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Suit to Test Sanctity of Confessional; Church Culpability Seen in Molestations

Reprinted from Washington Post

By Paul Duggan, The Washington Post

Nearly two years after a Roman Catholic priest in Prince George’s County admitted molesting three youths, a legal battle has escalated between one of the victims’ families and the Archdiocese of Washington over a claim that the archdiocese bears some responsibility for the assaults.

The family’s lawsuit has raised sensitive questions about the sanctity of the Catholic confessional, the church’s treatment of priests who are found to be pedophiles and whether a judge can force a priest to disclose details of counseling he gave to a troubled colleague.

Attorneys for the family are seeking to show that long before the Rev. Peter M. McCutcheon was arrested and pleaded guilty in 1986, archdiocesan officials “knew or should have known that [he] was a substance abuser, homosexual and active pedophile.” They want to prove that church officials were negligent in allowing him to remain a parish priest.

On Friday, the attorneys sought to have another pastor, the Rev. Paul M. Norton, of St. Mary’s Church in Piscataway, held in contempt of court for refusing to give a full deposition about his counseling of McCutcheon in the early 1980s. The lawyers said they hope to learn whether McCutcheon discussed his pedophilia with the pastor, and whether the information reached higher church officials.

Norton, who holds a doctorate in psychology, refused to give a full deposition seeking to invoke the legal privileges of confidentiality that apply it, psychologist and patient as well as confessor and penitent.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Stanley B. Frosh has ruled that neither privilege applies in Norton’s case, but he declined to hold the priest in contempt Friday.

Although he rejected Norton’s legal argument, Frosh said he would not try to force the priest to act against the dictates of his conscience.

He also warned, though, that he would permit no “stonewalling” by the Archdiocese as the plaintiffs proceed to gather evidence for the trial.

McCutcheon, who was ordained in 1979 and is still a priest, committed the sexual assaults between 1981 and 1985 while serving at St. Peter’s Church in Waldorf and at St. John the Baptist de la Salle Church in Chillum.

He pleaded guilty in December 1986 to molesting the youths and was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge. In January, however, his sentence was reduced to five years’ probation on the condition that he take DepoProvera, a drug that curbs sexual desire, and that he spend at least one year In a church-run treatment center in New Mexico, where he is now.

The lawsuit, filed last September In Montgomery County Circuit Court, seeks $12 million in compensatory and punitive damages from McCutcheon and the archdiocese. The archdiocese has denied any negligence, saying in court pleadings that it was unaware of McCutcheon’s personal problems.

A civil trial is scheduled for November before Frosh.

In the meantime, the family’s attorneys said, they will seek a contempt finding Friday against St. Luke’s Institute in Suitland, a Catholic psychiatric hospital that the plaintiffs say has failed to respond to a subpoena for depositions and documents related to McCutcheon’s treatment there.

McCutcheon, as part of his defense in the lawsuit, has argued that he should not be held responsible for assaulting the teen-agers because He was driven to it by a psychological problem, pedophilia. Because McCutcheon raised the issue of his mental fitness in his defense, Frosh has ruled that the plaintiffs, attorneys must be given access to his medical records.

One of the attorneys, James C. “Beau” Brincefield Jr., said more contempt motions are possible in coming weeks as he seeks depositions from numerous mental health experts and clergymen with whom McCutcheon may have consulted.

Before moving to his current parish in Prince George’s, Norton headed the Archdiocesan Consultation Center in Hyattsville, which offers confidential counseling to members of religious orders. Norton held several counseling sessions with McCutcheon in the early 1980s.

After the suit was filed, McCutcheon was asked in a deposition whether he had ever discussed his pedophilia with another priest under what he considered the sanctity of the confessional. McCutcheon listed several priests’ names, but Norton’s was not among them, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

In a later deposition, however, McCutcheon said that he did consider Norton to be his confessor, the lawyers said. And because McCutcheon will not release Norton from his obligation to remain silent, Norton’s attorney argued, Norton is legally and ethically unable to cooperate with the plaintiffs.

But in a ruling several weeks ago, Frosh put more weight on McCutcheon’s first deposition than his second, and found that no confessor penitent relationship existed. As for the psychologist patient confidentiality privilege, Frosh ruled that the statute does not apply to Norton because, despite his training, he is not a licensed psychologist.

Norton’s attorney, Earl Dudley, told the Judge Friday that regardless of legal rulings, the ethics codes of the priesthood and the American Psychological Association required his client to remain silent. He told Frosh that Norton was “in a position of intolerable conflict.”

Brincefield and the plaintiffs’ other attorney, John Hartnett, asked Frosh to find Norton in contempt Friday and to fine him $100 a day until he agrees to answer questions about McCutcheon.

But Frosh said, “If I were to say today that Father Norton is in contempt of a court of law, I would be visiting upon his a sanction that would require him to be in contempt of his own religious scruples.”

By trying to force Norton to violate his religious principles, the judge said, “I would be violating my own principles.”

In warning the archdiocese against “stonewalling” the plaintiffs, Frosh noted that church officials still have authority over McCutcheon. The judge appeared to indicate that he expects them to make a good faith effort to have McCutcheon release Norton from his obligation to remain silent.

Reprinted from The Washington Post, Sunday, August 28, 1988.

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