Soon after the Rev. Allen Tarlton asked for a job with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 1969, church officials got a confidential letter about him from his abbey in Minnesota.
Tarlton had a problem, the letter said. He'd been treated a few years earlier at a facility that catered to priests with sexual issues, including those who sexually abuse kids.
Treatment was successful, the letter said, and Tarlton was ready to "prove his value as a priest."
Archdiocese officials were convinced. They offered Tarlton a job – and a prayer.
"I join with you in praying that any past difficulty that Father Tarlton may have had may not manifest itself again," an official in the chancellor's office wrote back to the abbey.
That prayer would go unanswered. Tarlton, a Cincinnati native, spent the next several decades drinking heavily, flouting church rules and, by his own admission, engaging in sex with men and students.
Sometimes the sex took place in bath houses and public restrooms, Tarlton said in a statement he wrote in the early 1990s. Once, he said, he and another priest in Cincinnati had a "kind of orgy" with a 17-year-old boy from the church choir.
Tarlton, now 87, only worked in Cincinnati for about three years, from 1969 to 1971, and most of the accusers who later sued him are from Minnesota. But recently-released church records show how the priest's time here was a turning point in his life, one that allowed him to reconnect with the church and, according to his accusers, become a serial sexual predator.
His case also shows how a priest with Tarlton's past could navigate a church bureaucracy in the 1960s and 1970s that often didn't understand the significance of sexual misconduct and sometimes sought to conceal it.
"It's more than a sin of omission. It's a sin of concealment," said Jeff Anderson, the attorney from St. Paul, Minn., who represents Tarlton's accusers. "They knew it and they hid it. He was a known and real hazard."
'I was extremely harmful for the parish'
How much church officials knew – and when – isn't entirely clear. But some light was shed last month when hundreds of pages of court records were released as part of a legal settlement between one of Tarlton's accusers and his Benedictine order at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.
Those records include letters labeled "confidential" between the abbey and the archdiocese about Tarlton's treatment for sexual issues.
At no point in those letters is there an indication that either the abbey or the archdiocese notified parishioners of the priest's stay at the treatment center or put restrictions on Tarlton's contact with children in Cincinnati.
One of Tarlton's first jobs at St. Mark's parish in Evanston was as an elementary school teacher. The next year, he became pastor at St. Martin de Porres Church in Lincoln Heights.
"I was extremely harmful for the parish," Tarlton wrote years later.
The men in charge at St. John's and the archdiocese in 1969 are long gone, and those running the institutions now say their knowledge about Tarlton's activities then is based solely on the records in their files.
"We have little information about Allen Tarlton's time in Cincinnati," said Aelred Senna, a spokesman for St. John's Abbey.
"I can't really speculate what the thinking of people might have been at that time," said archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco.
They do, however, say the church has changed the way it deals with abusive priests in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal. Seminarians are more thoroughly vetted, priests undergo criminal background checks, abuse allegations must be reported to police, and a "letter of suitability" outlining a priest's past follows him to each new assignment.
"There are protocols today that didn't exist then," Andriacco said. "His superiors would have to investigate, report and remove him if the allegations were true."
Caught but not punished
That wasn't so in 1969, when Tarlton decided he was ready to resume religious work after taking a leave of absence from the abbey for a year. He said he needed the time to decide whether to leave the priesthood, because he struggled with his vow of celibacy.
Tarlton had been treated two years earlier at the Seton Institute in Baltimore for "homosexuality" after having numerous sexual encounters with high school and college students while he was a teacher at St. John's Preparatory School.
In one case, Tarlton later said, he drugged a student with a sleeping pill before fondling him. At other times, he said, he went into students' rooms and fondled them while they slept.
"Three times I was reported to my superiors," Tarlton wrote in his statement years later. "Once to the subprior, who asked me if I was guilty and I said yes. He thanked me for admitting it and gave me a little talk."
Nothing in the records suggests he shared that information with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati when he applied for a job here in 1969. Tarlton's superiors, however, did tell the archdiocese about his treatment at Seton.
"He was there, willingly, and was successfully treated," wrote St. John's abbot, Baldwin Dworschak, in May 1969.
A committee of Cincinnati priests reviewed Tarlton's application and discussed his treatment. "His release from the hospital in 1967 was accompanied by a good prognosis," the committee concluded, in a letter signed by eight priests. "In meeting him briefly we found him to be courteous, articulate and quite personable."
As to whether he might still be a risk, the committee wrote: "Each one of us is inevitably a risk. To think otherwise would be unreal."
That's the kind of attitude toward sexual misconduct that allowed the abuse crisis to grow, said Patrick Wall, a former priest who now works as a victims' advocate in Anderson's law office.
Wall, who lived at St. John's in the 1990s when Tarlton was there, said the archdiocese overlooked numerous red flags: A Benedictine monk so far from his abbey, the year-long leave of absence, and the stay at Seton all added up to trouble. Over the years, Seton treated many clergy members accused of child abuse, including infamous Boston priest John Geoghan.
Though the letters from the abbey to the archdiocese about Tarlton didn't mention child abuse, they did refer to homosexuality. Wall said that term, when used by the church back then, could refer not just to sex between men, but also to sex between men and boys.
"You don't show up at the Seton Institute because you have a problem with accounting. You have psycho-sexual issues," Wall said. "They knew he was there. They knew exactly why a priest goes to Seton."
Priest arrives, trouble follows
As it turned out, Tarlton's treatment at the Seton Institute wasn't so successful. In the statement he wrote years later, Tarlton admitted to having sex with another priest while he was being treated at Seton.
He also said he had sex with a priest while in Cincinnati and together they had sex with the 17-year-old choir boy. "One night the three of us were involved in a kind of orgy," Tarlton said.
There's no record of that incident or any other being reported to archdiocese officials. But even without a public accusation involving sex, Tarlton was a disaster in Cincinnati. He mishandled church money, canceled masses and drank heavily.
Tarlton walked away from the archdiocese around 1972. He turned up at a parish in Louisville in 1973 and eventually made his way back to St. John's in Minnesota, where he resumed his teaching career.
His accusers say the sexual misconduct continued there, and by the early 1990s lawsuits from former students followed. One of those students, Troy Bramlage, said last month he was 14 when Tarlton molested him in the late 1970s.
"I'm still working to get through this," Bramlage told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "There are a lot of people out there behind me who haven't stepped forward."
Tarlton lives now in the retirement area of St. John's monastery, under orders to stay away from kids. His statement from the 1990s, which he wrote while again undergoing treatment, is one of the few documents that indicates how Tarlton sees himself.
At the time, he said, he was apprehensive about talking to others about his troubled history.
"I sure as hell don't relish the thought of going through all of this in front of a group of people," he wrote. "But I think they'll understand. Don't you?"
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