Report: Toledo Cops Refused to Probe Priest Abuse

Madeleine Brand talks with Joe Mahr, a writer at The Toledo Blade, about his investigative report alleging the Toledo Police Department refused to arrest or investigate abusive priests for the last 50 years.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Police in Ohio have now been implicated in the priest sex abuse scandal there. The Toledo Blade newspaper just published an investigative report detailing allegations of how police in Toledo refused to arrest or even investigate abusive priests. The paper says for the past 50 years, Toledo police repeatedly, quote, "aided and abetted the diocese in covering up sexual abuse by priests." Police neither confirm nor deny the allegations, but say they do not currently grant special favors to priests. Joe Mahr is one of the reporters who wrote this story. He told me what he and his colleagues turned up.

Mr. JOE MAHR (Toledo Blade): Well, we've got about 10 priests that we're looking at, and they all range from priests who were overtly not arrested or they knew there were allegations to priests that got special treatment in other ways, even recently where there were children's services, which has child case workers where they wouldn't investigate a priest for nearly a year when they thought he might have access to children. So it kind of runs the gamut of favoritism.

BRAND: And your investigation begins in the '50s?

Mr. MAHR: Yeah. We can trace it all the way back to the '50s. It may have happened earlier, but we couldn't trace it any farther back. Probably one of the best examples of the overt policy was the first case in 1958. There was a priest named Fred Garand(ph), and he was at a South Toledo church, and the captain of the detective bureau found out or suspected, I should say, that Father Garand was molesting at least one child in the neighborhood, and this captain of the detectives was so furious at this that he sat up for almost a whole night with his wife contemplating what to do. His wife had said, well, just let it go; the priest is sick. And then he told his wife, `Well, I'm going to cure him with a bullet in his head,' so he left early for his shift the next day and his wife was really scared, called a family friend who intervened and got to the church in time to stop any kind of bloodshed. But when everything was cooled down, there was no police report filed, no investigation. Even the chief of detectives didn't or couldn't do anything.

BRAND: And this was simply because the chief of police was a prominent Catholic in the community?

Mr. MAHR: That's what we believe. That's what officers have told us, yes.

BRAND: But how does that explain the continuation of the policy after he was no longer police chief?

Mr. MAHR: What officers told us is it became ingrained in the culture of the department. This is a department that also had a lot of Catholics on it, like a lot of police forces in the country. This is a Catholic town. There were some officers who were hired as private investigators for the diocese, so they were technically off the clock at the police department and they would look at these cases, and they may confirm a priest is a pedophile, but they wouldn't report it to the police department. They would report it quietly to the diocese, and the diocese would handle it in whatever way they saw fit.

BRAND: And what would that mean? That the priest would be removed or...

Mr. MAHR: Sometimes removed, sometimes sent to treatment center, but never publicized.

BRAND: And never arrested.

Mr. MAHR: Never arrested.

BRAND: But you do say that in at least a couple of instances, priests were arrested, but then their case was handled...

Mr. MAHR: Yes. Later on, as it evolved--and 1984 was the first known arrest in Toledo of a priest for sexual abuse. There was an officer named Bill Gray, and he discovered that a priest was molesting a boy inside a mall rest room, and of course, the policy up to the time had been not to arrest priests, and he decided he wasn't going to do that. Knowing that he would take heat from fellow officers, he arrested the priest anyway, and even after that arrest, the priest was not charged and any record of his arrest was hidden. We can't find any. The only record actually is the record that the police officer kept because he suspected the arrest would be hidden.

BRAND: And who hid it?

Mr. MAHR: That's the thing we don't know. With expungment in Ohio and a lot of states, there are laws that allow court cases to be, quote, unquote, "expunged" or to be sealed. It's supposed to be for first-time offenders, made a mistake, never charged--this way they can have a clean record. But as far as we can tell here, that's what happened in these cases, and of course, by the very nature of it, there's no record of who made the decision to expunge it. It's just you call and ask about the case or try to find it and there's no record.

BRAND: So in what you found, no cases actually went to trial.

Mr. MAHR: There was one case that did go to trial, and that was the case of a Robert Fisher. He ended up getting 30 days, and...

BRAND: Thirty days?

Mr. MAHR: Thirty days, yeah. And...

BRAND: For what?

Mr. MAHR: It was for sexual imposition of a child, and the court records on that, of course, are missing now, too, and we assume expunged. No one knows, of course, because they can't say whether they were expunged. So to know exactly what he did, we don't know. But there was a newspaper article at the time that said that he had repeated sexual acts with a girl; looks like he was fondling a 14-year-old girl on separate incidents.

BRAND: But if these records are being expunged and not making it to trial, that not only implicates the police, it implicates the prosecutor's office.

Mr. MAHR: That's true. That's true. It implicates the whole criminal justice system.

BRAND: And since the sex abuse scandal exploded in the national media, has anything changed?

Mr. MAHR: Police and prosecutors today tell us that they don't show favoritism. They insist that they didn't know to the extent what their predecessors did, and they insist that if it was that way, then it's not that way anymore. And only time will tell.

BRAND: But you're saying that as recently as just a few years ago, it seemed as if law enforcement was dragging its feet in a couple of cases.

Mr. MAHR: That's true. There was an allegation made by a woman of widespread sexual abuse that she reported to the Diocese of Toledo, and the prosecutor's office said it heard a little bit of the allegation and chose not to take action. This woman and other victims' advocates went to the attorney general's office in Ohio two months later, and they sent the case back to the prosecutor's office and Toledo police, and while the Toledo police could not confirm the allegations that this woman had said, they did reopen a murder investigation involving one of the priests that she alleged, and that led to a very high-profile arrest of a priest named Gerald Robinson for murdering a nun in 1980.

BRAND: And I'm just wondering if you could give us one more anecdote, one more example of what you found.

Mr. MAHR: Well, sure. There was a priest whose accusations have received national attention. It's a priest named Dennis Gray--actually an ex-priest. And there was a situation where a police officer who was moonlighting for the diocese was called by the diocese superintendent back in the mid-'80s, called to a prominent Catholic high school here in Toledo, and the diocese said, `Jeez, we suspect this guy is molesting kids.' And the diocese official said, `Listen, we're afraid, you know? If this thing explodes here--the money it's going to cost.' And they asked this officer for advice, and the officer said, `You know, just keep him away from kids.' The officer did not initiate a formal police investigation.

BRAND: And what happened with Father Gray?

Mr. MAHR: Well, Father Gray left the priesthood in 1987. Before he left, the diocese conducted a secret investigation of its own; tried to talk to at least one student. The student told us he was afraid to talk to these priests because he was being molested by a priest. He told his head he talked to a police officer--one I know--and he believed he would have told him what had happened, but at the time he just decided to keep quiet. Father Gray was--he left the priesthood voluntarily, became a probation officer, then he worked in Toledo public schools for several years until Mike Sallah wrote a story about him in 2002, and then he was let go from the district.

BRAND: Joe Mahr is an investigative reporter with the Toledo Blade. We've been talking to him about his story, a 50-year pattern of police covering up sexual abuse by priests in the Toledo Diocese.

Thank you very much, Joe Mahr, for joining us.

Mr. MAHR: Well, thank you.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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