As far as his parishioners knew, the Rev. Jay Mullin was on "sick leave," and would be absent from his Plainville pulpit until he felt better.
In truth, he had crossed over into a secretive world of church-funded psychiatry.
He flew south in 1992 to a clinic outside Washington, D.C., where a doctor flashed images of children in sexual positions and attached a device to him to measure his arousal. Accused of molesting a boy 22 years earlier, he had been ordered by Cardinal Bernard Law to spend several days at the St. Luke Institute, a Catholic psychiatric hospital in Maryland. He checked in, looked around at the priests from around the country - some who, like him, had been accused of sexual misconduct - and gradually realized how deep the problem ran.
"I wasn't aware there was any place like that," recalled Mullin, who denies the abuse charge. "Seeing all of it, I thought, the bishops know where they're sending all of us. They know the magnitude of the problem."
For decades before the case of defrocked priest John Geoghan elevated clergy sexual abuse into a national crisis, the Catholic Church was spending millions of dollars to quietly treat accused sex offenders in a constellation of psychiatric hospitals - some independent, some church-affiliated - advertised in the back pages of religious publications.
Despite the Catholic Church's attempts to provide therapy for Father John Geoghan, the pedophile spent years moving in and out of the system.
The facilities frequently used were the St. Luke Institute in Maryland; the Servants of the Paraclete centers in Jemez Springs, N.M., and St. Louis; the Institute of Living in Hartford, which featured a special clergy program; and the Southdown Institute in Canada.
Since the 1970s, psychiatrists at these facilities have treated accused priests with one-on-one therapy, feminizing hormones, and sex addiction support groups. They sent their reports to bishops, estimating the risk of a relapse, then released the priests.
Such treatment is typically paid for by the diocese, and has cost the church at least $50 million over the last 25 years, estimated A. W. Richard Sipe, a psychologist and ex-priest who treated clergy for 40 years.
A few, like Geoghan, were treated again and again, at numerous centers, and each time slid back into their predatory behavior. Victims, especially those who were molested after the priest had completed treatment, are beginning to wonder exactly what was going on inside the costly psychiatric centers.
"No institution can police itself," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. "If the church wants to restore trust, leaders should be more open about these treatment facilities. If chemical companies said, `Just trust us - send us your dioxins; we'll clean them up,' the public would be wary."
The centers denied repeated requests by the Globe for visits, citing privacy rules.
Psychiatrists from Johns Hopkins University and McLean Hospital who have worked with priests at the behest of the church said they believed chuch authorities had made good-faith efforts to enlist the nation's top specialists in the slippery, ever-changing field of treating sexual disorders.
But two weeks ago, psychiatrists at the Institute of Living in Hartford accused church leaders of intentionally disregarding their clinical advice, sometimes with disastrous results. The institute, a secular psychiatric hospital situated on a leafy 35-acre campus, had developed a specialized program for treating clergy, and had been seeing a handful of priests every year.
The two-decade relationship was shaken after New York Cardinal Edward Egan cited the institute's psychiatric reports to justify his decisions to return priests to the ministry, where some reoffended. Top psychiatrists then told reporters at The Hartford Courant that church leaders had used psychiatrists' advice as cover to rush potentially dangerous priests back into ministry.
"I found that they rarely followed our recommendations," said Leslie Lothstein, director of clinical psychology at the institute. "They would put [priests] back into work where they still had access to vulnerable populations."
Lothstein's comments mark a new chapter in the relationship between the church and psychiatrists. As recently as 1952, the church was so resistant to behavioral sciences that a Vatican official declared it a sin to undergo psychoanalysis. But in treating priests, the church has leaned increasingly on psychiatry, funding six-month stays for priests even as managed care cut psychiatric stays to a week for most Americans.
It has not been a perfect collaboration. In the last few months, critics have blasted church officials for ignoring sexual abuse charges. Some insiders, like Egan, have suggested that part of the blame should be spread to psychiatrists who routinely provided them with independent evaluations.
Seven years ago, Minneapolis psychologist Gary Schoener got a call from a rattled John Roach, archbishop of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Roach asked Schoener to review records the archdiocese had received from the centers that had been treating priests: the St. Luke Institute, the now-defunct House of Affirmation, and the Servants of the Paraclete in New Mexico.
"The archbishop said, `For God's sake, are we getting bad advice?"' Schoener recalled. "Are they using the wrong tests? Are they misinterpreting them? Is one of the centers better than the others?"
Schoener reported back a few weeks later. He had been impressed by the psychiatric reports, which he said would pass muster in secular hospitals. But he faulted the centers for accepting the church's investigations at face value, for failing to contact victims, and for leaving responsibility for follow-up to the priest's diocese. In short, the psychiatrists were working for the church. They "wanted to be liked," Schoener said.
"The mindset of these folks was to get him back there, that somehow the guy was fixable," said Schoener. "They are a key part of the mistake.
"It's not that I don't blame the church. I blame them both."
'We just get an intuition'
The treatment centers had been born in a rush of Christian compassion. On a blustery night during the depths of the Depression, the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald heard a knock on the back door of his rectory in Brighton and gave food and a coat to a beggar who, as he walked into the dark, turned around and said he, too, was once a priest.
That was the genesis of the Brothers of the Paraclete, a religious order whose mission was to care for troubled priests. In 1947, in New Mexico, Fitzgerald opened a retreat for troubled or alcohol-abusing priests.
Sexual misconduct was not part of the mission then. When Fitzgerald was asked about treating child molesters, he recommended buying a small Caribbean island and isolating them there, said the Rev. Peter Lechner, the current servant general of the Brothers of the Paraclete. By the mid-1960s, though, the Paraclete retreat began welcoming an increasing number of pedophiles and, more commonly, ephebophiles, or adults who are sexually aroused by pubescents, usually males, Lechner said.
Throughout the 1960s, sexual disorders were treated through psychoanalysis, and the Paraclete Center lagged behind even in that. It wasn't until the 1970s that Jemez Springs began to "approach modern standards," Lechner said, with regular therapy and an in-house psychiatrist. In 1976, the Paracletes opened the first treatment center in the world for psychosexual disorders; by 1995, according to a deposition, psychiatrist Jay Feierman had consulted with 1,000 priests about sexual disorders.
"They knew more than anybody in the world," said Sylvia Demarest, a Houston attorney who later represented victims of Jemez Springs patients.
A Rocky Mountain News reporter who spent a week at the center in 1987 described an atmosphere that encouraged emotional exploration. Priests there had psychodrama therapy and role-playing, and wept together. Therapists encouraged them not to repress sexual impulses.
Feierman, the program's chief psychiatrist, complained about the church's message that a priest is "not allowed to be affectionate, he's not allowed to be in love, he's not allowed to be a sexual being."
As for the decision to release a priest, Michael Foley, codirector of the program, told the reporter it was a matter of gut feeling. "We just get an intuition that they're going to work out," Foley said.
On rare occasions, that gut feeling was wrong. Of the 2,000 priests who were treated at Jemez Springs from 1947 to 1968, 10 committed criminal acts after leaving, Lechner said. Among the "graduates" from the 1960s and 1970s were men accused of long lists of molestations, like the Rev. James Porter, Jason Sigler, the Rev. Rudy Kos, the Rev. David Holley, and Andrew Christian Anderson - some of whom molested children when the Paracletes sent them out on weekends to officiate in local parishes.
In 1993, the Paraclete center was forced to pay $525,000 and stipulate $7.6 million more from insurers to settle lawsuits with 25 plaintiffs who alleged they were molested by Porter, according to reports. They also settled with 17 plaintiffs suing Holley, who is serving a 275-year sentence for molesting children.
Bruce Pasternack, a lawyer who defended alleged victims in the Porter case, said the treatment center made New Mexico the world's "dumping ground for ecclesiastical waste." Demarest, who represented Kos's victims, still speaks with contempt of the treatment Kos received.
"I can tell you what the atmosphere was. They flew in fresh fish and special food items and they went on hikes in the mountains and they were released over the weekend into local parishes where they continued to abuse children," said Demarest. "There is not one single shred of evidence that anyone gave one whit about the victims."
In 1994, the Paraclete fathers shut down the sexual disorders treatment center in New Mexico. They would not rebuild it, although 13 sex offenders now live in the Paracletes' Vianney Renewal Center in a wooded suburb outside St. Louis.
"We closed the mother house [in New Mexico] because we had been getting a lot of publicity," said Lechner. "We like to have people come, and want to come, and we feel it's very important that they feel appropriate security."
'Better living through chemistry'
In 1981, a new kind of priest set about building a new kind of treatment center. The Rev. Michael Peterson was a psychiatrist before he converted to Catholicism and entered the priesthood.
An experienced substance abuse counselor, he established a private Catholic hospital called the St. Luke Institute. Priests with alcohol troubles checked into a blue-tiled institutional building flanked by two schoolyards in a predominantly African-American neighborhood outside Washington, D.C.
By the mid-1980s, they were joined by an increasing number of priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct. As patients like Geoghan, Kos, the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, and Monsignor Michael Harris moved in next door, neighbors were not informed. They saw priests come and go - polite, middle-aged white men from around the country - and were told that they were "in training," said Nannie Presley, who lived across the street for 14 years. (The center relocated to a spacious campus in Silver Spring, Md., complete with three tennis courts, a handball court, and a basketball court, in 1997.)
The Rev. Stephen Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute, refused to be interviewed for this story, saying that publicizing treatment of sexual offenders can make priests reluctant to be treated there. Less than 25 percent of St. Luke's patients are there because of sexual misconduct, he said.
Priests who arrived at St. Luke after allegations of sexual misconduct found themselves hooked up to CAT scans and electro-encephalograms to measure brain waves, working puzzles for aptitude tests, and - most controversially - stripped down for a penile plethysmograph, which measures a man's level of arousal based on the circumference of his penis. The priests nicknamed the test the "peter meter," said the Rev. Nicholas Driscoll, who was treated for depression and alcohol abuse at St. Luke for six months in 1986.
Mullin arrived for an evaluation in 1992. He still shudders when he remembers the plethysmograph, and the pleas he made to the Archdiocese of Boston to exempt him from the test. On the ride back to St. Luke Institute, he said, his driver pulled over and got out of the car so he could cry alone, Mullin said.
"They're observing me. They're videotaping it," he told a Globe reporter. "They finish up with kiddie porn, my first introduction to the whole pornographic industry. It was not a joy by any shape."
The archdiocese settled the claim against Mullin about five years ago - against his protests, he said - and reassigned him to a parish in Wayland. Last year, he was informed that his assignment at St. Joseph's Manor was terminated. He now lives in Harwich.
Patients sometimes found themselves on medications they had never heard of - they joked that St. Luke's motto was "better living through chemistry," Driscoll said. The facility was at the forefront of prescribing Depo-Provera, which inhibits sexual arousal in men, and Driscoll recalled priests who took day trips to the Library of Congress to read up on the drug and its side effects. Mullin was so alarmed by the "tranquilized" appearance of priests there that he asked to be sent elsewhere.
Geoghan, who was sent to St. Luke Institute for assessment in 1989 and again in 1995, complained to Edward Messner, his Massachusetts psychiatrist, that it was "cold, mechanistic" and occasionally "contemptuous" of the priests who visited. He preferred the Institute of Living, where he spent three months in 1989, and where therapists had focused on his grief over his father's death.
"He described his 10 days at St. Luke Institute [as] very troubling with fear, anxiety, distress, hurt," said Messner in a deposition. "The staff was confrontational and tried to get him to admit wrongdoing."
Meanwhile, the staff had its own battles to fight against bishops who questioned their open discussion of sex, said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, who befriended Peterson and coauthored with him a 1985 study of sex abuse by priests. Peterson, who was openly gay before converting to the priesthood, died of AIDS in 1987.
"He often said to me that one of the more difficult things he had to deal with were the critical questions" from bishops, said Doyle, a canon lawyer who is now an Air Force chaplain in Germany. "You have to ask them what they fantasize about when they masturbate. The bishops would be all bent out of shape. Dirty movies, they called them. Poor Doc Peterson was having a hell of a time."
Whatever the objections of bishops, St. Luke never ran out of patients. The institute's 70 beds - which St. Luke's president, Rossetti, told the Catholic News Service cost dioceses about $300 a day, - have been full since the center opened. Today, less than 3 percent of sex offenders reoffend after leaving St. Luke, Rossetti said in the same interview.
Past mistakes were the fault of mental health professionals who did not have reliable information about pedophiles, he said.
"Where does the blame lie? Blame psychology," he said.
'They kept the transgressions silent'
Psychiatrists have been mostly silent about the treatment they provided to offenders. Lothstein, from the Institute of Living, would not return phone calls for this article, nor would authorities at St. Luke and the St. John Vianney Center, which is run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Some psychiatrists have come to the defense of the church. Lechner, head of the Paraclete Center, and Dr. Donna Markham, president of Southdown Institute, both said church leaders have been forthcoming with case histories and compliant with their recommendations.
Others said even specialists may have dispensed bad advice.
"The missing link in this story as I know it is that there have been substantial efforts on the part of the church to deal with some of this through therapeutic channels," said Philip Levendusky, a Harvard Medical School associate professor and McLean Hospital psychiatrist who for two years in the late 1990s oversaw an eight-bed residential program for priests with sexual disorders. "They did go to the top of the ladder. They weren't going to facilities that would put a religious spin on [sexual disorders]. They went to really legitimate assessment facilities."
Others, though, said the church has manipulated psychiatric expertise. Sipe treated clergy at Seton Psychiatric Institute and served on the board of St. Luke Institute for two years. He said the earnest efforts of good therapists have fallen on deaf ears for three decades.
"Psychiatry and psychotherapy has been misused by the church in this crisis," Sipe said. "Bishops oftentimes did not give the whole story, but kind of dumped the priests there and just let the psychiatrists `puzzle it out themselves.' They kept the transgressions silent under the guise of confessional material."
Then, he said, there were errors of compassion.
"Psychiatrists are kind of hopeful people," Sipe said. "As clinicians and as clergymen, we don't tend to give up on people."