Church Secrets: Abusive Memphis priest reassigned rather than reined in

A troubled traveler, keeper of the faith had secretive past

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis/April 8, 2010

When Father Juan Carlos Duran arrived in Memphis in the summer of 1999, the Spanish-speaking Dominican priest provided a much-needed addition to the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.

His duties under the one-year contract were to minister to the growing number of Hispanic parishioners at the Church of the Ascension in Raleigh.

It appeared to be a match made in heaven.

"We desperately needed someone to work with our Hispanic community," Bishop J. Terry Steib said in a later deposition recounting talks with the Dominican Order. "And the candidate they had was Juan Carlos Duran."

The Memphis Diocese did little to examine the background of its prized candidate, however, and learned too late that Duran was a priest with a past.

"I just remember him asking me in the car or asking when we are alone, 'Please, please, let me give you (oral sex),' stuff like that," said a 14-year-old boy identified as "John Doe" in a sex abuse lawsuit filed against the diocese and the Dominicans. "I can't remember the exact number of occasions, but it was multiple."

The "John Doe" case prompted The Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Daily News to file suit to gain access to court documents related to that case. A judge on Tuesday lifted the seal on the files after lawyers for both sides spent a year redacting the names of victims from more than 10,000 pages.

The documents show that at least 15 priests have been accused of sexual misconduct over about four decades in the Memphis Diocese. Some had been accused of sexual abuse elsewhere and had been moved from one diocese to another.

Spokesmen for the Memphis Diocese acknowledged that mistakes were made but said the church has taken steps to keep them from happening again.

Duran was stripped of his duties, banished from the Memphis Diocese and returned to the Dominicans after the boy said the priest befriended him and then sexually molested him over a period of several weeks.

"It just drives me crazy because I feel like trash," the boy said later, adding that Duran plied him with alcohol and exposed him to pornography. "I feel like trash, you know? That's what I feel like. It makes me upset."

Lawyers for the boy, who obtained a $2 million settlement last year from the Memphis Diocese and the Dominicans, said even a cursory background check would have shown that Duran had sexual issues involving minors in St. Louis, Panama and Bolivia, his native country.

"The Southern Dominican Province knew Duran had committed prior acts of sexual abuse before placing him in Memphis and therefore should never have placed him here," attorney Karen Campbell, representing "John Doe," said in court papers. "Additionally, a review of Duran's résumé with a 31-year gap should have alerted the diocese to inquire into his background. This is exactly the type of information that should have raised a red flag to church officials that this was a pedophile priest."

In many ways, the case of Father Juan Carlos Duran -- with frequent moves and silent superiors -- stands as an example of how child sex abuse was allowed to thrive for decades in the Catholic Church.

The Bolivian-born Duran was expelled from the Franciscan Order in 1985 for sexually abusing a boy in Bolivia.

Duran, however, was accepted by the Dominicans, who knew of his past yet moved him to assignments in Panama, Miami, St. Louis and Memphis with good references.

While at St. Louis University in 1998, a father of three young boys told campus police that Duran fondled himself in front of them at an indoor campus pool and later watched them undress in the locker room.

Duran was detained briefly, but no formal charges were filed.

One month later, in January 1999, his order issued a letter of good standing that declared Duran to be of good moral character and improved his standing in the St. Louis Archdiocese.

The letter made no mention of the pool incident or of molesting the boy in Bolivia.

By July of that year, Duran arrived in Memphis at the Church of the Ascension, where he met and sexually abused 14-year-old "John Doe."

"Revelations of thousands of cases of clergy sexual abuse have shown that the Catholic hierarchy had a standardized method of responding to reports and accusations of clergy sexual abuse," said Thomas Doyle of Virginia, a Dominican priest and addiction therapist who has testified as an expert in many abuse cases. "With rare exception, the alleged perpetrators were surreptitiously moved from one assignment to another with no warning to the receiving parish or community."

Steib and other diocesan leaders said a more thorough background check should have been done, but that the Dominicans also never warned the Memphis Diocese of Duran's sexual history.

"I removed Duran from the parish, removed his faculties and returned him to his (Dominican) community," Steib said in his deposition. "Removing his faculties means he was no longer going to be working here."

Duran, now 49, was laicized - his priestly authority was removed - and he returned to his native Bolivia.

In September 2004, St. Louis police issued an at-large warrant for Duran's arrest, accusing him of sodomizing a teenage boy in 1999 while at St. Francis de Sales Church.

St. Louis police said Duran had befriended the boy and his family.

The warrant has never been served.

Juan Carlos Duran

Born: Aug. 3, 1960 Magdalena, Bolivia

1985: Expelled from Franciscan Order when caught in sexual act with a boy in Bolivia.

1996: Joins Dominican Order and assigned to ministry in Panama.

December 1998: Accused of lewd behavior by four boys at swimming pool in St. Louis. No formal charges.

July 1999: Becomes associate pastor at Church of the Ascension in Memphis.

February 2000: Removed when 14-year-old boy reports sexual abuse by Duran.

2004: St. Louis police issue warrant for Duran's arrest after a family there says he molested their teenage son in 1999 before coming to Memphis.

Court deposition

After Father Juan Carlos Duran was removed from his ministry by the Memphis Catholic Diocese for sexually abusing a teenage boy, his Dominican Order sent him off for treatment. His superior, Father Alberto Rodriguez, told Pope John Paul II by letter that he had been trying to find another assignment for Duran despite his sexual misconduct with minors in Memphis, St. Louis, Panama and Bolivia.

Here is a deposition exchange in 2007 between attorney Gary Smith, who represented the Memphis boy and Father Rodriguez:

Smith: "Let's see if I read this right. 'No other bishop has been willing to grant him faculties for ministry. Some other dioceses within the territory of the province have been contacted. . .'"

Rodriguez: "Yes."

Smith: " '. . .All of them have rejected my requests for faculties and ministry.' Close quote. Did I read that accurately?"

Rodriguez: "Yes."

Smith: "So after Juan Carlos abused my client, you were still going around seeking faculties and ministry for him with other dioceses?"

Rodriguez: "I had to put that there to prove that there was no other option."

Smith: "Did you lie to the Pope?"

Rodriguez: "Yes."

Smith: "You did lie to the Pope?"

Rodriquez: "Yes."

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