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Friday, September 14, 2018 1:00 am

Prosecutor: Suspicion of Rhoades baseless

Says trips with young man led to harmful speculation

ROSA SALTER RODRIGUEZ | The Journal Gazette

The Pennsylvania district attorney who cleared Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of any criminal or improper activity after an allegation of “odd” behavior with a young man in the early 1990s has outlined the circumstances surrounding the relationship.

A news release from the office of Francis T. Chardo, Dauphin County district attorney, says Rhoades experienced “significant and unnecessary harm” because of “a public airing of mere speculation of impropriety with no foundation.”

The release says Rhoades met the man, son of one of his parishioners, at St. Francis Catholic Church in Harrisburg in 1990.

The man was 19 years old and incarcerated in the Dauphin County Prison, the release says.

Rhoades visited the man, identified in the release only as J.T., at the request of J.T.'s mother. He also attended one of the man's court proceedings, telling the judge J.T. could do community service at the parish if he was released.

J.T. was released in April 1990. Shortly afterward, Rhoades decided to travel to Puerto Rico with an unidentified male teacher who was considering the priesthood and stay with a family on the island. J.T. asked if he could come along and visit his grandmother while there.

The teacher, in a telephone interview with the district attorney, “confirmed Bishop Rhoades' account of the trip and there was no sexual or intimate contact between (then-) Father Rhoades and anyone else during the trip,” the news release said.

The release also outlined some of the circumstances surrounding the reporting of the allegation, which came after an extensive report on sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic clergy was released by a Pennsylvania grand jury on Aug. 14.

A male cousin of J.T. reported the relationship. He said J.T. had traveled with Rhoades to Puerto Rico twice and South America once and that he thought his cousin was 13 or 14 at the time.

The cousin did not witness, or have reported to him, any sexual acts, but he thought the relationship “odd” and “felt compelled” to report it to the diocese, which reported it to the district attorney's office.

During an interview, the cousin indicated he was not certain of the time frame, except that it was after 1986. The district attorney concluded the other details were a result of an “honest, mistaken recollection.”

The district attorney's investigation found Rhoades was serving in Rome from 1985 to July 1988, when he was assigned to St. Francis parish. J.T. turned 18 in July 1988. He was incarcerated between Dec. 28, 1989, through April 1990.

The young man died Oct. 19, 1996, according to the release. It provided no other information about the death but said Rhoades officiated at the funeral Mass for the young man at his parents' request.

“All of Bishop Rhoades' contact with J.T. was in the context of pastoral care and arose out of the recognized tradition of prison ministry,” the district attorney said in the news release.

The district attorney concluded after the investigation that “there is no basis to conclude that Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades ever engaged in a criminal or otherwise improper relationship.”

Rhoades' office issued a statement Thursday saying the local diocese appreciated “the swift and thorough investigation of the unsubstantiated allegation.”

“While it's important that allegations be brought forward, it's equally important for due process to take place. The result of this investigation underscores the importance of allowing appropriate authorities to determine credibility of accusations before the reputation of any individual is impugned in the court of public opinion.”

Rhoades, in the diocese's statement, “expressed his gratitude for the support he has received from parishioners during the past week” and was quoted as saying he has “offered up the pain of this difficult time for the victim survivors of child sexual abuse.”

Rhoades, 60, has been bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend since early 2010, immediately after serving as bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg from 2004 through 2009.

Chardo, in the news release, said the leaking of the allegation did not only “unnecessary harm” to Rhoades but also “a disservice to actual victims of sexual abuse.”

Chardo encouraged reports of any suspicion of abuse. But he said once reports are made, they should be “fully investigated without public speculation about guilt” so authorities can bring charges if appropriate.

“Here, we found no evidence of wrongdoing,” the news release said. “We now consider this case as closed.”

rsalter@jg.net