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Priests accused of sexual abuse living at Jefferson County treatment center

Published: May. 2, 2022 at 10:35 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Catholic priests and clergy accused of sexually abusing children are living under the radar at a Missouri treatment center.

Tucked behind trees in a quiet neighborhood off Eime Road in Dittmer, MO, is a Catholic community shrouded in secrecy.

“There’s some sick people over there,” said Michael Stenzhorn, who lives just across the street.

Signs outside the Vianney Renewal Center don’t say who lives there.

“I believe there are hundreds if not thousands sex offender clergy who have been through that place,” said David Clohessy, the Missouri Volunteer Director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “I think it’s only a matter of time before another kid gets hurt.”

Stenzhorn says for years his family was in the dark.

“We really didn’t know what was going on, that could have been a retirement home for priests as far as we knew,” Stenzhorn said. “We had no idea it was pedophiles.”

Stenzhorn and his family moved to the neighborhood 23 years ago. In that time, the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal hit, exposing decades-long cover ups and allegations against thousands of priests. Turns out some of those men were taken out of churches and sent to Dittmer, a small town outside St. Louis.

“They drive to shopping centers, I’ve seen them in restaurants, so they can come and go as long as they have a chaperone,” Stenzhorn said. “I’m always seeing new people, and I’m seeing younger.”

The center is run by the Servants of the Paraclete, a Catholic religious order founded in 1947. The Servants of the Paraclete’s website claims to “provide care for priests and brothers in need.” Nothing mentions sexual abuse.

News 4 Investigates went to the St. Louis Archdiocese for answers. The Archdiocese turned down an interview. In an email a spokeswoman wrote, “Since Vianney Renewal Center is independent of the Archdiocese, it’s our practice to refer you directly to the facility itself.”

Clohessy says SNAP is pushing for more accountability and transparency.

“Bishops can do a lot more than they claim they can do,” Clohessy said. “Kids are safest when the public is warned about child molesters.”

The Missouri sex offender registry shows the center in Dittmer is home to 6 former clergy members convicted of abusing kids. Some are names that made national headlines, including former priest James Talbot, who was convicted of raping multiple students. The Missouri Sex Offender Registry shows most of the men are ranked at the most dangerous level, a tier three. That means they will be on the registry the rest of their life.

News 4 Investigates discovered not everyone living at the center is on Missouri’s registry.

Robert Brouillette is accused in civil lawsuits and settlements of abusing dozens of kids while he taught at schools across the country. Brouillette was convicted in Illinois for child pornography and required to register as a sex offender. Illinois’ sex offender registry shows show Brouillette is living “out of state.”

News 4 investigates found Brouillette’s name on the national sex offender registry, with his address as the center in Dittmer. However on Missouri’s list, Brouillette’s name never shows up.

“It’s a ticking time bomb,” Clohessy said. “More and more problem priests are being sent to these facilities and less and less do we know anything about them.”

News 4 Investigates obtained a list compiled by private investigators working with survivors of church sex abuse. It names just over 100 clergy with an address linked to the Servants of the Paraclete Center within the past few years. The majority of men either admitted or were accused of sexual abuse. Some of the men show up on recent church lists naming clergy it found to have credible allegations of abuse, but because they were never criminally convicted, there’s no prison time and no requirement to register as a sex offender.

“I think the answer is very simple,” Clohessy said. “At an absolute bare minimum, be honest about who they are and why they’re there.”

News 4 Investigates called and emailed the Servants of the Paraclete, none of the messages were returned. At the property in Dittmer, “no trespassing” signs are posted at every entrance.

Some people are trying to make getting information easier.

Terry McKiernan helps run BishopAccountability.org, a website dedicated to compiling names of clergy accused or convicted in church sex scandals. So far, the site identified more than 7,400 people.

“By our estimate, about 10 percent of the known accused priests ever face criminal charges even though what they do is a crime.” McKiernan said.

The church does not maintain a central list of names, instead separate ones are released by dioceses across the country. In St. Louis, the Archdiocese website includes a page for “list release” where there are names but no details about the accusations.

“It’s only if people pay attention to it that it’s going to be changed and improved,” McKiernan added.

One Missouri lawmaker is trying to make changes.

“I think this is kind of a glaring hole in our system that we have not addressed,” said Rep. Robert Sauls (D-Independence). “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Sauls proposed a bill to require a state license for centers treating “sexually deviant behavior.”

“When something goes wrong, people wonder why,” he said. “The reason things went awry is because we have no regulation put in place.”

The proposed bill would also require centers to hire a physician, psychologist or someone else with advanced training to treat people living there. It would also require treatment with “techniques that have been tested and proven by scientific research to be beneficial for persons who have engaged in sexually deviant behavior.”

This is Sauls’ second time proposing the bill, he says it’s not getting enough support at the Missouri Capitol. Sauls says he plans to reintroduce the bill next session, something News 4 Investigates will continue to follow.

“I think you could probably ask 9 out of 10 people on the street and they’d think that we should probably have something in place for these types of facilities,” Sauls said.

One person fighting for change is John Bellocchio, who got involved after discovering his alleged abuser, Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was living at the center in Dittmer.

“They have a moral, ethical responsibility to make sure that no child suffered what I suffered,” Bellocchio said. “It’s of great concern to me as a victim because it’s essentially a residential spa like facility with no gates.”

McCarrick was recently arrested at the center and taken back to Massachusetts where he was charged with sexually assaulting a teenager nearly 50 years ago. That arrest makes him the highest ranking Catholic leader to be criminally charged with child sex crimes.

Across the street from the center, Stenzhorn says he feels stuck.

“I wrote letters to everybody, I wrote letters to the Pope,” he said. “What’s gonna happen? Are we going to lose a house because we can’t get anything for it?”

The center bought the homes on either side and made an offer on his, but Stenzhorn says the price wasn’t high enough. He didn’t sell, now he’s surrounded and living in a house he doesn’t know who would want to buy.

“They should have bought me out and took care of me like they took care of my neighbors,” Stenzhorn added. “Their people are over there and they’re going to protect them.”

Missouri Highway Patrol told News 4 Investigates that while it maintains the state’s central sex offender registry, it’s up to county sheriff’s office to ensure offenders are registered.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is where people living in Dittmer would need to go to if they’re required to register. A spokesperson for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office said they are looking into the case involving Robert Brouillette to determine if he’s living in the area.