Blast from Archbishop Myers's past. (UPDATED)

The Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, has agreed to pay $1.35 million to settle a lawsuit claiming that Archbishop John J. Myers--who served there as bishop from 1990 to 2001--failed to remove a priest from ministry despite having evidence that he had abused a minor. (Myers, you'll recall, has come in for some criticism regarding his handling of accused priests in his current diocese, Newark.)

The plaintiff, Andrew Ward, now twenty-five, accused the late Rev. Thomas Maloney of molesting him in 1995 and '96, when Ward was eight. About a year earlier, a woman informed the diocese that Maloney had abused her sister when she was ten years old. Myers denies knowing anything about it. Indeed, if anything comes through in the 2010 deposition of Myers, just unsealed as part of the settlement, it's that the archbishop's memory is less than ideal.

For example, Myers doesn't remember much about the generous gifts Maloney gave him over the years (starting in the late 1980s, apparently). Does he recall receiving Maloney's own "precious" camera? No. What about gold coins? Sort of. The silver object so large "it could be tied around one's neck like the proverbial millstone," as Myers desrcibed it to Maloney in a thank-you note? Hard to say. 

Now, it's not unusual for priests to give gifts to their bishop following confirmations. Such offerings usually amount to $1 per child, rarely totaling more than $500. But many bishops set up trusts to receive such funds for later disbursemet to charity. Myers apparently used them to cover personal expenses--including his mother's health care, his vacations, and his trips to the track. (SEE UPDATE BELOW.)

So were Myers and Maloney friends? The archbishop has trouble with that question too: "I don't know if 'friends' would — I had many other priests that I was closer to. I can say that." How many of those other priests were invited to vacation with Myers, as Maloney was in 2000? How many used their homilies to relate personal stories of their friendship with the bishop, sometimes referring to him as "Johnny"? How many were nominated by Myers to be made monsignor, as Maloney was in 2000? (Settle in, this is going to be a long post.)

You might wonder whether dioceses vet such nominees, and Myers explains that the Diocese of Peoria does. Yet, even though the diocese had received complaints about Maloney well before he was made a monsignor, Maloney's vetting failed to turn up any of them. Why not? Myers doesn't know. Perhaps his vicars general filed the records in hard-to-reach places.

For example, in 1999, a husband and wife wrote to the vicar general with grave concerns about Maloney's conduct during confession. In March of that year, they explained, their son--then in the eighth grade--returned from school in "an uneasy manner." When they inquired about his mood, he reported that during confession, Maloney had described the sexual acts of "a fellow priest." (He also took a mobile-phone call in the middle of the sacrament, conducted penance as an interrogator--Did you do X, Y, Z?--and forced students to confess face to face.) The parents conveyed their concerns in the gentlest way. They acknowledged the pressures Maloney was under, said they'd never walked in his shoes, and did not even request that he be removed from the parish. They just wanted the diocese to intervene. 

The parents received a prompt reply in which the vicar general--then Msgr. Steven Rohlfs--apologized for Maloney's scandalous behavior, and assured them that they had done the right thing by contacting him. But, Rohlfs cautioned, there was little he could do formally, because these incidents were protected by the seal of confession and the family wanted to remain anonymous. (A dubious claim, because a penitent can break the seal in order to defend himself against the grave canonical crime of solicitation during confession.) Still, Rohlfs promised that he would speak with Maloney without mentioning the name of the boy. The vicar general copied Myers on the reply, and apparently Rohlfs believed it was worthy of the attention of the diocese's law firm, which he also copied, but Myers claims he doesn't recall seeing it.

Yet at least one compaint about Maloney received Myers's personal attention. In 2000, a married couple wrote to Myers to express their concerns about Maloney's behavior both in and out of the parish. On Superbowl Sunday, they explained, Maloney could be heard distributing Communion in the following way: "Body of Christ. Is the beer cold yet?" Maloney's short homilies were often seasoned with "inappropriate jokes." The wife explained that as she was confessing to Maloney, he informed her that "women are just too emotional," adding: "maybe you should just get a life."  Later that night, around 9 p.m., she saw him in a Walgreens parking lot with a grade-school girl, who eventually left his car to buy about $20 in candy. And, finally, she wrote, Maloney "typically" took eighth-grade girls out to lunch at a place called the Pub. 

Before contacting Myers, the couple explained, they conveyed their concerns to Maloney in a "polite, yet direct" letter. The priest responded by calling their house eight times, and when he finally got through--at 11 p.m. on a school night--he informed them that he was well loved and did not drink at all. 

Myers doesn't remember that letter either. When asked whether he would dispute that he received the letter, he replied, "I don't really know how to answer that." Which is strange, because he personally responded just two weeks later, after hosting a meeting with Maloney that was scheduled to last all of ten minutes. In his reply, Myers told the parents that their "experience does not seem to correspond with that of many other people." He continued, "I do know that Father loves people, especially young people, and that he cares for them generously. We have never had allegations of impropriety." When asked how he could make such a claim, Myers offered his now familiar response: "To the best of my knowledge," it was true. (The phrase appears ten times in the deposition transcript.)

Myers can't even say why he was copied on a 2002 letter to Maloney from Rohlfs, who had been named administrator of the diocese after Myers was moved to Newark. In that letter Rohfls conveyed the concerns of the diocesan school superintendent, who did not approve of Maloney's decision to lock a classroom door so he could deliver a two-and-a-half-hour talk on "morality" to a captive audience of boys, threatening to expel them if they told their parents what he had said--to say nothing of reports that he had given one student money as a reward for good grades, or his reputation for favoring blond girls. After all, as Myers explains in the deposition, when this letter went out "it was right after 9/11 and my time was very greatly occupied by memorial masses and visiting families and helping families of victims of 9/11." In case you missed it, the archbishop was busy with 9/11. But that still doesn't explain why the administrator of the Diocese of Peoria would copy the former bishop on this case--a case Myers says he can't even remember, to the best of his knowledge. 

Even if the best of Myer's knowledge of sexual-abuse cases in his dioceses isn't all that good, he does seem to have a rather high opinion of his own investigative prowess. In the case of the priest John Anderson, Myers says he "spent the morning" speaking with the alleged victim, and found his story "inconsistent with the facts." He claims to have spoken with a therapist about the case. But that was the extent of his investigation. He decided on his own that the accuser lacked credibility.

Did Myers forward the allegation to the police? No. "I encouraged the...seminarian, now a priest, to go to the police and asked him to. [Here it seems that the seminarian is the accuser.] And he's the one I asked to sign the statement that I had urged him to and he had — he declined to." So Myers didn't find the allegation credible, yet he urged the accuser to go to the police. And he tried to get the accuser to sign a statement acknowledging that he had asked him to go to the police. Why would someone who did not believe an abuse allegation feel the need to protect himself with a statement affirming that he had tried to convince the accuser to contact civil authorities? Could it be that Myers was worried there might be something to the allegations after all?

In May 2002, after Myers had been promoted to Newark, Bishop Daniel Jenky found that Anderson had been credibly accused, and removed him from ministry (along with several others). Through his spokesman Jim Goodness, Myers expressed his sadness "in particular for the victims but also for the priests." And he made sure to emphasize what he knew and when he knew it: "These allegations and the actions of the diocese are based on information that was received since he left the diocese to come to Newark. So he really has no knowledge of the individual allegations against these priests." Apparently the allegation Myers said he personally investigated doesn't count.

But if one thing can be said about Archbishop Myers's handling of sexual-abuse allegations, it's that he knows what counts. At one point during the deposition, plaintiff's attorney Jeff Anderson asks, "Under canon law you're aware that if there is an allegation of sexual abuse by a priest, the bishop is required to conduct investigation, correct?" Myers's response will not reassure Newark's Catholic parents: "If he knows about it."

UPDATE: Over the weekend, Archbishop Myers released a letter addressed to his "dear brother priests" in which he claims that "to the best of my knowledge"--there it is again--"the particular case cited was brought to the attention of the officials in the Peoria Diocese in or about 2007, more than five years after I left that diocese and arrived in New Jersey." If he is talking about Maloney, and it sounds like he is--for some reason, Myers can't bring himself to use the man's name (Google can be a real pain sometimes)--he is not telling the truth.

Several documents show that the Diocese of Peoria received complaints about Maloney as early as the mid-1990s. The paper trail is not short. This 1995 memo from the vicar general to the "File of Rev. Thomas Maloney" indicates that the diocese had received a complaint from a woman who said that Maloney had molested her sister when she was ten years old. This 1996 letter, redacted so that all we can make out is that it's addressed to "Monsignor," warns about Maloney's "unprofessional" behavior with "a rather young teenage girl." This is the vicar general's memo to Maloney regarding that letter. Here is a 1999 letter from parents to the next vicar general, informing him that Maloney had discussed the sexual acts of another priest with their eighth-grade son during confession (note the stamp announcing that the document is "protected by attorney/client privilege"). And here is the vicar general's reply, which was copied to Myers. And this is the vicar general's letter to the parents confirming that he met with Maloney and conveyed their concerns anonymously--Myers and the diocese's law firm are copied. A year later, in September 2000, another couple wrote directly to Myers to voice their concerns about Maloney, who, they claimed, had been seen with a young girl in a parking lot and was known to take eighth-grade girls to lunch at a place called the Pub--and who, after they confronted him phoned their house eight times late at night, finally going off on the father about how well loved he was and how he was a teetotaler he swore. One week later the vicar general wrote to Maloney to remind him that he had a meeting with Myers that would last "about ten minutes." A week after that, Myers responded personally to the parents, denying that their claims were credible (he copied the vicar general). 

Archbishop Myers was reminded of all those documents during his 2010 deposition. He was also reminded of documents pertaining to the gifts he received from Maloney. But he now says, "I never vacationed with him, and I received no gifts other than those often given to a bishop by Pastors or Parishes." If he never vacationed with Maloney, then why did he in 1995 invite Maloney to join him in Florida, an invitation he repeated two years later. And why in 2000 did he invite the priest to "join us on Crete,"  providing Maloney with the name of his hotel and the dates of his stay? Did this priest who referred to Myers as "Johnny" in homilies really refuse the repeated invitations of his bishop to join him on vacation?

And what about those gifts? Myers says they were not unusual at all. Maybe so, but while he had trouble recalling their value in 2010, now he remembers that one such gift was "of minimal value." That's not the whole truth, because, as the record shows, on several occasions Myers thanked Maloney  for his "generous" and "wonderful" gifts, which were valuable enough to help him cover the costs of his mother's care, his vacations, and his trips to the track. Keep in mind, many bishops establish charitable trusts to receive such gifts, which are then disbursed to the needy. This is an unseemly practice, and it would be better if priests donated to charity directly.

Also unseemly is the tone of Myers's letter to his priests. He blames the media, naturally, for "provid[ing] deceitful and misleading information about situations in the Diocese of Peoria and in this archdiocese. I am dutybound to denounce the impressions presented as false and harmful to many people." Mainly, though, those impressions are harmful to himself. It's possible that some have twisted the facts to serve purposes other than getting at the truth of how Myers has handled sexual-abuse claims throughout his episcopal career. Myers complains about his words being "selectively quoted by an interested attorney, some upset parents, and a former Priest of this Archdiocese." But he too has selectively presented the record. The deposition is publicly available. I recommend reading it. Perhaps the archbishop should refresh his memory too.

"Some upset parents." Myers is referring to the parents of the plaintiff in the Maloney case. Watch this video and try not to be moved by the mother's realization of the reason she received her son's disdain. She blames herself. Myers blames the media. 

He closes with quite a flourish:

For any who set out to claim that I or the Church have had no effective part in the love and protection of children, is simply evil, wrong, immoral, and seemingly focused on their own self-aggrandizement. God only knows their personal reasons and agenda. We are still called to love them. And God will surely address them in due time.

Sound familiar? Myers has delivered a letter from an alternate universe, one in which the church was never seized by this scandal for over a decade, one in which the church's moral authority was not tarnished by sexual abusers and the bishops who enabled them. Perhaps he will reconsider his response to these matters in a subsequent letter to his brothers and sisters in the laity. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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