Accusations of sexual abuse have rocked the Catholic church since 2002. In August 2018, the scandal intensified following an investigation in Pennsylvania that found more than 300 priests accused of child sexual abuse — leaving at least 1,000 survivors.
This report led to further investigations in Illinois, West Virginia, Texas and Mississippi. On March 19, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson released a list of 37 Mississippi clergy members accused of child sexual abuse. Bernard Haddican, one of the 17 priests accused, was a pastor at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, which neighbors the University of Mississippi campus.
In 1998 and 2002, the two accusations against Haddican, who died in 1996, came to light. The period of abuse is suspected to have taken place from 1964 to 1984.
The current St. John’s pastor, Joe Tonos, was only an infant when Haddican’s term as pastor at St. John’s began.
Haddican served as pastor of St. John’s in Oxford from 1965 to 1968, but Tonos did not become personally acquainted with him until college. From the start, Tonos said, he did not like the pastor.
“I knew him when I was in college because I went to Delta State (University) in Cleveland, and he was the pastor there at the time,” Tonos said. “I did not like him at all.”
While attending Delta State, Tonos was the cartoonist for his school paper, and Haddican expressed disdain at the satirical cartoons Tonos drew.
“He found, for whatever reason, the need to tell his parish that I was anti-Catholic because he did not like some of my satire, which I thought was distasteful,” Tonos said. “I just really didn’t care for him.”
However, it was not until many years later, when Tonos became a pastor himself, that he heard about the accusations of child sexual abuse against Haddican.
Mark Belenchia, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), gave a detailed account of the abuse he suffered from Haddican in a recent interview with The Clarion-Ledger, where he said the abuse began in 1968 in Shelby, where Haddican was a priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
While there are only two formal accusations against Haddican, Tonos suspects there may be more survivors who have not come forward.
“I’m pretty sure, you know, that there may be more than two, from the way it sounds, but one’s enough,” Tonos said.
Tonos has not heard of any instances of abuse from Haddican’s time at St. John’s.
“Most of the stories that talk about his notoriety come from when he served in the Delta,” Tonos said. “Not a lot is said about him one way or the other. There are not a lot of parishioners who have a lot of history here — well, a few, but they do not remember him as much as other priests from the ‘80s who they have good memories of.”
According to Tonos, the parishioners did not say much about the accusations of abuse against Haddican or the other priests when the list was released. However, there were concerns about clergy members’ abuse of vulnerable adults.
“People have come and said, ‘I was abused by a priest, but I was over 18,’” Tonos said. “Sadly, it looks like some priests were waiting until they turned 18.”
Olivia Myers, a sophomore international studies major who regularly attends St. John’s, said she is glad the Catholic church is finally punishing those who have perpetuated a culture of silence around abuse in the church.
“While this is something that would have been covered up in the past, I believe the Catholic church is trying to complete its own penance by finally calling out these abusive individuals for their behavior,” Myers said. “People in the Christian community need to know that Catholics are proactive in their efforts to eliminate remnants of hypocrisy from the past.”
With the increase of awareness about abuse within the church, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson is attempting to combat the abuse of child and adult parishioners in Mississippi Catholic churches by requiring mandatory training of those working for the church.
Tonos explained that every person who works in the church, whether they are Catholic or not, has to complete ongoing training.
Though the church has created systems to prevent abuse, scandals continue to surface.
Tonos also wishes that priests were not moved from church to church so often. He believes that having longer terms would increase the accountability of the priests and make it easier for accusations to be handled. Frequent parish reassignments are common in the Catholic Church, and priests are generally moved every one to three years.
“Instability creates a sense of anonymity,” Tonos said. “When you’re anonymous, you might get up to no good because you know that you’re moving out. Whereas, when you have to stay, you actually have to live and deal with the people and their families.”
Tonos urges all survivors of abuse by clergy to contact the police before they talk to their churches.
“Don’t go to your church,” Tonos said. “Don’t go to your priest. Do not call your bishop until you have called law enforcement. If you’re violated with a criminal act like rape or molestation, don’t go to the bishop. Go straight to the civil authorities.”
In order to help ensure the safety of children in the church, the Office for the Protection of Children at the Catholic Diocese of Jackson also encourages any victims to reach out to Victims Assistance Coordinator Valerie McClellan at (601)-326-3728.