Catholics kept abusive TV priest

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – A Roman Catholic ministry that bills itself as the largest global religious media network kept a priest on its staff for almost seven years despite knowing of his history as an admitted child abuser while serving in Maine and Massachusetts.

The Birmingham-based Eternal Word Television Network said the Rev. Real Bourque conducted Mass, held weekly Bible study for workers and visitors and gave talks at retreats, but he wasn’t allowed on the air or to be around young people after 1995, when executives say they learned of his past.

Bourque left EWTN in 2002 and lives in a Catholic retirement facility in Illinois.

Officials said they were unaware of any allegations of misconduct by Bourque related to his time in Alabama.

But responding in writing to questions from The Associated Press, EWTN President Michael P. Warsaw said “it is clear that we should have asked a lot more questions” about Bourque before letting him remain with the network.

Hiring a priest accused of abuse damaged the credibility and conservative credentials of EWTN, said Ann Doyle of bishopaccountability.org, which tracks abuse allegations against priests.

On part of its Web site answering questions about the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic church, EWTN has a section that says all abuse should be “severely punished.”

“(EWTN) has tremendous influence and wields tremendous respect among traditional Catholics all over the world,” she said. “This just isn’t consistent with what it preaches.”

Bourque now lives in a Catholic retirement home in Belleville, Ill. In an interview published last week in The Belleville News-Democrat, Bourque admitted sexually abusing boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s while serving as a priest in Maine and Massachusetts.

“I was a victim myself,” he said. “I’m retired. I’m 78 years old. I don’t want to be part of a witch hunt.”

Bourque hasn’t been charged with any crimes. His past was first revealed publicly by bishop accountability.org and Leon J. Podles, who is writing a book about sexual abuse in the church.

Bourque first appeared on an EWTN program in 1984, according to Warsaw.

Documents obtained as evidence in a lawsuit about abuse allegations in the Boston area show allegations of misconduct by Bourque surfaced within the church nine years later, in 1993.

By then, Bourque had been working full-time at EWTN for two years. His assignment was withdrawn in 1994 by the Rev. George Capen of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Bourque’s priestly order.

Following treatment at the Saint Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., a residential counseling program that has worked with abusive priests, Bourque requested and was given permission in 1995 to return to the network in a limited, off-air role, EWTN said.

Warsaw, the EWTN president, said the network was unaware of any accusations of wrongdoing by Bourque when he was first hired in 1991. But the network knew “of the general allegations that had been made against him” in 1995 when he was allowed to return.

In a letter to Podles explaining the decision, EWTN chairman and CEO William Steltemeier said Bourque was allowed back “in the spirit of compassion.”

Warsaw said EWTN should have done more checking when Bourque was recalled by his order and then sent back to the network with restrictions, including rules that he neither appear on-air nor “engage in ministry involving adolescents or young adults.”

“New and more stringent personnel policies that we began putting in place as far back as 2000 would have required that those questions be asked before Father Bourque could have been reinstated by EWTN,” Warsaw said.

Founded 25 years ago by a nun named Mother Angelica, EWTN has grown to include a TV side, radio broadcasting, satellite radio service, and a publishing arm.

EWTN says its television programming is available in more than 118 million households, and its radio operation has a potential audience of about 600 million people.

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