USA TODAY US Edition
That accused priest might now be living next door
Hundreds live freely as survivors fight for justice
SUNRISE, Fla. – John Dagwell says he has earned the right to live in peace as he tries to put his past behind him.
The former Roman Catholic brother, 75, pleaded guilty in a New Jersey criminal case in 1988 to molesting a student when he taught at a parochial school. His religious order, the Xaverian Brothers, transferred him to the Boston area, where he went to work in a homeless shelter and soon faced new abuse accusations that were never reported to police. Four years later, personnel files from the Boston Archdiocese revealed Dagwell as a clergyman credibly accused of sexual abuse. His name was also included in a list released by the Xaverian Brothers.
Despite his past, Dagwell was never required to
“Common sense would say pedophile priests would continue to abuse once they are defrocked . ... It is not as if a light switch turns off.”
Mitchell Garabedian Boston-based attorney who has represented thousands of victims
register as a sex offender. He moved on to a new life in a new community, a place where kids fill the local pool during school vacations and where his history remained a secret from neighbors. He began teaching again, this time at Keiser University, a 16,000-student school based in Fort Lauderdale.
“I’ve stayed away from adolescents. I’ve been trying hard not to put myself in a situation where I was going to be tempted,” Dagwell said recently while sitting in an apartment he shares with his sister.
Dagwell is one of more than 1,200 former priests, Catholic brothers and Catholic school officials identified in a USA TODAY Network investigation who were accused of sexual abuse but were able to move on with little or no oversight or accountability. Most never faced criminal charges.
As thousands of abuse victims across the U.S. continue to search for justice and closure decades after being molested by some of the most trusted people in their lives, these men have become the priest next door. They live near schools and playgrounds, close to families and children. Their movements are unchecked by both the government and Catholic Church, in part because laws in many states make it nearly impossible for victims to pursue criminal charges decades after alleged abuse.
During its nine-month investigation, the USA TODAY Network tracked down last known addresses for nearly 700 former priests who have been publicly accused of sexual abuse. Then, 38 reporters knocked on more than 100 doors across the country, from Portland, Oregon, to Long Island, New York. They talked with accused priests, as well as neighbors, school officials, employers, church leaders and victims. They reviewed court records and church documents in piecing together a nationwide accounting of what happened after priests were accused of abuse, left their positions in the church and were essentially allowed to go free.
Since the scandal first exploded into public view in Boston almost 20 years ago, the church has financially settled with thousands of victims. The church has promised change, with parishes posting guidelines aimed at protecting children and dioceses releasing names of credibly accused priests – many of whom were defrocked, or laicized, meaning they no longer work with the church. But church spokespeople demurred when asked if they are under any obligation to keep track of accused priests, or to inform future employers of the accusations against them.
“The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops does not maintain a list of accused priests, as we do not oversee the dioceses,” said Chieko Noguchi, public affairs director of the organization that represents the top Catholic bishops in the United States.
In building its review of priests, the USA TODAY Network worked initially from information gathered by Bishop Accountability.org, a database of publicly accused priests that also includes files on bishops, and documents from church leadership on the abuse crisis. Reporters used this database, in addition to information made available by dioceses, because the church has a history of leaving priests off lists of credibly accused clergy.
Some of the accused priests may be innocent. They face allegations, not convictions. In fact, what it means to be “credibly accused” varies by diocese.
But advocates who argue for full disclosure say that because it typically takes a child sex abuse victim decades to come forward, state statute of limitation laws – which limit the time frame for initiating criminal and civil cases – must be changed. And if the priests are charged and convicted, the public should be notified. Advocates point out that if these men were registered sex offenders, most would have residency restrictions imposed on them.
“Common sense would say pedophile priests would continue to abuse once they are defrocked,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston-based attorney who has represented thousands of Catholic sex abuse victims across the world. “There is nothing to keep them from sexually abusing children – it is not as if a light switch turns off.”
‘He should be on that list’
In Florida, Dagwell taught students for 15 years at Keiser University before retiring in 2018. Dagwell claimed the judge in his New Jersey criminal case didn’t tell him to register as a sex offender, and his plea came before national laws required both registry and notification. He said he went to an addiction center for counseling.
“I’ve put years of penance on myself,” Dagwell said.
But neighbors said his comments ignore the fact that children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, are constantly visiting residents at his community in Sunrise, Florida.
“He should be on that” sex offenders list, said Gerald Steindan, 74, who lives one building over. “If he’s guilty, he should be on it. Simple as that.”
Looking for answers in the law
Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi never planned to tell anybody the truth.
At 13, crippled by shame, he vowed to keep silent about the abuse he endured at the hands of the Rev. Edward Graff, a priest at his parochial school in Berks County, Pennsylvania. The details – how Graff used McDonald’s, beer and pornography to befriend him before raping him in the shower one day in 1984 – haunted Rozzi.
According to law enforcement officials, Graff was transferred to a diocese in Texas in 1993. In 2002, he was arrested for allegedly sexually abusing a 15year-old boy. He died that year while in custody awaiting trial.
When another of Graff ’s victims killed himself in March 2009, Rozzi knew he had to come forward. “I thought I could heal myself,” he said. “But unfortunately that’s not how it works.”
A member of the state Legislature since 2013, Rozzi pushed for reform even before the Pennsylvania attorney general released a grand jury investigation in August 2018 that revealed 301 priests who had allegedly abused more than 1,000 children dating to the 1940s. The investigation included only six of the state’s eight dioceses. Many of those priests had never before been identified.
Rozzi, 48, is working on statute of limitation reform legislation that has passed the Pennsylvania House and is awaiting action in the Senate. Meanwhile, attorneys general in 21 other states have launched official investigations into the Catholic Church.
‘Don’t go outside without me’
Roger Rudolf was first named in the Indianapolis Archdiocese’s list of credibly accused priests in October 2018. He is believed to have one victim, whom he allegedly abused from 1987 through 1988, according to the archdiocese. He was removed in 2002 and laicized in 2015.
Now he lives in Greenwood, Indiana, in a neighborhood near children, which concerns Jennifer Brissey, 48, whose family moved into the neighborhood about three months ago. After learning about the accusations against Rudolf from a reporter in mid-October, she turned to her 10-year-old son.
“You don’t go outside without me,” she directed him. “I know you’re a big boy, but – ”
“I can knock him out,” he replied. Rudolf could not be reached for comment.
“I thought I could heal myself. ... That’s not how it works.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Mark Rozzi Abuse survivor who has pressed for reforms
No acknowledgment of past
Despite some admissions and settling with victims across the country, many of the priests who spoke to the USA TODAY Network took a dismissive attitude when asked about the past.
In Oak Harbor, Washington, 90 miles north of Seattle, Barry Ashwell, 76, lives in a retirement community. Ashwell was a priest in the Seattle Archdiocese for more than 30 years and was put on administrative leave in 2001, a few years after his former foster son alleged Ashwell had abused him in the 1970s. That victim settled with the church in 1996. In 2005, three other men also accused Ashwell of abusing them in the ’70s.
Now hobbled by dialysis, Ashwell said he had no opinion on statute of limitation reform, or if his neighbors should be aware of his past. “I’m done with this,” he said.
Asked if he thought victims would have the same response – that they were “done with this” – Ashwell sneered, “I’ve had it with ‘victims.’ ”
Asked if he was guilty of sexually abusing multiple children, Ashwell repeatedly said, “they couldn’t prove anything.”
‘People need to know’
In other cases, victims fought for years to make information public – and they want it to stay that way.
In Santa Barbara, California, Robert Van Handel was a Franciscan monk who founded a local boys choir and worked as principal of St. Anthony’s Seminary. But at the same time he was building up goodwill in the community, Van Handel was abusing numerous boys for nearly 20 years, which he detailed in a 27-page sexual autobiography he wrote for a therapist that was later published by the Los Angeles Times. In it, Van Handel wrote, “there is something about me that is happier when accompanied by a small boy … perhaps besides the sexual element, the child in me wants a playmate.”
Two of his victims were brothers Damian and Bob Eckert, who were molested multiple times from 1978 through 1982. The brothers didn’t know until years later that the other one had suffered, too.
In 2003, the Eckerts filed a civil suit against the Franciscans with a group of 23 other victims. Almost 10 years earlier, in 1994, Van Handel had pleaded guilty to one count of lewd and lascivious behavior with a choirboy and went to prison. Ron Zonen, who prosecuted Van Handel, recalls identifying multiple victims, most of whom could not press charges because the statute of limitations had expired. Upon release in 1998, Van Handel was required to register as a sex offender.
Investigators contacted Damian Eckert during the 1994 trial. Tormented by his past, Damian Eckert had spent years struggling with booze, flying into fits of rage. He couldn’t confront his abuser. He declined to participate.
But when the sex abuse scandal exploded into public view in Boston in 2002, Bob Eckert felt it was time to do something. He prodded his brother to at least speak with an attorney and go to counseling.
“Some of the other survivors, they were just terrified,” Bob Eckert, a former Marine, recalls. “I felt like it was up to me. … I was willing to talk because I was pissed. But what really made it easier is that I was battling for my brother.”
In 2006, 25 plaintiffs, including the Eckerts, settled with the Franciscans. They received a monetary settlement and, after a long legal battle that went to the California Supreme Court, got the church to release thousands of documents that proved church superiors knew about Van Handel and didn’t do anything. It felt like a sliver of justice after years of sickening trauma.
That’s why the brothers were surprised to hear Van Handel, 72, now lives outside Portland, Oregon, where he’s no longer on the public sex offender registry.
A resident at Courtyard Fountains, a senior living center, Van Handel is in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s, according to his sister, Sandra Suran. The Eckerts were relieved to hear that because of his physical state, Van Handel likely can’t befriend families with children and earn their trust. But they still think he should be on the public registry.
“This sets a precedent for other priests, who are younger or aren’t sick, and they can get involved with children again,” Bob Eckert said. “It just makes me sick.”
The brothers are also adamant that statute of limitation laws across the country need to be reworked or dismissed altogether. Darkness consumes victims for too long, Bob Eckert said: “Let’s get all this information out there. Let’s keep it in the light.”
This story was written by Lindsay Schnell. It was reported by Schnell, Rachel Axon, Carley Bonk, Michael Braun, Matt Brannon, Chase Hunter B., Bree Burkitt, Brittany Carloni, Trish Choate, Max Cohen, Alia Dastagir, Marco Della Cava, Dan Horn, Shelby Fleig, Isaac Fornarola, Bethany Freudenthal, Alan Gomez, Grace Hauck, Nora Hertel, Rick Jervis, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Harrison Keegan, Matt Mencarini, Jorge Ortiz, Kelly Powers, Alexandria Rodriguez, Sam Ruland, Jeffrey Schweers, Nora Shelly, Noel Smith, Lamaur Stancil, Zach Tuggle, Tyler Vazquez, Jasmine Vaughn-Hall, Rose Velazquez, James Ward, Colin Warren-Hicks, Elizabeth Weise and Brad Zinn.