Bellarmine Preparatory School, a Tacoma institution since 1928, turned a harsh but necessary spotlight on itself last Friday when it shared information on 23 disgraced Catholic priests and non-ordained brothers previously assigned to the Bellarmine community. All were “credibly accused” of sexual abuse at some point in their Jesuit careers.
Publicly identifying these alleged offenders was the right thing to do. In fact, it was long overdue. Silence and secrecy should no longer be an option. As Bellarmine President Robert Modarelli said in a statement, for too long this scandal has been allowed to “fester unchecked.”
The private school just off South Union Avenue took a lesson from its own Jesuit catechism: Covering up sin only invites more of it.
To date, there is no information tying these men to crimes in the Bellarmine community, and Modarelli says no victims had come forward as of Thursday. It’s unclear how many of the men worked on campus versus serving in other local Jesuit ministries, but all lived within proximity of thousands of area children.
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The Catholic priest scandal, in which children were vulnerable to abusers at parishes and in other limited settings, was bad enough. That so many kids were exposed to potentially predatory teachers with whom they had contact at school every day is even more alarming.
Modarelli pointed out that most of the men were assigned to Bellarmine decades ago. Indeed, the list reaches back to the early 1930s. It paints a picture of more than 70 years of abuse and was prompted by last summer’s Pennsylvania report, which uncovered clergy abuse affecting more than 1,000 children.
Bellarmine obtained its names from Jesuits West Province, an organization formed in 2017 that oversees Jesuit institutions in Washington, Oregon and California. Jesuits West has a master list of 111 of credibly accused individuals, many of whom were sent to rural Alaska native villages.
One of the more notorious offenders was Father James Poole who allegedly abused numerous young girls in Alaska before his Bellarmine assignment, which began in 1988 and ended in 2003. Court records indicate his victims were as young as seven years old.
It’s unnerving to know that Poole subsequently spent 15 years in the Bellarmine community. (He’s the most recent name on the local list.)
All of the priests and brothers on the list are dead or presumed dead, but victims of these once-trusted individuals may still be alive. And because the pain of childhood sexual abuse never goes away, there’s a chance survivors could come forward.
In 2003 CBS News obtained a confidential 1962 Vatican document known as “crimen sollicitationis.” It called for absolute secrecy on sex abuse cases including those involving pedophilia. Violation of the rule resulted in automatic excommunication. The edict was valid until 2001.
The church’s attempt to protect itself from negative publicity made it complicit in the crimes, and the coverup has been costly. Massive settlements have cost the church billions. In 2005 the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane filed for bankruptcy when liabilities went well over $80 million.
For 90 years Bellarmine Prep has sustained a reputation for excellence in our community; it has produced thousands of service-minded citizens, but sadly, it wasn’t able to escape the decades-long scandal that’s rocked the Catholic Church worldwide. Today, the school has safeguards including background checks and regular employee and student training on how to detect and report abuse.
Other faith communities should follow the Jesuits’ lead by posting the names of adults who’ve had credible allegations of abuse. Trust is only earned back, and reconciliation only possible, through accountability.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, transformation begins with confession: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” It isn’t a refrain uttered for God’s benefit, but for the sinner’s. It’s taken from a principle found in the physical world: Sunlight is the best disinfectant.