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Sunday, September 1, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Zero tolerance, or forgiveness of sins

Seattle Times staff reporters

Nearly 25 years later, they can't agree how dark the cabin was.

Patrick D'Amelio remembers it being pitch black, the kind of dark you get when you pull the sleeping bag over your head and close your eyes tight. The Very Rev. David Jaeger remembers the dim glow of moonlight peeking through the open window.

Even haunting memories come in versions.

And what D'Amelio remembers as a shameful sexual assault at the hands of a priest he idolized, Jaeger remembers as a misguided massage that "crossed a boundary."

But both agree on this: Whatever happened that night at the Seattle Archdiocese's Camp Don Bosco in 1978 has profoundly affected their lives. D'Amelio, 37, felt betrayed and questioned his own dreams of the priesthood. And now Jaeger, a popular cleric who has risen through the ranks of the Seattle Archdiocese, may lose his ministry.

Their stories — painful and intimate — shed light on the moral and political dilemma confronting the Roman Catholic Church as it is rocked by a massive sex-abuse scandal. In scores of similar cases across the nation, church officials are negotiating a tricky line between forgiveness for penitent priests and justice for their victims.

Jaeger, 59, is on administrative leave and faces possible ouster under a "zero-tolerance" policy proposed by U.S. Catholic bishops in June. The Vatican is reviewing the proposal, which requires dismissal of priests who have molested even one child one time.

Close to 300 priests across the nation have resigned or been removed from ministry since January, when now-defrocked priest John Geoghan of Boston was accused of abusing more than 130 victims spanning some 30 years.

Reports of abuse soon spread to the West Coast, along with news that church officials commonly knew about problem priests but took no serious action.

In the Puget Sound area, the Revs. John Cornelius and Dennis Champagne, both popular priests, resigned earlier this year amid allegations of past sexual abuse.

But as notorious as cases such as Geoghan's are, their egregiousness makes them easier for the church to deal with. More complicated are cases like those of Jaeger — a well-liked priest who, according to himself and his therapists, was damaged by a sexually repressive church culture, erred during an isolated time period, received intensive treatment and poses no further danger to children.

"The issue is whether or not someone has any likelihood of re-offense," says Jaeger, who says he would appeal all the way to the Vatican to keep his ministry. "If I'm not a danger to parishioners — which I'm not — then that's the issue."

But D'Amelio, the victim of Jaeger's long-ago offense, believes zero-tolerance is the only way for the church to restore lost credibility after decades of covering up abuse. Bishops, priests and victims have kept dangerous secrets for too long, and at too great a cost, he says.

D'Amelio serves now as head of the archdiocese's Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) and says the church — which he still loves — needs to realize that even one instance of abuse can devastate.

"There's an undertone to what Jaeger said, that 'What I did wasn't that bad,' " D'Amelio says. "What I'm saying is that it was that bad."

Lonely in the seminary

David Jaeger had wanted to be a priest since he was 5, when he first stepped inside St. Benedict's Church in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood. As a young boy, he built an altar in his bedroom and played at celebrating the Eucharist. Bedsheets were his vestments, Necco wafers the communion hosts.

His dream didn't waver with the years. In 1958, his parents reluctantly enrolled the 15-year-old sophomore at St. Edward's Seminary in Kenmore.

Peter Jaeger, a successful building contractor, wanted his only son to take over his business. Lorrayne Jaeger wanted David to experience life. His freshman classmates at Blanchet, a Catholic high school in North Seattle, shuddered at the demands of priesthood.

"Other guys would say: 'How could you want to go to the seminary? There's no girls,' " Jaeger remembers. "I got along with girls just fine. I just wasn't interested in dating, so it wasn't an obstacle."

Homosexuality was a seldom-used and shameful word in those days, one barely whispered at St. Edward's. Jaeger now considers himself an abstinent homosexual. But as a teenager, he attributed his lack of interest in the opposite sex to his passion for the priesthood. He was eager to live an exemplary, and thus celibate, life.

He joined 250 other boys and young men at St. Edward's. The seminary was surrounded by 360 acres of lush woodland on the northeast shore of Lake Washington. The boys hiked and swam, played football on the grassy fields and staged theater productions.

Eager as he was to be there, Jaeger soon found the place lonely and confining.

The Sulpician priests who ran it isolated students from the outside. Secular magazines and newspapers were limited. "Grand silence" was observed from evening until breakfast, the better to hear God. Calling home was allowed only for good reason.

Also forbidden were "particular friendships" — especially close relationships between boys that were "to be avoided because there was a fear that they could lead to a sexual relationship," said Father Ronald Witherup, provincial of the U.S. province of the Society of St. Sulpice. Students were encouraged to have a wide circle of less-intimate friends.

Classroom discussions of sex were limited to biblical references to sin and to teaching the norms of the church.

"The spiritual aspects (of sex) were discussed, but they didn't go into the physical aspects," says Lawrence Frownfelter, a retired teacher in Chewelah, Stevens County, who graduated from St. Edward's in 1958.

That repressive system "caused all kinds of wreckage," says the Rev. Christopher Coyne, an instructor at St. John's Seminary near Boston. "You're basically dealing with people who, when they leave seminary, are adolescents in terms of development."

Clergy scandals in recent years have prompted an intense debate among Catholics about what causes priests to become sexually abusive. Progressives, fighting for an open church that ordains women and allows priests to marry, blame a rigid, repressive seminary system and the demands of celibacy. Conservative traditionalists sometimes blame homosexuality itself, and worry that a gay subculture is ruining the priesthood.

Pope John Paul II in 1992 ordered seminaries to include more forthright discussions of sexuality. And the majority of priests who graduated from the old seminary system did not become abusers.

But that debate came years after Jaeger attended St. Edward's, and after he offered massages to young campers in what he says was a misguided attempt at intimacy. He had been taught that sex was "wrong, and only to be discussed with your confessor."

Jaeger, who was ordained in 1969, went on to make a name as a progressive who participated in anti-nuclear protests and counseled prison inmates. His values made him a favorite of the liberal Rev. Raymond Hunthausen, Seattle's archbishop from 1976 to 1991. Hunthausen made Jaeger director of the archdiocese's CYO, then director of seminarians and head of the AIDS Ministry.

The night everything changed

Patrick D'Amelio was thrilled the first time he met Father Jaeger. Here was everything the young boy wanted to be: a priest, and more specifically, a priest who worked with the CYO.

The youngest of 10 children in a close Seattle family, Catholicism and CYO camp were foremost in D'Amelio's childhood. While other boys collected baseball cards, he compiled a scrapbook of the pope's ministry and collected statues of saints. His favorite was Don Bosco, patron saint of youth.

His parents sent him to Camp Don Bosco, in the Cascade foothills east of Bellevue, every summer starting at age 8. There, under the Douglas firs, seated around a campfire, D'Amelio felt at ease talking about his faith.

In 1978, the 13-year-old was spending his fifth summer at camp. Jaeger, 35 years old and nine years into his priesthood, was chaplain.

One night, Jaeger entered D'Amelio's eight-bunk cabin. The chaplain had bedtime duty, which meant settling restless campers down for sleep. Some counselors told stories to quiet the boys. Some sang songs.

Jaeger offered massages.

D'Amelio doesn't remember being asked if he wanted a massage. But it hardly matters. "I doubt I would've said no to anything he asked," D'Amelio says. "He was larger than life for me."

But as he felt the priest's hands rubbing his legs and back, his buttocks, then moving under the leg bands of his underwear, the boy became confused and terrified.

What is he doing? I want him to stop.

He says the priest brushed against his genitals and touched his rectum. He was aroused — and ashamed.

I want him to go further. I'm going to be in trouble.

He doesn't remember how long the touching went on. It could have been a few minutes. "It felt like forever."

Then the priest suddenly stopped, said a quiet "good night," and left the cabin.

D'Amelio didn't tell anyone about that night for 10 years. But his mother says he seemed troubled as soon as he came home from camp.

His bubbly, open personality had changed. "He was quiet," Eileen D'Amelio says. "He would have this faraway look."

Patrick D'Amelio was going through puberty at the time, and grappling with the possibility that he was homosexual — something the church told him was a sin.

Now he wondered if Father Jaeger had been drawn to him because of that. Or, he fretted, was that the night that made him gay?

D'Amelio's faith was shaken but not shattered. He later enrolled at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. During summers at home, he worked as a CYO camp counselor.

He occasionally ran into Father Jaeger when the priest would say Mass at a camp, or when Jaeger, as vocations director for the Seattle archdiocese, would visit seminarians studying at Catholic University.

The priest usually remembered D'Amelio's name and would greet him with a casual "hello." D'Amelio even visited Jaeger in his Seattle office once to talk about his own interest in the priesthood.

Each meeting brought back memories of that dark cabin.

'Too close to the edge'

Jaeger says he doesn't recall how many boys he massaged that summer. Eight. Maybe 10. He says he doesn't recall how long the massages lasted. Not long.

"Your job is getting people quieted down and resting and not talking," Jaeger says. "I would say 'Would anybody like a massage?' and if anybody said yes, I would."

But looking back, he says he must have convinced himself that touching a child was a safe outlet for years of repressed sexual impulses, a way he could be intimate within the confines of celibacy and without the complications of an adult relationship.

"Never really having touched much in a caring way, this was something I could do that would not get carried away, because I was sure I would not let it get carried away," he says. "It would not become sexual."

Jaeger says he touched the boys under their underwear only if they seemed OK with it. "A massage feels better direct than through material — that's what I was thinking," he says.

Whether he was rationalizing or, as a psychologist would later declare, sexually naïve, Jaeger says he believed then that the massages were harmless.

"I couldn't have known the experience of a 13-year-old boy because my adolescence was completely asexual," he says. "If I brushed against the genitals, it was not deliberate, and I don't remember it. That would have been across the line I had set. It meant a lot to me that at least I had a line, at least I had a conscience, you know, even though it was functioning poorly and was poorly informed."

After a second night of giving back rubs, Jaeger heard some boys talking about "Father Jaeger's massages." It scared him. He told himself he had done nothing wrong, but was worried what parents would think.

"I looked at myself and said, 'What is a 35-year-old man doing giving a massage to a kid, period? How imprudent! How too close to the edge.' "

He vowed never to touch a young boy, or anyone else, again.

Archdiocesan spokesman Bill Gallant has confirmed that a second boy also complained about Jaeger's behavior, but said he did not know the details. Jaeger says he was never told of that complaint.

In a report years later to Hunthausen, psychologist Richard Peterson, a state-certified sexual-offender-treatment provider, would conclude:

"The most compelling framework in which to understand Father Jaeger's sexualized contact with children in 1978 is that he was a sexually naïve, sexually repressed individual who became aroused by the physical contact he had with minor males. Not understanding his intense feelings, having few coping skills to deal with these feelings, and in an environment which he saw as encouraging repression and encouraging secrecy regarding sexual feelings, Father Jaeger attempted to explore his feelings in a way which he felt would not injure others nor be discovered."

Zero tolerance debated

The Most Rev. George Thomas, Auxiliary Bishop of Seattle, was involved in the archdiocese's earliest attempts to deal with clergy sexual abuse under Hunthausen. He now oversees a special-cases committee that investigates allegations.

Thomas, like many church officials, including current Archbishop Alex Brunett, worries that the bishops' zero-tolerance remedy is a one-size-fits-all punishment for cases that can vary widely.

"The concern is about ex post facto judgment of cases that are 20 or 30 or 40 years old, where people have been rehabilitated and suddenly they're faced with removal from the priesthood," he says.

Some jurisdictions, including the Archdiocese of Chicago, began stripping problem priests of their ministries right after the June bishops' conference. Others, like the Seattle Archdiocese, are waiting for Vatican approval before enacting the strict policy.

Even some of the church's fiercest critics dislike zero-tolerance, saying it is a knee-jerk response to public pressure but doesn't get to the core of the issue.

"Up until recently, (church leaders) denied that (clergy abuse) was a problem. They've said it was just a few bad apples," says Richard Sipe, a priest turned psychotherapist. "Now they're willing to throw some good reformed men to the wolves in order to save themselves, and unwilling to enter into a dialogue about the whole sexual agenda of the church."

Sipe, who spent years studying clergy sexual abuse, estimates 6 percent of all clergy have sexually abused minors. Other figures go as low as 2 percent, but no definitive studies have been done, in part because of the church's refusal to open their secret archives.

But victims and their advocates don't think zero-tolerance goes far enough. It punishes problem priests, but not the bishops who shuffled them between parishes to cover up their abuse. In many cases, the church concealed criminal acts for years, until statutes of limitations had expired and victims had no redress.

Nor does the proposed policy promise a new culture of healthy sexuality and open discussion within the church, critics say.

"For years and years they say the same words over and over, ... but we don't see changes in behavior," says David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests. "We need to see concrete action."

D'Amelio echoes those frustrations about church culture:

"We're comfortable denying priesthood for a variety of reasons to women, married people, openly gay people," he says. "Now we're suddenly going to be up in arms because we are going to deny priesthood to people who have molested children?"

The archdiocese finds out

In the summer of 1988, Patrick D'Amelio was 22 and took a job at Camp Don Bosco. He sat with other camp staffers on the floor of Thunderbird Lodge, listening to a therapist lecture on appropriate contact with children. "Draw a picture of an experience when you were touched as a child and it felt good," the therapist told the group. D'Amelio drew a picture of his mother hugging him.

"Now, if you can remember a time when you were touched and it felt uncomfortable, draw that."

D'Amelio froze. His eyes filled with tears and he left the room.

Later that day, for the first time, he confided to a supervisor what had happened that night 10 years earlier. The supervisor reported it to the archdiocese.

That sparked a back-and-forth between D'Amelio and the church that ended, a year later, with an undisclosed financial settlement.

D'Amelio struggled with shame — why hadn't he told Father Jaeger to stop that night? — and with torn loyalty — was he betraying his church and his faith?

After keeping his secret for so long, he turned to his family for advice. "I felt so guilty," Eileen D'Amelio said. "I felt like I delivered him there — to camp."

D'Amelio finally got a lawyer to negotiate with the church. Depressed and confused, he began to see a counselor. He dropped out of college and decided not to pursue the priesthood at that time.

"The primary damage is about the betrayal of the trust of the relationship," says the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, head of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, a national organization based in Seattle. "The fact that this kid was considering a vocation in the priesthood — developmentally, any priest is going to have a significant role in his life."

'I had harmed a child'

Jaeger sat in Archbishop Hunthausen's office, stunned that he was accused of molesting a camper years before. "It's some kind of plot," he thought.

His paranoia was not without foundation. The progressive politics that had made Jaeger a favorite with Hunthausen had earned him detractors in conservative corners of the church.

Now Jaeger searched his memory. He remembered the D'Amelio boy, but did not think he had given him a massage. And he thought he had caught himself before any of his massages crossed a line. Only under questioning by a therapist, ordered by Hunthausen, did Jaeger recognize he had done something wrong. The therapist asked about his sexual history, the seminary, the camps, the massages. "When she was done, she said, 'More than likely it happened,' " Jaeger says.

Hunthausen sent Jaeger into a local sex-offenders treatment program, then to Southdown Treatment Center in Ontario, Canada, a counseling center for priests with problems ranging from depression and alcoholism to sexual deviancy.

It was a revelation to hear priests talk openly about anger, intimacy and sexuality.

"I felt I had failed because I had harmed a child," he says. "Mostly that. But I also felt: 'How could I get to 45 years of age and not know more about my sexuality?' "

Richard Gilmartin, a Southdown psychologist, said in an evaluation that Jaeger "was highly matured in the role of priest," but, because he became religious very early in life, his sexuality was poorly integrated. "He 'held to the rules' by rigidly holding in check both his sexual and anger feelings." After six months of treatment, Gilmartin assured the archdiocese that Jaeger was safe to return to ministry on condition he continue therapy and not be alone with minors.

Jaeger was eager to comply. "I was so ignorant, I was in denial," he says. "But I do know I would never want to have sexual interaction with a kid, or to harm a kid."

Priest deemed not a danger

Jaeger returned to an archdiocese in transition. He was assigned to run the church's newly formed AIDS Ministry and an outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics. Jaeger's emerging understanding of his own sexuality gave him empathy for people trying to reconcile sexuality and religion.

At the same time, reports of abuse by local clergy — fellow priests Paul Conn and James McGreal were identified as serial pedophiles — prompted stricter policies in the archdiocese. Hunthausen, who had dealt inconsistently with problem priests, was moved by new evidence showing the long-term harm suffered by victims. He rooted through old case files and formed a committee that included lay therapists and law-enforcement officials to re-examine allegations.

Although Jaeger had been deemed fit to return to the ministry, his treatment at Southdown didn't meet the standards of the committee. He was ordered to counseling through a state-certified sexual-offender-treatment provider. An off-duty state parole officer was hired to monitor him. He was given lie-detector tests and forensic tests which measure a person's arousal when shown suggestive pictures of minors.

Jaeger passed every test. Repeated polygraphs showed he had not had sexual contact with a minor since the events at Camp Don Bosco.

In 1996, his counselor, Richard Peterson, wrote: "There has to be a time to lay to rest suspicions that an individual will act in a sexually deviant fashion. I think 17 years without sexual misconduct with a minor male is more than sufficient to conclude that Father Jaeger is not a danger to minor males."

Reconciling the past

In the summer of 1994, D'Amelio walked across a grassy field toward the wooded cabin that had held the power to haunt for 15 years. He was 28 now, and assigned to Camp Bosco by CYO.

He sat alone on the wood floor of the empty cabin. For an hour he prayed, cried, sang old camp songs. He was "recognizing what happened was about me and Jaeger, and not the whole camp."

D'Amelio had moved back to Seattle from Washington, D.C., earlier that year. A friend urged him to renew his connection with CYO. Despite the memories, D'Amelio took the job, thinking it was time to bring his life full circle.

He was given an office on the third floor of the Seattle Archdiocese's chancery. Jaeger, who was then directing the AIDS Ministry, was one floor below. Church officials offered to move the priest to make D'Amelio more comfortable. Instead, D'Amelio contacted Jaeger, saying it was time to talk.

They met at a coffee shop near the chancery. They discussed that night in 1978, but not the exact details. Jaeger apologized.

"I can imagine now, easily, that he was confused, betrayed, embarrassed," Jaeger says. "That he felt like he was responsible, and all because of the actions of a priest. I'm mortified at having caused that distress and confusion, and having disappointed him in what he had a right to expect from an adult priest."

They later wrote each other, expressing gratitude for the talk. When they met in the hallways after that, they would exchange a courteous "How are you?"

They considered themselves reconciled.

Ministry in jeopardy

In June, at a retreat at Ocean Shores, Brunett briefed a conference room full of priests on the proposed zero-tolerance policy.

The room buzzed. Hands shot up. A consensus emerged that the policy wouldn't stand up to canon law. In the middle of the room, Jaeger paled. He realized his ministry was in jeopardy.

Days later, he received a phone call from a Seattle Times reporter. The newspaper was about to name him as a priest whose past actions could cost him his ministry and wanted his comment.

Jaeger called his mother to warn her.

After the news broke, Jaeger was overwhelmed by support. In a sunlight-filled chapel on the eastern shore of Lake Washington, Jaeger celebrated Mass for the elderly nuns of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.

They lined up one by one after the service to shake his hand. Letters filled a big cardboard box — scribbled notes of sympathy, typed missives espousing "mercy" for sinners, and this note from the state reformatory at Monroe: "With Father Jaeger's help I have come to see there is still a place for me in this world."

Jaeger says the letters are testament to the power of forgiveness, and give him the strength to fight to keep his ministry.

"I have so much left to give," he says. "I think you can be a better priest for having been through this."

A victim's frustration

D'Amelio was at Camp Don Bosco in June when the news about Jaeger broke. He listened in frustration as people debated the story: A dedicated priest had admitted to massaging the backs, legs and buttocks of some boys years earlier. He denied sexual intent or contact. Supporters were lining up in the priest's defense: Surely his actions weren't serious enough to warrant dismissal?

D'Amelio's frustration had been sparked six months earlier, with the first reports revealing the extent of the clergy sex-abuse scandal.

Brunett ran newspaper ads restating that the Seattle archdiocese had implemented strong policies against abuse in the 1980s, and promising that even more would be done.

But the archbishop declined to say how many children had been abused, and by how many priests, or what had happened to many of those priests.

D'Amelio felt forgotten.

"Being counted is being acknowledged," he says.

Now he felt that Jaeger was publicly minimizing what he'd done to him as a young boy. D'Amelio felt betrayed anew, as if the apology from Jaeger had been a lie.

So, as hundreds of sex-abuse victims across the country have done since the clergy scandal broke in January, D'Amelio picked up the phone and called the newspaper.

He, too, had a story to tell.

Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com.

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