WGN Films presents “Sanctuary of Sin,” a series looking at a little-known religious order and the role it played in the Catholic church sex abuse crisis. This is Part 2 of 3.
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 in 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 is 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.
WGN Films Presents ‘Sanctuary of Sin’
Part 1: Clergy sex abuse survivor shares story
Part 2: How a religious order became a sanctuary for pedophile priests
Part 3: Changes proposed for Servants of the Paraclete
WGN Investigates 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.
Wednesday on the WGN News at Nine, in part three of the three-part “Sanctuary of Sin” series, we look at the efforts by activists and others working to change how the Servants of the Paraclete and the church deal with allegations of clerical sexual abuse.