catholic priests who supervise abusive Catholic priests," David Clohessy of St. Louis, national director of SNAP, said at the time.

     The request came after the Rev. Robert Larson was sent to live at the Vianney Center following his release from a Kansas prison, where he served time for molesting four children.

     But the head of a national support and recovery group for clergy abuse survivors said criticism of the Servants and their Vianney Center is "misguided."

     Sue Archibald, director of The Healing Alliance, just outside Louisville, Ky., said she met Lechner during a presentation on her work with survivors, and he invited her to share her story in Missouri. She visited in April 2005 and found Vianney's program to be quality, secure and tough on offenders.

     "There's a lot of worry about what happens to a priest when the church cuts him loose," she said. "The Servants are housing and treating them, and keeping them in a much safer environment where they don't have the opportunity to offend again."

     Visiting with the offenders also proved to be the "biggest step forward I'd ever made in my own recovery," she said.

     "I asked them questions, which I never had a chance to do with my offender," she said. "They were compassionate. Some of them apologized. It helped me, it helped them. They were crying when I was telling my story.

     "I saw that they were human beings too."

     The Servants still run a retreat center in Jemez Springs, but for years it housed and helped priests suffering from depression, alcoholism and mid-life problems. In the 1970s, the Servants introduced professional therapy, and gradually the facility treated an increasing number of priestly molesters.

     But bishops and religious superiors returned many residents to active ministry against the advice of therapists. After a spate of lawsuits, the Paracletes shut down the program in 1996.

     Hoare said the Servants "suffered greatly" in those days, when "'pedophile center' was sadly perpetrated upon us."

     "Today," he said, "we're part of the solution."