Priest investigation walks line between fairness, justice - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

Priest investigation walks line between fairness, justice

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Posted: Thursday, June 30, 2011 11:52 am | Updated: 9:16 pm, Thu Apr 19, 2012.

Whether or not the Rev. Jack Spaulding, the former priest at St. Timothy's Catholic Community in Mesa, is found guilty of sexual conduct with a minor, a tragedy has occurred.

Either an innocent child was sexually abused, or, a man whose life and calling have been built on trust and faith has been wrongfully accused - a blemish that can be very hard to erase, even if it turns out to be false.

Spaulding, 63, resigned June 20, but has denied the allegations against him.

If he is found guilty by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, which now is investigating the accusations of abuse that allegedly took place more than 25 years ago, he will be punished, permanently banned from the ministry and will likely face legal ramifications.

If he is deemed innocent, "the church and bishop would reinstate Spaulding and do everything it could to restore his good name," a Diocese of Phoenix official said.

With so much at stake, it could take weeks, months or even years before a resolution emerges.

Last week, the diocese announced that Spaulding had stepped down as pastor of St. Timothy's and was placed on administrative leave after a Diocesan Review Board determined there was a "credible" allegation of his involvement in sexual misconduct with a minor. The alleged abuse took place when he was pastor at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Parish in Scottsdale.

Under the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' guidelines under the Charter for the Protection of Children, Bishop Thomas Olmsted suspended Spaulding and placed him on paid leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

The charter maps out steps to deal with allegations of sexual conduct against lay leaders and priests. One is to promptly investigate such allegations. Another is to report allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests to law enforcement.

According to information from Paul Pfaffenberger, the director for the Office of Child Protection, the Phoenix diocese contacted two law enforcement agencies when the allegations against Spaulding were received, but the diocese would not specifically say which agencies were notified and when they were.

After receiving the allegations, the diocese hired a former FBI agent who investigated the claims by conducting 12 interviews and sifting through various documents, according to Pfaffenberger.

Pfaffenberger was not sure how many other times the diocese hired such an agent to investigate complaints of sexual abuse against priests, but said it is not common practice, at least by other dioceses across the U.S.

"It is not required by the church to do so, but I think it's pretty good practice," Pfaffenberger said. "It brings in an outsider who will conduct an objective investigation. It's not just the church investigating the church."

Spaulding no longer lives at St. Timothy's, and the diocese said it currently does not know his whereabouts.

A victim of sexual abuse from a former priest said that the emotional toll on victims needs to be taken into account when such allegations arise.

"You never get over it," said Joseph Baca, the director of the Phoenix Chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

In 2004, Baca, 53, said he received a settlement from the Diocese of Gallup, N.M. after disclosing that a priest in Winslow had sexually abused him from the time he was 9 until he was 15.

Baca believes that there still are a "few more bad priests" that need to be weeded out for sexual wrongdoing, and he (not surprisingly) supports a list of suspended priests being released even though they have yet to be found guilty of any wrongdoing.

"The ones you never suspect of doing anything wrong are the ones doing it," Baca said. "That's why parents need to keep a close eye on their children and know what they're doing.

"We need to look at all the facts and let our church law and judicial system run its course, but the public needs to be aware of them. That's why the Catholic church has the guidelines in place before they suspend a priest."

In the statement released last week, the diocese stressed a finding of credibility does not mean a priest is guilty or innocent of an allegation, but that the allegation has "a semblance of truth to it" and that further proceedings are necessary to determine if a crime was committed.

Pfaffenberger said, "This does speak to the fact that the church is doing a much better job on investigating such allegations and taking action whenever necessary."

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