For a former newspaper religion editor, a Catholic clergy sex abuse case hits close to home

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Last week, I got a news alert from The Oklahoman, my local newspaper and former employer, with a headline that certainly grabbed my attention: “Damning report rips Oklahoma City Archdiocese for poor responses to credible child sexual abuse allegations against priests.”

For anybody paying attention to the latest Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals, the basic storyline probably sounds familiar.

The Oklahoma City Archdiocese is just one of many dioceses nationwide that have produced such reports.

This is the blunt summary from The Oklahoman:

For more than a half-century, Oklahoma City's Catholic Archdiocese responded to reports of child sexual abuse by its priests with bungled internal investigations that masked the problems and often enabled the abuse to continue for years, according to a damning report released Thursday.

"The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City failed to take prompt action despite credible evidence and warning signs of sexual abuse of minors," the McAfee & Taft law firm said in a report commissioned by the Archdiocese that was made public Thursday.

The report identified and named 11 priests in the Archdiocese who had been "credibly accused" of child sexual abuse since 1960. McAfee & Taft made it clear that its investigation is not yet complete.

"There are additional files still under investigation and as those investigations conclude, additional names of priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors will be released as warranted," McAfee & Taft said.

In some respects, that sounds like the same old, same old — but then I got to a part of the story that made my jaw drop.

Mainly because I realized that the coverup alleged had occurred right under my nose — or at least my notepad — when I served as religion editor for The Oklahoman in 2002. You’ll remember that the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal blew up that year amid Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage by the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, later featured in an Oscar-winning movie.

Here’s what caught my eye in The Oklahoman’s recent story:

In a 2002 case that appears to raise deep moral questions, McAfee & Taft reported that the Archdiocese paid the legal tab for Father James Mickus to file a defamation lawsuit against a man who had accused Father Mickus of having sexually abused him when he was a minor.

The agreement to pay the legal fees came despite Father Mickus having already admitted to then-Archbishop Eusebius Beltran and then-Vicar General Edward Weisenburger that he had engaged in sexual behavior with the alleged victim, the law firm reported.

"I thought (the alleged victim) was 18 when this matter happened, but if he says he wasn't yet 18 then I'm not going to dispute it or argue about it," Father Mickus was quoted as telling the archbishop and vicar general in an internal memo they wrote four years after the meeting.

McAfee & Taft reported the defamation lawsuit filed against the alleged victim had a chilling effect on the ability of Archdiocese's Review Board to get to the bottom of the allegations against Father Mickus. Following the advice of his attorney, the alleged victim refused to answer Review Board questions, later telling McAfee & Taft attorneys that he wanted to testify but could not for fear of the pending lawsuit against him.

Why did that case catch my eye?

Because I covered the 2002 meeting at which Beltran told parishioners about the allegation. Here is what I wrote for the June 27, 2002, front page:

ENID - The pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church has been removed from ministry duties amid an allegation that he sexually abused a minor about 20 years ago, Oklahoma City Archbishop Eusebius Beltran said Wednesday night.

Beltran met with about 100 parishioners to inform them he suspended the Rev. James Mickus, who served as their pastor the past nine years. Parishioners choked back tears and consoled each other with hugs during the meeting held at the parish's Leven Center.

Mickus, who recently celebrated 30 years in the priesthood, was removed after a man called the archdiocese's pastoral response telephone hot line, Beltran said.

The hot line was established in May in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church since January.

"We take the allegation very seriously," Beltran said at a special parish meeting. "I assure you we are looking into it, and we're going to resolve this issue.

"I felt that it was important that I could come to your parish to tell you this, so that you wouldn't have gossip... you would have the facts as best as I can tell them."

It’s not difficult — not difficult at all — to see the difference between what the archbishop told the parishioners and what the new report alleges occurred.

Just a few weeks earlier, I had covered the high-profile Dallas meeting of the nation’s bishops — including Beltran — at which a national review board was appointed to monitor the church’s new policy on clergy sexual abuse.

My story noted that a document approved by the bishops contained no measures for disciplining bishops who allowed priests to molest children or moved them from parish to parish.

Seventeen years later, I guess I have a clearer understanding as to why.

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