Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Church shielded abusive priest

Top clergymen in the Diocese of Venice knew for more than a decade that one of their priests had an attraction to teen-age boys.

But they did nothing to keep Father Edward McLoughlin away from the children in his parish, even in the face of sure signs he was not controlling his urges.

In 1984, just a year after McLoughlin spent six months in a treatment center trying to purge himself of an overattachment to adolescent boys, Bishop John Nevins wrote McLoughlin a letter naming him “Director of Scouting” for the diocese, “in recognition of the interest and experience in working with youth which you have shown in the past.”

In 1989, church officials handled a complaint about McLoughlin’s behavior around boys by shipping the priest to a parish out of the country. They let him back two years later.

In 1995, when a St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church altar boy accused McLoughlin of molesting him, church leaders did not turn McLoughlin over to police but let him flee the parish in the night.

They still won’t say where McLoughlin went. Records show the diocese paid for his flight from Miami to the Caribbean in November 1995 and that he was in Ireland by January 1996. In the first two years after he left, the diocese paid McLoughlin about $50,000 toward a new life in Ireland, including living expenses and college tuition.

Church officials had help assisting their priest.

The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office and the 20th Circuit state attorney’s office botched the McLoughlin case so badly that the lead investigator believes there was a conspiracy to protect the Catholic Church.

Though he confessed in a 1997 letter to the diocese, McLoughlin was never interrogated by sheriff’s detectives, a Herald-Tribune investigation has revealed. John Columbia, a former Charlotte detective who investigated McLoughlin for nearly two months, never talked to teachers or parish parents who might have helped to build a case against McLoughlin.

Columbia, who is still a law enforcement officer in Southwest Florida, said that’s because his investigation, including his attempt to seize church documents in 1997, was repeatedly stymied by prosecutors under State Attorney Joe D’Alessandro.

“I would have loved to have made a case and locked that guy up,” said Columbia, himself a Catholic and a former member of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Port Charlotte. “I never got the cooperation that this really deserved.”

When he closed the case June 20, 1997, Columbia reported that he was dropping it on the advice of a prosecutor who told him McLoughlin couldn’t be touched because the statute of limitations had expired.

But under Florida law, the state had a minimum of two more years to pursue charges. It’s even possible that McLoughlin could have been charged as late as January.

“It’s frustrating because it looks like a pedophile got away who could have been prosecuted,” said Dan Feinberg, the head of Charlotte County’s branch of the state attorney’s office, after reviewing Columbia’s file two weeks ago.

Feinberg, who worked with Columbia in the late 1990s, said he couldn’t explain why the case was not pursued. Columbia’s 1997 file notes that it was Feinberg, then an assistant state attorney, who got him to drop his case.

“I was either provided incorrect information, or I never made that statement (about the statute of limitations),” Feinberg said.

The failure to put McLoughlin behind bars didn’t surprise an attorney who’s spent much of his career representing the victims of clergy sex abuse.

“My experience has been that the influence of the church has kept a lot of investigations from coming to a logical conclusion,” said Sheldon Stevens, the Merritt Island attorney who negotiated a $500,000 settlement for McLoughlin’s victim in 1999.

“I’ve been told by police officers that there’s no need to investigate the church because they can handle their own investigation.”

The men who managed McLoughlin’s problems were some of the most powerful in the diocese – Nevins, Chancellor Jerome Carosella, Vicar Thomas Anglim and Pastor Nick McLoughlin, Edward’s older brother.

All have refused repeated requests for interviews, saying they want to leave the past behind.

Edward McLoughlin, now working in the production department of Hewlett-Packard in Dublin, Ireland, did not return repeated phone calls or respond to an e-mail request for comment.

“The Diocese of Venice addressed those situations in the past to their conclusion and Edward McLoughlin is no longer a priest,” diocese spokeswoman Gail McGrath said in a written statement. The statement said “the diocese has nothing further to add.”

Attorney Stevens believes that some of the clergymen who want to avoid talking about McLoughlin may have broken a state law that requires allegations of sexual abuse to be reported to proper authorities.

Regardless, the credibility of the local Catholic hierarchy has been called into question. The diocese has spent much of the past few months touting its progressive sex abuse policy, pointing out that Nevins was the first bishop to be voluntarily fingerprinted.

The Herald-Tribune spent two months investigating the Diocese of Venice, local law enforcement agencies and people relevant to the McLoughlin situation.

The investigation included interviews with 15 people and the examination of more than 100 church and law enforcement documents never made public before. Those included confidential memos among the top officials of the diocese, McLoughlin’s personnel and psychological reports, a Sheriff’s Office interview with the victim, diocesan financial records and photocopies of checks from the operating accounts of the Diocese of Venice and St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church.

Click here to read the rest of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune story.