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Father Thomas Stitts may have confessed to sexually abusing boys before death

Father Thomas Stitts may have confessed to sexually abusing boys before death
Father Thomas Stitts, courtesy of Jeffrey Anderson & Associates

Father Thomas Stitts had been dead for mere days before his colleagues began digging up his spirit.

In a "STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL" memo dated November 22, 1985, then-Bishop Robert Carlson writes of Stitts's possible exploits with boys. Rumors were circulating that, before the cancer got him, Stitts had come clean about his "moral activity" and named similarly abusive priests in a letter.

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Kenneth LaVan, accused priest, kept working for archdiocese until 2014

Carlson's memo draws no definitive conclusion, but suggests that a choir director burned the confession to avoid scandal.

What remains of the priest's secret personnel file -- released Thursday as part of an upcoming lawsuit -- is open to interpretation. Stitts is a more mysterious figure than the other priests who've been scrutinized over the last year. He seems to have been intensely private.

But it's also clear from reading his file that he was deeply troubled, and that his superiors worried about him openly.

In 1979, for instance, then-Archbishop John Roach wrote, "I am very pleased to hear that the whole issue that you and I discussed has worked out," meaning an allegation of abuse. "I would add only one thing," Roach continued, "and that is that if there is something you feel you ought to be facing that you be sure to get some help."

The next year, Stitts asked for sabbatical. Five days later, a family told the archbishop that they knew of an anonymous letter circulating about their son's abuse. Somehow, the unnamed author had knowledge of Stitts's dark nature and warned that more boys might get hurt.

In response, church officials allowed Stitts to take a month-long vacation. Next they considered moving him to a new parish, as he'd been "upset," "uptight," and "over his head" while serving at St. John the Baptist in New Brighton.

Another internal memo from October 1983 is the best evidence that Stitts was abusing children. Carlson writes of two boys from a troubled family who stayed on the priest's couch even though a guest room lay vacant in the rectory. After a few drinks one night, Stitts told friends about the "sexual favors" he had been requesting, according to Carlson.

Stitts died on October 13, 1985, but his ghost still hangs over the archdiocese. He's been the subject of several lawsuits, beginning in 1993. Although the archdiocese would claim publicly that it had no prior knowledge of Stitts's behavior, the documents in his file begged to differ.

By 2004, Kevin McDonough, the former vicar general, was confident enough to identify Stitts in writing as an abuser.

Two more lawsuits were filed in 2013. Both allege molestation at St. Leo the Great Church in St. Paul. One claims that, in 1970, Stitts forced a boy's hand around the priest's penis "as penance for (his) sins."

In a statement, Charles Lachowitzer, the vicar general of the archdiocese, notes that Stitts was included on the list of "credibly accused" priests that was compiled in 2002 and went public in Decemeber 2013. Today's protocol is to call law enforcement, Lachowitzer says, adding: "We ask for forgiveness from, and pray for hope and healing for, all victims and survivors of sexual abuse, their families, and their friends."

-- Send story tips to the author or follow him on Twitter @marxjesse



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