How Problematic Priests Are Warehoused
Since at least 1947, when a religious community called the Servants of the Paraclete opened one of the first treatment centers for priests grappling with pedophilia and substance abuse, dioceses have often warehoused problematic priests.
The “rehab” facility closest to Houston is Splendora’s Shalom Center, whose website states, “We genuinely seek to create a spirit of Gospel compassion, a nonjudgmental atmosphere and a safe environment where healing and growth can happen.”
The Shalom Center is included in a 1995 U.S. Conference of Bishops survey on treatment centers, in which it’s described as dealing mostly with priests suffering from “behaviors related to pornography, sexual exploitation, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and prostitution.” The survey, available on the Bishop Accountability website, notes that initial assessments and referrals are available for priests dealing with “pedophilia and ephebophilia [sexual attraction to adolescents].”
In the survey’s anonymous comments section, where diocesan officials can share their thoughts, one official wrote that Shalom is “sometimes too eager to ‘excuse’ priest offender[s]”
More severe cases, such as that of the Reverend Donald Leroy Stavinoha, are usually sent to facilities in New Mexico and Missouri.
On a May night in 1986, Stavinoha stopped by the home of a parishioner, a single mother whose young son he’d taken a special interest in, according to court records. For two years (beginning when the boy was seven), “Father Don” would stop by the home, which was within walking distance of Immaculate Heart of Mary in the East End, sometimes bringing San Juan candles. Once he performed a blessing of the house.
But on that night, Stavinoha told the nine-year-old boy’s mother that he was taking the boy “to play video games.”
Instead, Stavinoha went to 7-11, where he bought a Slurpee for the boy and a six-pack of beer for himself.
Later that night, while patrolling Glenbrook Park in southeast Houston, police officer Gerardo Gamez spotted what appeared to be an abandoned church van in the parking lot. But when Gamez approached the van and shined his flashlight in the window, he “observed [Stavinoha] holding the young boy’s penis with both hands and sucking on the same with his mouth.”
Gamez would later say that Stavinoha identified himself as a priest right away. The officer didn’t recognize Stavinoha at first, but later, according to the Houston Chronicle, it clicked: Gamez attended the same church; his two boys were in Stavinoha’s catechism class.
After ordering Stavinoha out of the van, Gamez called for backup — not so much as protection for himself but for his suspect.
“I was afraid I’d tear into him, beat him, and I didn’t want to ruin the case,” Gamez told the Chronicle.
Another officer testified that Stavinoha laughed as he was being booked into jail. “I asked him what he was laughing about,” Alphonso Amato Jr. said, according to the Chronicle. “He told me, ‘They won’t do anything to me. I’m a priest.’”
Stavinoha pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated sexual assault. Court records show that the boy told investigators that Stavinoha had abused him five or six times. Records also state that Stavinoha was “also a suspect in sexual assaults of other children in the area.”
There is no record of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s reaching out to other potential victims. But Fiorenza had an easy out: Stavinoha was technically on loan from a mission of the Oblates order in San Antonio.
While awaiting a trial for sentencing, Stavinoha was sent to the Paracletes’ pedophile rehab center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico.
At trial, one of the facility’s psychologists testified that Stavinoha was not sexually attracted to children, and that “he would really like to be asexual.”
The psychologist testified that Stavinoha was “a very shy, very timid individual” who lived with a constant fear that he just wasn’t “holy enough.” The priest had such “a sense of inadequacy gnawing in his gut” that he sometimes suffered painful ulcers. Ultimately, the psychologist said, Stavinoha was still fit to be a priest.
In 1988, Stavinoha was sentenced to ten years in prison, but was released after 14 months. He lived for a while at the Oblates mission before he was transferred to another pedophile center located on hundreds of tranquil, woodsy acres outside St. Louis, alternately known as RECON and Wounded Brothers. He died in 2007.
The victim’s mother sued the archdiocese and the Oblates in Bexar County in 1991. The case was settled confidentially.
Stavinoha appealed his sentencing, arguing that prosecutor Jim Buchanan should not have been allowed to repeatedly call Stavinoha a wolf in sheep’s clothing while addressing the jury.
At trial, Stavinoha’s defense attorney, Ed Mallett, had made a similar argument, objecting several times to the prosecutor’s “comparing the defendant with animals.” After the judge overruled Mallett, Buchanan let his frustration be known, saying, “I object to his objection.”
The appellate court sided with the trial judge, first by reiterating that Stavinoha was caught in the back of a church van with a nine-year-old boy’s penis in his mouth. “A reasonable inference from the evidence,” the court ruled, “is that [Stavinoha], taking advantage of his church-given stature, befriended the [boy] and his family for the sole purpose of obtaining sexual gratification."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.