Bishop George Leo Thomas is new to his job in Nevada, but the leader of the Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas is no stranger to guiding his flock through the quagmire of sexual abuse that has plagued the Roman Catholic Church for decades and currently threatens its future.
A grand jury report released this month details accounts of abuse against 1,000 children victimized by 300 clergy members. Pennsylvania’s attorney general told news outlets he has evidence the Vatican knew of the abuse and covered it up.
“Tragically a way of doing business”
In a letter posted in English and Spanish on the Las Vegas Diocese’s website in response to the disclosures that threaten to rob even the most devout of their faith, Bishop Thomas writes “This willful negligence further victimized innocent and vulnerable children and youth not only in Pennsylvania, but in dioceses across the land.”
“These revelations have been the cause of embarrassment and disbelief for all of us in the Church,” Thomas admits, adding the report “has unleashed a torrent of righteous anger and outrage directed at bishops and diocesan officials where these patterns of negligence, denial, and obfuscation were tragically a way of doing business.”
Thomas led the Helena, Montana Diocese from 2004 until being appointed bishop of Las Vegas in 2018. The Helena Diocese was forced into bankruptcy in 2014 as part of a $20 million dollar settlement plan for hundreds of survivors who said the church covered up sexual abuse on the part of clergy members going back 30 to 60 years.
Thomas, who told reporters at the time his initial inclination was to circle the wagons, oversaw the settlement, saying the church needed to accept responsibility instead of “going into … protracted defense mode.”
Thomas says prior to his tenure in Helena, he was called on to help the community deal with allegations of abuse in the Archdiocese of Seattle.
“I was the night chaplain for the jails in Seattle for 13 years,” Thomas notes. “I knew the legal community, the mental health and social workers. I have a very different perspective on abuse.”
Thomas is no apologist for the Catholic Church, which is mired in a renewed furor over systemic sexual abuse revealed in a Pennsylvania grand jury report, as well as a political divide that threatens the future of the the pontiff and the Church.
“Much of the tragedy could have been prevented by eliminating the secrecy and concealment that is at the root of this crisis,” Thomas said in an interview.
In 2015 Thomas agreed to make public the names of offending clergy as part of the settlement between the Helena Diocese and hundreds of victims. But he says the policy was already his standard operating procedure.
In a message to the faithful posted on the Las Vegas Diocese’s website, Thomas notes he’s recommending to the Las Vegas Diocese’s Oversight Review Board “that we publish the names of those priests who have had past credible complaints of sexual abuse against minors.”
What constitutes a “credible complaint” that hasn’t been adjudicated?
“Concrete data, time, place, event. Dates that line up with an assignment. It’s the concrete nature of the complaint. Often times there will be multiple complaints and that lends to the credibility,” says Thomas.
Thomas, who arrived in Las Vegas just months ago, admits he doesn’t know the local diocese’s current transparency policy.
“I will find out. I think in most dioceses they are trending toward the publication,” he says. “Transparency carried us through in Helena. Very early on I said it’s their right to know,” he says, speaking not only of Catholics but also the public. “It was very unpopular, mostly from living relatives of deceased priests who could not defend themselves.”
The Diocese’s Oversight Review Board is a panel whose members are cryptically referred to on the diocese website as a former district attorney, an individual who has served on the Nevada State Board of Nursing, a person who served three years on a federal grand jury, an attorney who does not represent the Diocese of Las Vegas, and a pastor.
“I don’t see why all of those names shouldn’t be known,” Thomas said, who promised to seek the permission of members to disclose their names. A follow up call from the diocese to the Current revealed former Clark County District Attorney David Roger (who initially declined to confirm or deny his involvement to the Current) is the former DA on the board who will provide legal guidance to Thomas as he seeks to impose transparency about alleged offenders. The identities of the other Review Board members remain undisclosed.
“In the Helena diocese, I had a prosecutor. In the Seattle diocese, the King County prosecutor and I were very close friends. I asked to have a deputy district attorney assigned. So this model that I’ve replicated in two dioceses and now a third, goes back to the ‘80s. I feel it adds objectivity and gravitas to the process.”
Nevada has a long history of sexual abuse allegations levied against clergy.
- A priest accused in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report of sexually abusing boys for decades asked to be relocated in 1992 to Nevada, which had one statewide diocese at the time. The request was granted by then-Bishop Daniel Walsh. Father Ernese Paone briefly served in the Reno-Las Vegas Diocese, including a month at St. Anne’s, a parochial elementary school in Las Vegas, according to the report. A statement from the Reno Diocese released this month said Father Paone has since been working for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
- Former Our Lady of Las Vegas pastor Robert Petekiewicz endured a rocky tenure until he was asked to leave, along with the headmaster of the parish’s parochial school. Petekiewicz was accused of financial impropriety, racial discrimination and physically abusing children during his time at Our Lady. Following his departure from Las Vegas, Petekiewicz was accused of having sex decades earlier with a man who says he was a minor at the time. A judge dismissed the case because the statute of limitations had run.
- Former Catholic priest Mark Thomas Roberts was accused in a 2002 civil suit of abusing at least nine youth. In 2003 Roberts pleaded guilty and avoided trial on criminal charges involving the abuse of five boys at his Henderson church. Roberts was removed from probation in 2004 and ordered into treatment at a church-run facility in Missouri.
- Former Fernley priest Thomas J. Cronin entered a settlement after he was accused in a civil suit of assaulting a teen girl in the 1970s while in the Kansas City Diocese, according to court records. Cronin worked at a Reno hospital and several churches. A story in the Reno Gazette Journal at the time noted the leader of a support group for survivors of priest abuse accused the bishop of the Reno Diocese and others of taking part in a “disturbing and deliberate cover-up” of sexual misconduct.
Keeping the Faith
In 2002 the Vatican imposed processes to prevent the sexual exploitation of children.
Now, almost two decades later, the church is being forced to face new allegations, relive old scandals and parry accusations that Pope Francis knew of the abuse and covered it up.
Bishop Thomas admits the abuse scandal is causing a crisis of faith among members.
“It certainly has, though I wouldn’t say there’s a huge groundswell. It’s been so distressing and demoralizing. I have a huge family and they have been saddened and demoralized by what they’ve read. To them, it’s the failure of episcopal leadership. It’s a hard pill to swallow.”
“There’s no exodus from the church. I want people to know this diocese will not be painted with the Pennsylvania brush,” Thomas says. “I’ve raised the ante with zero tolerance and mandatory reporting to law enforcement.”
Marian Russ is a practicing Catholic who still gives weekly to her North Las Vegas parish and contributes to its capital giving fund despite the sex abuse scandal.
“I think it’s really important when we talk about the church it’s more than local or American. It’s the largest charitable organization in the world. We have a food pantry at my local church. We do children’s education. I look at my gifts to the church as attempting to do undo a little bit of the wrong that’s been done.”
But Russ says the scandal has shaken her faith.
“I think it affects everyone of faith in the church,” she says. “It makes you question what you know as a Catholic. You typically have a wonderful relationship with your own Catholic church and to hear our Church has been a party to egregious acts of violence, it makes you question.”
Bishop Thomas says the church’s failure to give credence to accounts of abuse has further victimized survivors.
“Something I said in open court in Helena caused many of the survivors to openly weep. I said Helena victims will be believed and respected.”
Former as well as current Catholics are frustrated by the Church’s prescription for prayer and penance in the face of the sexual abuse scandal.
“I think all Catholics joke it takes a few hundred years for the church to change,” says Russ. “It needs to do a better job of moving quickly. It’s contemplative. The Church is calling for prayer and penance. That’s a time consuming process. Catholics want to see things move quickly.”
“How about actually getting rid of bad apples on the first offense?” suggests a Las Vegan who describes herself as a ‘recovering Catholic.’ “Sex offenders must be registered and their addresses known. They don’t allow pedophiles to live near schools. Why should priests be treated differently?”
Many Catholics say the acts of mortal men and women do nothing to shake their faith in Jesus Christ.
“I don’t follow the diocese. It’s not going to stop me from going to mass and expressing my faith,” says Mary Louise Sloan, a lifelong Catholic with a Masters degree in Practical Theology from the University of San Diego. “I’ve never been able to contribute financially since all this went down. Even though the money goes to missionary priests, I want nothing to do with the diocese or the Bishops’ association. But I can tell you, for every degenerate priest there’s a beautiful human being to offset them.”
Are priests more likely to sexually exploit children than lay people?
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says no.
“We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else,” the organization’s president, Ernie Allen, told Newsweek in 2010, noting the group witnessed abuse in a variety of religious settings.
A 2017 report concludes about 7 percent of clergy had abused young people in the half century between 1950 and 2000. While abuse occurs at similar rates in the general population, four out of five victims of priest abuse are boys.
The report, which studied abuse around the globe, concluded a lack of contact with women led to a higher incidence of abuse among priests.
“Their contact with women in teacher training institutions would have been carefully proscribed and then they were appointed to male-only schools where they were in charge of young boys and adolescents.” the report said of young candidates for the priesthood.
“And they were living in all-male religious communities. They had to make do with a sacralized image of a sexless Virgin Mary. It was a recipe for a psycho-spiritual disaster.”
Some followers believe the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in part responsible for sex abuse scandals.
Ordaining a woman for the priesthood is currently as egregious a transgression as sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, according to church doctrine.
“I break the rules,” says Sloan, who admits she wants to be a priest. “My dream was to go to seminary. I’d be a really great priest. I love God’s people.”
Sloan can be found any given Sunday saying mass (or its feminine permissible equivalent) to seniors who can’t make it to church.
“I go and get the Eucharist from the church and keep it in a sacred place and that’s what I give, but it’s already been consecrated at a mass,” says Sloan, noting only priests can turn the bread into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Other observers suggest expecting celibacy of priests is unrealistic and causes arrested sexual development in young candidates for the priesthood that manifests later in abusive tendencies.
The church’s demand of celibacy is rooted not in spiritual devotion to God and the Virgin Mary but rather in fiscal concern, according to historical sources.
Priests in ancient Biblical times were generally married.
In 580 AD, Pope Pelagius II let priests remain married as long as they retained property for the church and didn’t turn it over to their families.
Pope Gregory the Great, who ruled from 590 to 604, said that all sexual desire is sinful in itself.
Pope Gregory VII proclaimed in 1074 that men who wanted to be ordained must first pledge celibacy and that priests must escape the clutches of their wives.
“The dysfunction has been going on for centuries,” says Sloan, the theologian. “The Church is supposed to be open and truthful and forgiving. Instead, they hire a media person to spin and cover up.”
Bishop Thomas is hoping his tenure proves otherwise for Southern Nevadans.
“The church’s strong suit is pastoral care, mediation and respect,” Bishop Thomas concluded. “Not acrimony and endless legal processes.”