November 03, 2005

The more things change …

Telegram & Gazette

Dianne Williamson


Nine days ago, the lawyer for the Rev. James J. Aquino took to the pulpit at Our Lady of Loreto Church — in itself, a rather extraordinary scenario — and told hundreds of parishioners that their bishop was satisfied with the disposition of his client’s criminal case.

“The bishop has been very supportive of Father and very pleased with how the matter was handled,” attorney Anthony A. Froio said, adding that Bishop Robert J. McManus saw no need to discipline the priest and considered the matter closed.

The lawyer’s statements, along with Rev. Aquino’s repeated assurances that the case is indeed “over and done with,” were clearly delivered with the full knowledge and support of Bishop McManus, who had previously ordered Rev. Aquino to keep quiet about an incident that could cause deep embarrassment to the diocese.

Now, nine months after the bishop learned that the priest had been charged with performing a public sex act in Las Vegas, we learn that the bishop’s investigative skills are sorely lacking. According to the bishop, he didn’t have the “whole truth” until a few days ago, even though he spoke with Las Vegas officials in February. Until now, he thought his decision to take no action against Father Aquino was appropriate.

“But that has now changed,” he said. Suddenly, the bishop believes that the Aquino case is “a source of grave scandal” for the church.

Help me out here. I understand that Bishop McManus is no Bob Woodward, but the case against Rev. Aquino was as straightforward as it comes. According to Las Vegas police, the longtime priest was seen masturbating another man in an adult oriented store in October 2004. He was cited for lewd conduct. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was ordered to perform community service. On Sept. 6, the case was dismissed.

The only thing “that has now changed” is that the story broke and the diocese could no longer cover up the incident — which only shows that nothing has changed in a church that has once again failed to honestly face its demons.

On Sunday, days after Father Aquino’s transgression was reported in the local media, Bishop McManus addressed parishioners at Our Lady of Loreto and announced that the priest would be removed as pastor pending an internal “canonical investigation,” the workings of which are private. But there was never anything private about the facts of this case, which were disseminated to Bishop McManus by the district attorney of Clark County, Nev., and even posted on the Internet.

Still, the bishop indicated to parishioners Sunday that he relied on Rev. Aquino’s lawyer for information, even though he apparently had easy access to Las Vegas authorities. I know the media did; a spokesman for the Las Vegas police told me last week that the priest “essentially got caught up in a raid” after he paid $8 to enter an adult store and was spotted by vice squad detectives masturbating another man.

“I am keenly aware of your disappointment,” the bishop told the parish, which days earlier had given Rev. Aquino a standing ovation after he vehemently denied engaging in any sex act. “I hope you also know that these painful burdens have weighed on me as well, especially since I have tried my best to discern the truth.”

Has he? How? What new facts have come to his attention? Why is his perception of events so drastically altered? What has now changed? If he didn’t have an adequate grasp of the case, why didn’t he? If he did, why the failure to act sooner?

Efforts to put these questions to Bishop McManus have been unsuccessful, despite requests for interviews through his spokesman, Raymond Delisle, and his secretary, the Rev. Rocco Piccolomini, who yesterday said the bishop “has commitments out of state” and could not be reached.

Meanwhile, many in the parish have indicated that they’re willing to forgive Rev. Aquino, which is certainly a fine thing. But shouldn’t people first know what they’re forgiving? Rev. Aquino continues to deny everything except his presence in the porn shop and has blamed the scandal on cops trying to target a Catholic priest, but the bishop apparently no longer believes him, if he ever did.

As we say in the secular world, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. Different people may render different judgments on what is essentially a victimless crime, committed by a priest who pledged the near-impossible vow of chastity and is thus driven to a rather sad form of sexual relief. One can only speculate as to how often such acts are committed by lonely priests. But the diocese has failed to be forthcoming and has apparently learned nothing from past mistakes. Instead, its image is paramount.

“From the calls and communications I have received this week I know that many are disappointed,” Bishop McManus said on Sunday. “They’ve been taught to expect better.”

Really? So far in the Aquino case, diocesan officials have lied, denied, mishandled, covered up, blamed clergy haters, issued shallow apologies, offered lame excuses, and finally realized the gravity of the scandal only after they could no longer contain it.

Sadly, I’d say this is exactly what people have been taught to expect from the Catholic Church.

Contact Dianne Williamson by e-mail at

Posted by kshaw at November 3, 2005 06:54 AM