Sex Abuse Scandal Catches Up with Religious Orders

When it comes to sexual abuse, the religious orders have flown under the radar.

(MPR) 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.

A year after the youth retreat, Cote was ordained and eventually sent to Somerset, Ohio, to oversee two small parishes. His secretary, Jill Sullivan, told NPR that the young cleric instantly captured the hearts of the children. But she soon began to wonder about the youth group he started.

“You never saw any girls,” Sullivan said. “There were only boys. And at a teen youth group, why wouldn’t you see any girls?”

Sullivan started hearing rumors about Cote’s relationship with the boys. And then one morning, she found some papers on her desk – Xeroxes made the night before on the copying machine.

“And I noticed they were of boys, their rear ends, their genitals, and I went to Father A.J. and said, ‘What is this?’ He wouldn’t look at me, and he said, ‘I’ll take care of this. It won’t happen again.'”

Parishioners began to complain about Cote’s conduct with children. According to two parents interviewed under oath, they worried that Cote held sleepovers for boys and might be serving them beer. The parents met with a senior priest in the area, who wrote of complaints to Dominican leaders in New York.

The Dominicans apparently received the letter but now say it is missing. Dominican leaders said under oath they never heard complaints of a sexual nature.

1989: Chimbote, Peru

In 1989, the Dominicans transferred Cote to one of their foreign missions, in Chimbote, Peru.

The pattern began again. Cote launched a youth group for teenage boys, and boys stayed over at the house that he shared with another priest. That priest testified that Cote hugged and kissed the boys with an intimacy that alarmed parents.

Cote favored one boy in particular, who stayed overnight in Cote’s room, the priest said.

The priest said under oath that he reported to the head Dominican in Peru four times. The Dominican leader in Peru – who is no longer alive – wrote the head office in New York that parishioners had witnessed “improper conduct on the part of Father Cote.” But, he added, these complaints were just “hearsay and rumor.”

Anderson, the attorney, asked Father Thomas Ertle, who was the Dominican leader at the time, why he didn’t take action. Ertle said he relied on his fellow friar’s word that nothing was amiss and on the word of Cote.

“He gave me no indication that there was anything immoral in his contact or association with them,” Ertle said of his conversation with Cote.

“And did you rely upon him in Cote’s representation that there was nothing immoral?” Anderson asked.


Anderson doubts that leaders didn’t know of any sexual abuse or chose to “see no evil.”

“I took the depositions of every official, every provincial and every vice-provincial that presided over A.J. Cote,” Anderson said. “And each of them lied.”

Anderson says the Dominicans are a small order. There are only a few hundred in the U.S. It is a tight-knit spiritual family.

“They live in community, which means they live together, and they report to one another regularly,” Anderson said. “And there is no way that the reports made in Somerset, Ohio, in Chimbote, Peru, and elsewhere didn’t go to the leaders of the Dominican order.”

2000: Germantown, Md.

Soon after the complaints surfaced, Cote asked to leave Peru. Back in the U.S., he moved from one assignment to another for a decade. No allegations surfaced during this period. Then in 2000, Cote landed as a youth pastor at Mother Seton parish in Germantown, Md. There he met 14-year-old Brandon Rains.

Rains testified last year that his friendship with Cote began when Cote “took a special liking to me,” by waving or winking at him from the altar during the Mass.

And Cote eventually spent a lot of time with Rains after his parents learned the boy had begun using and selling marijuana in the ninth grade. Rains’ mother told NPR they felt the only refuge was his church youth group.

“He spent so much time with Father Cote,” she said, holding back tears. “He was like the one safe, positive person in his life that we would allow him to see. Not his friends. We thought that was the source of the trouble.”

She added: “I felt like I just handed him over.”

By midyear, Rains testified, Cote was taking him to a private apartment or hotels to watch pornography. He masturbated in the boy’s presence and persuaded Rains that he should do the same, Rains said.

Rains said Cote did this about 10 times and touched him once.

In August 2003, Rains confided in his parents about Cote’s behavior and filed a report with police in Maryland. His stepfather, Joe McMorrow, says he called the Dominicans, who assured him they would investigate.

“And then, months passed,” McMorrow said. “We had very little contact with the Dominicans; most of it we initiated.”

Something just didn’t seem right, McMorrow said. “One day, I went out on the Web, and I find that A.J. Cote is a youth minister at a Catholic parish in Rhode Island.”

Not the Whole Story

How could this happen?

Father Dominic Izzo, the current head of the Dominican Province, said in his videotaped deposition that he didn’t consider Brandon Rains’ allegation credible.

Anderson asked Izzo what would have made it credible. First, Izzo said, if Cote’s psychological evaluation indicated he was a pedophile. Second, he said, if the police had found concrete evidence of abuse.

“The investigation would have said that yes, this did happen on this date,” Izzo said. “That did not happen. And so we took the advice of professionals.” He said that he sent all the information they had about Cote to the Rhode Island Bishop’s independent review board, and when they did not ask for more information, he considered the matter closed. Izzo recommended Cote be allowed to serve in ministry in Rhode Island.

But Dennis Roberts, the former state attorney general and head of that review board, told NPR he didn’t get the whole story from the Dominicans.

“They didn’t exactly lie to us, but they didn’t tell us the whole truth,” Roberts said.

Roberts’ board gave the green light for Cote to begin ministry in Providence. He said after looking at materials NPR gathered for this story, he was floored by all that the Dominicans had omitted – files from Cote’s seminary days, complaints from Ohio and Peru, the attempts to unload Cote on different dioceses.

Roberts said that his review board had access to all local priests’ files. But with religious orders like the Dominicans, Roberts said, “we don’t have the full package. And therefore in dealing with an issue like Father Cote’s, we really do have to rely on the good faith and forthcoming nature of the disclosures made to us by the order. And here that was not very good.”

In the deposition, Anderson handed Izzo Exhibit 100, a letter dated July 26, 2005. It’s from Catherine Wolf, a teacher in Somerset, Ohio. Wolf wrote that she had just learned that Cote had repeatedly molested a student in the late 1980s. “I believe that Father A.J. is a danger to children,” she wrote, “and should not be allowed to associate with them in any capacity.”

Under the Dominicans’ own policies, they were supposed to report all credible allegations to the police. Anderson asked if Izzo did so.

“Did I supply this letter to the police?” Izzo asked? “No, I did not.”

When asked why not, Izzo said he didn’t recall. “We just didn’t submit it to the police,” he said.

Izzo said he did not consider that allegation credible because it did not come from the alleged victim. He didn’t inform Cote’s parish in Rhode Island, nor did he alert the review board.

Dennis Roberts said he wishes Izzo had.

“What we would have done at that point,” Roberts said, “taking that new information, is tell the father provincial [that] Father Cote was no longer welcome here at that point, [that] the man has to be removed from ministry.”

Cote was just about to attend a church youth retreat in November 2005 when Rains filed a civil suit against Cote and the Dominicans in Washington, D.C. The Dominicans pulled Cote from active ministry.

Four months ago, the Dominicans agreed to settle with Rains for $1.2 million. Based on evidence revealed in the lawsuit, prosecutors in Maryland have reopened a criminal investigation.

2006: Massachusetts

In May 2006 – smack in the middle of the Rains litigation – a woman filed a complaint with the police in Massachusetts.

She claimed that Father Cote had abused her two boys while babysitting. The Dominicans offered their sympathy, but they did not mention this new allegation in their sworn testimony in the Rains suit.

The boys at the time were 4 and 6.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty | All Things Considered, December 31, 2007