Does the Church Turn its Cheek? Or its Back?


Mr. R is a 68-year-old man accused of having molested parishioners about 35 years ago, when he served as a Catholic priest. He had a relatively brief career in the priesthood, voluntarily leaving his calling to become a salesman before he turned 40.

Never married, he lived a quiet life alone in a house in the suburbs, where he had several homosexual relationships. Ten years prior to my meeting him, he suffered a series of small strokes likely related to his high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. These strokes rendered it difficult for him to communicate verbally, though they did not interfere much with his motor function.

About 5 years ago, he was “invited” to an interview with the local police department which was investigating allegations of a man who said Mr. R had molested him many years earlier when he was a parishioner in Mr. R's parish.

Subsequent to that interview, Mr. R was formally charged, and he subsequently entered an an Alford Plea, resulting in his being placed on probation.

Editor's Note: Alford Pleas are often called pleas of “no contest.” They do not require an assertion of guilt, but recognize that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict.

The conditions of his probation included paying supervision fees and seeking a “sex offender evaluation” for which he would have to pay.

Living on a fixed income due to his disability, he was unable to afford this, and he was thus charged with violating probation. In addition, allegations were made that he was inviting neighborhood children into his home for “ice cream.”

I first interviewed him in the context of the VOP.

It was evident immediately that he had fairly significant expressive language problems, related to the specific nature of his strokes. He was unable to articulate an understanding of his current legal status, to describe meaningfully the various potential outcomes, or to express any form of strategy as to how he would proceed.

Ultimately, he was found incompetent to stand trial and committed to a psychiatric hospital, notwithstanding the neurologic nature of his impairments.

So far, the case seems pretty clear-cut.

A psychiatric hospital is an inappropriate setting for a man such as Mr. R, who has no mental illness but rather suffers from cognitive deterioration stemming from cerebrovascular disease.

However, state competency law only permits the commitment of a person found incompetent and dangerous due to mental illness or mental retardation— not for any other reason (such as a physical disease.

There he sits, with no hope of release.

This case underscores two issues.

First, it is undeniable that defense counsel often view a commitment to a hospital, however long or indefinite, and however clinically inappropriate, as a “win.” But as often happens, there are no clinical reasons to keep this man in hospital on clinical grounds,,

Yet the law allows for no other placement.

My bigger point here is the abandonment of this man by his former employer, the Catholic Church.

The church's abandonment of victims of abuse perpetrated by its agents is well known to readers of The Crime Report and of other media outlets. The Church's passivity in taking responsibility for those who served on its behalf is also well known.

For example, see this recent editorial in the Washington Post: “Too often it has failed to move against abusers and those who tolerate them until forced to do so by legal action or the threat of full-blown scandal.”

What is the relationship of the church's abandonment of victims to the case of Mr. R? We have a long tradition in the U.S. that prohibits the trial of incompetent defendants, even those who have allegedly committed the most horrific of crimes.

Among the most extreme examples are young children who kill.

This is such a case. The crime that Mr. R is alleged to have committed is extreme, yet he is not – and will never be – triable. Is this reason to commit him for an extended period of time to a psychiatric hospital?

In my view, the answer can only be “no.”

Rather, the Catholic Church ought to “own” its responsibility for the acts committed by Mr. R, and also its responsibility to care for Mr. R in his latter days. While he abused his service to the church, and to those innocents who looked up to him and followed his ministry, he nonetheless served that church and deserves the same care and support as any other priest who has developed age-related dementia and other health problems.

How do you think the church has responded to our requests for information and collaboration in planning for the end of life care for this man? Unsurprisingly, they haven't.

After talking with an independent Canon Lawyer, we do not expect them to respond to any query, because the church's approach is generally to avoid any paper trail – because any paper trail could be viewed later as admission of liability.

So, Mr. R sits, demented, in a hospital designed for people with serious mental illness, not for people with dementia. He will never be fit to stand trial; and even when he exhausts the statutory time frame and the state must drop the charges, the outcome likely will be a return to the probation order which he will continue to be unable to fulfill.

My fantasy is that one day, the church will live up to its vision that all human beings have inherent value—even those whose lives seem valueless to us mere mortals.

Surely, Mr. R did not sacrifice his basic humanity when engaging in the crimes he committed. These make him a criminal, but they do not render him inhuman.

Perhaps, one day, there will be justice for him within the walls of the Church he served.

But I am not holding my breath.

For shame.

Erik Roskes, a regular blogger for The Crime Report, is a forensic psychiatrist and serves on the teaching faculty in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Roskes' employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He welcomes readers' comments. Dr. Roskes' website is

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