Sex Abuse Scandal Catches Up with Religious Orders Father A.J. Cote, a Dominican friar, was sued two years ago for allegedly abusing a minor. Depositions in the case reveal the Dominicans operate under a system where warning signs can go undetected and a problem priest can find refuge in new assignments for years.
NPR logo

Sex Abuse Scandal Catches Up with Religious Orders

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Sex Abuse Scandal Catches Up with Religious Orders

Sex Abuse Scandal Catches Up with Religious Orders

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

It has been more than five years since the sex abuse scandal broke in the Roman Catholic Church. Since then, the American bishops have pledged zero tolerance for priests who abuse children. But while the scandal focused largely on local parish priests, about a third of clerics serve in religious orders, such as the Jesuits or Dominicans. And in those orders, a vast amount of abuse may go undetected, even now.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty followed the case of one Dominican Father. First, a caution to listeners, this report contains graphic descriptions of abuse that some may find objectionable.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: August 14th 2006, the Dominican headquarters in New York City.

Mr. JEFF ANDERSON (Lawyer): Father, would you please state your full name, for the record.

Father AARON JOSEPH COTE (Dominican Friar): Aaron Joseph Cote.

HAGERTY: Father A.J. Cote looks grim as Jeff Anderson walks him through the videotaped deposition. Anderson represents a young man who accused Cote of sexually abusing him in 2001 and 2002.

Mr. ANDERSON: Do you have a sexual attraction to post-pubescent adolescents?

Fr. COTE: I refuse to answer the question on the ground it may incriminate me.

HAGERTY: Cote is a Dominican friar, part of a religious order founded nearly 800 years ago. As a Dominican, he was entrusted with preaching the Gospel and living a contemplative life - until two years ago, when he was sued for abusing a minor.

His case is unusual because, if news accounts are any measure, religious orders have escaped much of the scandal that engulfed the larger church,or, perhaps, escaped detection.

Mr. PATRICK WALL: In my personal experience, you know, out of 300 monks, we had 32 perpetrators against children.

HAGERTY: Patrick Wall was a Benedictine monk for 12 years at Saint John's Abbey in Minnesota. In those years, he heard one confession after another of fellow Benedictine brothers who had abused children.

Wall finally quit the priesthood in 1998 and began investigating clergy sex abuse for victims and their lawyers. He found no shortage of work.

Mr. WALL: The Augustinians, the Marists, the Salesians have had numerous cases I've worked on.

HAGERTY: Wall and others believe the rate of abuse in religious orders is higher than among the parish priests, although no one knows for certain because the orders don't have to submit their records to anyone in the United States. For one thing, they report only to Rome, not to the U.S. bishops. That means they're not bound by the charter the U.S. bishops signed in 2002, when they promised to stop protecting suspected abusers and report them to police.

And Wall says abusers from the orders are easier to tuck away. A bishop in San Diego, for example, can transfer a problem priest only so many places. But religious orders are international, which he says can be convenient.

Mr. WALL: You get them out of the state. You avoid any kind of criminal liability because you get them out of the area, so that the statute of limitations can run. But you keep them in the family so it just looks like, well, the abbot assigned Father Dominic to Saint Augustine's in the Bahamas.

HAGERTY: Which is pretty much what happened to Father A.J. Cote for more than 20 years. Cote denies he's abused anyone, and neither he nor his attorney responded to requests for an interview. In fact, no Dominican official connected to this case would grant an interview, even after several requests over two months.

But we have a rare window into the Dominicans' world, thanks to videotaped depositions in Cote's case. They reveal a system in which warning signs can go undetected or ignored, and a problem priest can find refuge in new assignments for years.

October 1985: the first red flag. Cote, then a seminarian, led a youth retreat near Washington, D.C.

Attorney Anderson reads an assessment from Cote's file. He ticks off the concerns to Father Raymond Daley, who was a leader of the Dominicans at the time. Cote paid too much attention to boys, the handwritten notes say. He stayed out all night and returned in the morning with a teenager named Will.

Mr. ANDERSON: Do you know anything about that?

Fr. COTE: I do not.

Mr. ANDERSON: The next paragraph, it says Saturday. His talk on sex was too graphic. A.J. opened his tunic to show his bare chest. Do you know anything about that?

Fr. COTE: I don't know.

HAGERTY: A year after the youth retreat, Cote was ordained and eventually sent to Somerset, Ohio, to oversee two small parishes. His secretary, Jill Sullivan, recalls the young cleric instantly captured the hearts of the children. But she soon began to wonder about the youth group he started.

Ms. JILL SULLIVAN (Father A.J. Cote's Secretary): You never saw any girls. They were always boys. And if it's a teen youth group, why wouldn't you see girls?

HAGERTY: Sullivan started hearing rumors about Cote's relationship with the boys. What happened next appalled her.

One morning, she found some papers on her desk, Xeroxes made the night before on the copying machine.

Ms. SULLIVAN: And I noticed that they were of boys, their rear ends, their genitals, whatever, you know? And I went to Father A.J. and said, what is this? And I handed it to him. He wouldn't look at me. And he said, I'll take care of this. It won't happen again.

HAGERTY: Parishioners began to complain about Cote's conduct with the children. According to two parents, they worry that Cote held sleepovers for boys and might be serving them beer. They met with a senior priest in the area, who wrote of the complaints to Dominican leaders in New York.

The Dominicans admit that letter is missing.

1989, the Dominicans transferred Cote to one of their foreign missions, in Chimbote, Peru.

The pattern began again. Parents and even the priests who shared a house with Cote complained that Cote hugged and kissed teenage boys. He let them sleep over. He favored one boy, who stayed overnight in Cote's room.

The priest said he reported his concerns to his superior in Peru four times. The superior dismissed the complaints as hearsay and rumor.

Attorney Jeff Anderson asked Father Thomas Ertle, who was the Dominican leader at the time, why he didn't take action. Ertle said he relied on his fellow friar's word that nothing was amiss, and on the word of A.J. Cote.

Father THOMAS ERTLE: He gave me no indication that there was anything immoral in his contact or association with them.

Mr. ANDERSON: And did you then rely upon him in his representation that there was nothing immoral?

Father ERTLE: Yes.

HAGERTY: Now, it's possible that the leaders did not know or chose to see no evil. Attorney Anderson doubts that. Anderson says the Dominicans are a small order - only a few hundred in the United States - and it is a tight-knit spiritual family.

Mr. ANDERSON: These are people that not only live in community - that means they live together - they report to one another regularly. And there is no way that the reports made in Somerset, in Chimbote, and elsewhere didn't go to the leaders of the Dominican order.

HAGERTY: Soon after the complaints surfaced, Cote asked to leave Peru. Back in this country, he moved from one assignment to another for a decade. No allegations surfaced during this period. Then in 2000, A.J. Cote landed as a youth pastor at Mother Seton Parish in Germantown, Maryland. There he met 14-year-old Brandon Rains.

Mr. ANDERSON: How did your relationship with A.J. begin?

Mr. BRANDON RAINS: In church service, he would wave at me or wink at me. And so to me, he took a special liking to me.

HAGERTY: In the deposition, Rains told the Dominican's lawyer, James Sarsfield, that he grew unhappy in ninth grade. He started using and then selling marijuana. His mother told me she felt the only refuge was his church youth group.

Ms. TONI McMORROW: He spent so much time with Father Cote that he was like the one safe, positive person in his life that we would allow him to see. Not his friends. We thought that was the source of his trouble. So I felt like I just handed him over.

Mr. ANDERSON: He actually masturbated in your presence?

Mr. RAINS: Yes.

Mr. ANDERSON: On more than one occasion?

Mr. RAINS: Yes.

Mr. ANDERSON: Did he ever touch your genital area?

Mr. RAINS: Yes.

Mr. ANDERSON: How many times did that occur?

Mr. RAINS: Just once.

HAGERTY: In August 2003, Rains confided in his parents and filed a report with police in Maryland. His stepfather, Joe McMorrow, says he called the Dominicans, who assured him they would investigate.

Mr. JOE McMORROW: And then, months passed, we had very little contact; most of it we initiated. And something just didn't seem right one day. And I went out on the Web and of all things I find that A.J. Cote is a youth minister at a Catholic parish in Rhode Island.

HAGERTY: In his videotaped deposition, Father Dominic Izzo, the current head of the Dominican Province, said he did not consider Brandon Rains' allegation credible. Why not, Anderson asked. First, he said, Cote's psychological evaluation did not indicate he was a pedophile. Second, he said, if the police temporarily closed the investigation because they did not have enough evidence.

Father DOMINIC IZZO (Provincial Head, St. Joseph Province, Order of Preachers): And so we took the advice of professionals. And also sent all that we had to an independent review board through the bishop, to say whether or not we had done what we needed to do or there's more information that they would ask of us.

HAGERTY: But Dennis Roberts is head of that review board.

Do you feel that you were told the whole story?

Mr. DENNIS ROBERTS: No, not at all.

HAGERTY: Roberts' review board gave the green light for Cote to begin ministry in Providence, Rhode Island. He says after looking at materials NPR gathered for this story, he was floored by all the Dominicans had omitted — the files from seminary days, the complaints from Ohio and Peru, the attempts to unload Cote on different dioceses.

Roberts says his review board has access to all the files of a local priest. But with religious orders like the Dominicans…

Mr. ROBERTS: We don't have the full package. And therefore in dealing with an issue like Father Cote's, we really do have to rely on the good faith and forthcoming nature of the disclosures made to us by the order. And here that was not very good.

Mr. ANDERSON: I'm going to show you what I marked exhibit 100.

HAGERTY: In the deposition, Jeff Anderson hands Father Dominic Izzo exhibit 100, a letter dated July 26, 2005. It's from Catherine Wolf, a teacher in Somerset, Ohio. Wolf wrote that she had just learned that Cote had repeatedly molested a student in the late 1980s. I believe that Father A.J. is a danger to children, she wrote the Dominicans, and should not be allowed to associate with them in any capacity.

Under the Dominicans' own policies, they were supposed to report all credible allegations to the police.

Mr. ANDERSON: Did you supply this letter to the police?

Fr. IZZO: Did I supply this letter to the police?


Fr. IZZO: No, I did not.

Mr. ANDERSON: Why not?

Fr. IZZO: I can't recall why not. We just didn't submit it to the police.

HAGERTY: Izzo said he did not consider that allegation credible because it did not come from the alleged victim. He didn't inform Cote's parish nor the review board. Dennis Roberts says he wishes he had.

Mr. ROBERTS: What we would have done at that point, taking that new information, is tell the father provincial - Father Cote was no longer welcome here - the man has to be removed from ministry.

HAGERTY: Cote was just about to attend a church youth retreat in November 2005, when the young man, Brandon Rains, filed a civil suit against Cote and the Dominicans in Washington, D.C. The Dominicans pulled him from active ministry.

Four months ago, the Dominicans agreed to settle with Brandon Rains for $1.2 million. Based on evidence revealed in the lawsuit, prosecutors in Maryland have reopened a criminal investigation.

And there's more. In May 2006 — smack in the middle of the Brandon Rains litigation — a woman filed a complaint with the police in Massachusetts. She claimed that Father Cote had abused her two boys while babysitting a few days earlier. The Dominicans offered their sympathy, but they did not mention this new allegation in their sworn testimony. The boys at the time were 4 and 6.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.