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Sanctuary of Sin: How a religious order became a haven for pedophile priests

  • The compound in rural Missouri has alarmed residents over the years
  • Even lawmakers have struggled to get answers about what goes on inside
  • The order does not disclose the name of the residents on the property

(WGN-TV) — John Bellocchio tells a gut-wrenching story.

Growing up in New Jersey, the Catholic Church played a major role in his community and family life.

“The church was a central aspect, physically, as well as spiritually,” he said.

But everything changed, he alleges in court filings en he was around 13 and volunteering as an altar server at a mass led by Father Theodore McCarrick.

At the time, McCarrick was the Archbishop of Newark and a high-ranking figure in the church.

Bellocchio alleges that McCarrick abused him in the church after mass concluded.

It is not the only time McCarrick has been accused of sexual abuse. He is facing criminal charges in two states and was defrocked by the Vatican for sexual abuse in 2019.

So where did McCarrick end up?

Although he was expelled by the church, McCarrick has been living at a compound owned by the Servants of the Paraclete, a little-known Catholic religious order.

“The average Catholic in the pew on Sunday has no idea that the Servants of the Paraclete exists,” Kevin O’Neill, a professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, said.

The property is located in a rural community in the middle of America.

“Most people have no idea,” David Clohessy, an advocate for survivors of clergy sex abuse, said. “This is where the worst priests in the country are being sent to live.”

An attorney for McCarrick declined to comment.

McCarrick has pleaded not guilty in Massachusetts and has yet to enter a plea in Wisconsin.

Bellocchio’s lawsuit versus McCarrick is pending in New Jersey. In court filings, McCarrick has denied the allegations.

Father Gerald Fitzgerald started a Catholic religious order after a chance encounter with a beggar. It turned out the beggar was a priest in need of help and had nowhere to turn.

So, Father Fitzgerald founded the Servants of the Paraclete in the late 1940s to help fill that void. He established a compound in the New Mexico desert where priests struggling with alcohol abuse or a crisis of faith could be treated.

But he soon encountered clergy with more serious issues.

“Within the first few years, priests begin to show up – not for alcoholism or lack of faith – but for credible accusations against them in terms of sexual abuse,” said Kevin O’Neill, a professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.

Fitzgerald’s facility did not employ therapists or medical professionals. But he did propose a unique solution to the problem, paying $50,000 in 1965 for an island in the Caribbean Sea.

“Part of Fitzgerald’s solution to the problem was to create distance between society and the priest [accused of sexual abuse],” O’Neill said. “So, for those who are irredeemable, completely incorrigible, let’s put them on an island.”

No priests were ever sent there and the island was eventually sold.

Patrick Wall is a former priest who now advocates for clerical sex abuse survivors.

“The official position is priests are celibate and holy and chaste,” he said. “But if we have this island over here, which we’re specifically funding with people’s money in order to isolate these really severe sex offenders, that doesn’t jive with the position. So, that’s why they made him sell it.”

The Servants continued to expand over the years, opening centers across the U.S.

Today, only one known location exists, in the forests of Dittmer, Missouri.

NewsNation affiliate WGN found the property houses six registered sex offenders, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. All are clergy members. But it’s unknown who else resides there.

The Servants do not disclose their residents, despite increasing calls for transparency.

David Clohessy is the former director of the nonprofit Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests.

“At an absolute bare minimum, church officials should say here are the priests who are staying here,” he said.

David Clohessy says he was abused multiple times by his parish priest.

It began when he was age 11 or 12 and a volunteer at the church.

“And to repay me he would take me on out-of-town trips,” he said. “It was always on those trips that he molested me. Always when it was just the two of us. I was just terrorized. I had no idea what was going on or what to do.”

Clohessy later sued the priest but the lawsuit was rejected because the statute of limitations had expired.

It was a crushing blow but nothing like the news Clohessy would soon receive.

“Shortly after that I found out [the priest] had molested three of my brothers,” Clohessy said. “It absolutely just shattered our family.”

One of Clohessy’s brothers who was abused grew up to become a priest. In a terrible twist, the brother was later accused of sexually abusing two people.

“It created an enormous rift in our family that has never been healed,” Clohessy said.

His brother was never charged criminally but is named on a Missouri Diocese list of credibly accused priests, as is Clohessy’s alleged abuser.

After he was accused, Clohessy’s brother lived in Dittmer, Missouri. At a center where some priests accused of sexual misconduct are housed.

The center is run by the Servants of the Paraclete. Clohessy, now an activist for clergy sex abuse victims, has worked to shine a light on the Servants and the order’s role in the Catholic church’s sex abuse crisis.

“I just don’t want this to happen again – to another kid,” Clohessy said.

After learning about the Servants’ property in Dittmer, Missouri state Rep. Robert Sauls introduced legislation to license the facility.

His bill is still pending.

“It’s about keeping communities safe,” Sauls said. “If this is the treatment for sexually deviant behavior, then let’s ensure that these people are getting treatment rather than just housing them.”

Both the Vatican and Servants declined to comment for this story.


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