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Painful Lessons Learned

A psychiatric institution that specializes in treating Roman Catholic clergy accused of sexual abuse is tightening suicide prevention methods in reaction to the death of a priest who hanged himself there last week.

The suicide of the Rev. Alfred Bietighofer, who was found Thursday in his dormitory room at St. Luke Institute, was the first at the suburban Washington center in its 25-year history.

"We were caught off guard," the Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, the institute director, said Monday. "In this current crisis there is a particular need to be more vigilant."

St. Luke is one of a handful of centers in North America that specialize in treating clergy for sexual disorders and other psychiatric conditions. Officials at the centers say recent public attention on sexual abuse among the clergy has put more pressure on patients already suffering from great shame and often depression.

The Southdown Institute in Ontario, Canada, said it began changing procedures six months ago, including more frequent room checks for priests who may be at risk.

"I think we are all on alert concerning the fragility of the population we are treating," said Dr. Donna Markham, Southdown's president.

Rossetti said changes at St. Luke will likely include aggressive monitoring of any priests facing child abuse allegations, even if they deny suicidal tendencies.

At-risk priests have frequent check-ins with institute staff and are kept away from instruments that could be used to commit suicide, Rossetti said.

Bietighofer, 64, was at St. Luke for evaluation after two men accused him of sexually abusing them in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Police and the institute have revealed little about why Bietighofer killed himself, citing patient privacy. But psychologists say the entire priesthood faces tremendous public scrutiny in the wake of widespread allegations of abuse and cover-ups by church authorities.

"We tend not to think of what it is like for the accused individual," said Dr. Fred Berlin, a sexual disorders expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a former St. Luke board member. "They face the prospect of their reputation being besmirched, losing their livelihood or even being incarcerated."

Suicides for any reason are rare among the priesthood, said A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychologist and former priest who studies sexuality and the church. Bietighofer's was the first he knew of at a religious treatment center.

Last month, the Rev. Don Rooney, 48, of the Cleveland Diocese shot himself to death after being accused of molesting a girl. In Ireland, the Rev. Sean Fortune committed suicide in 1999 while facing 66 counts of molesting and raping teen-age boys.

In other developments:

  • The number of sex abuse lawsuits filed against the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, rose to 87 Tuesday, as a dozen new lawsuits were filed. Among them are a complaint against a priest who is now bishop of Lexington, and, a complaint from outdoorsman Jim Strader, host of local radio and television shows, accusing a retired priest named in 35 other lawsuits. The bishop - J. Kendrick Williams - hasn't commented yet; the priest - Louis E. Miller - has denied all previous allegations.
  • A priest who served as the academic dean at a high school in Toledo, Ohio, was placed on leave following allegations of sexual misconduct with a student nearly 40 years ago.
  • In Chicago, hundreds attended meetings Tuesday night at 30 parishes across the city to urge Cardinal Francis George to push for stronger policies against sex abuse.

    The meetings were meant to help George prepare for a summit of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops next month in Dallas. The bishops are expected to set a national policy for handling sex-abuse allegations.

    At St. Edmunds in Oak Park, Bob Hart of Naperville said a zero-tolerance policy against abusers is needed. "It's not baseball, where if you foul one off it's OK," he said. "We're talking about innocent children."

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