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War in the Chaplain Corps: The Cross and the Anchor

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of a three-part series on legal conflicts igniting and dividing the Navy Chaplain Corps. Many evangelicals say the Navy prefers Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants over them, discriminates against them in promotions and even tries to tell them what to preach. The Navy denies the claims. Now, a class-action suit representing about 2,000 present and former chaplains threatens to overhaul naval promotions and cost the sea service tens of millions of dollars in back pay. The evangelicals also claim the corps is rife with corruption. Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina announced last week that he has formally requested a congressional hearing.

Navy evangelical chaplains waging war against the Navy Chaplain Corps are using their colleagues’ dirtiest robes as one of their primary weapons.

They say they aren’t after vindictiveness, but fairness. The suing evangelicals claim that Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant liturgical chaplains — or those who follow a formal order of worship — are promoted to higher ranks than evangelicals, and are treated by different rules. They also claim that some chaplains can get away with sexual misconduct and harassment, while evangelicals can be chastised merely for the force with which they express their beliefs.

The Navy denies any bias. Still, the evangelicals — about 2,000 strong — have filed a class-action suit with a scope dating back to 1977. The suit points out a series of scandals that, even considering the recent disclosures of clergy misconduct in the United States, will likely shock the average sailor who views chaplains as the fleet’s purest officers.

“It’s tabloid,” said Philip Veitch, an ex-chaplain who is suing for reinstatement to the Navy after, he claims, being forced to resign because of his preaching. “But if the facts themselves have an incendiary and inflammatory impact. It’s the facts that have the duty of speaking.”

An attorney representing evangelicals in several suits called the revelations, “toxic.”

“One of my specialties before was cleaning up toxic waste,” said Arthur Schulcz, a Vienna, Va.- based lawyer, whose background is in environmental law. “Superfund. That’s what we have is a Superfund site.”

An internal Navy review found that chaplains have more discipline problems than the entire population of regular officers.

Former Navy chaplains have been convicted of child molestation, even murder. And court testimony accuses others of skirting promotion rules, sexual harassment and embezzling money.

Many suing chaplains claim cover-ups of such crimes are commonplace.

“In spite of the ongoing litigation, the Chaplain Corps has not changed its modus operandi at all,” said James Weibling, a recently retired Baptist chaplain who lives in Texas. “They’re still doing the very same things.”

Among the five major suits now filed by evangelicals against the Navy are two class actions, which could cost the Navy millions of dollars in back pay if a judge rules in the evangelicals’ favor.

The suits, filed in 1999, have generated such frenzy that major evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Associated Gospel Churches, have called on the Navy to investigate and right itself. On Monday, U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., announced his formal request for a House Armed Services Committee hearing. Some of the very principles outlying the separation of church and state are being put to the test.

“There is a double standard working here, and we’re going to stop the double standard,” said Cmdr. Furniss Harkness, a reservist chaplain with the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, living in Memphis.

Lt. Cmdr. David Wilder, a chaplain stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., said the suits and charged allegations are nasty but necessary.

“Some say, ‘You’re going to ruin the Chaplain Corps,’” the Baptist said. “I think it’s pretty well ruined already.”

An internal Navy report requested by then-Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig shows that from 1994 through 1999, the less than 900 naval chaplains had more cases of misconduct than the entire Navy unrestricted line community — the bulk of the Navy’s officer corps that numbers more than 30,000 people.

All told, 39 chaplains were disciplined, including 19 for sexual misconduct, 14 for general misconduct, six for sexual harassment and three for assault.

The report, written by Chaplain Corps Deputy Executive Assistant Bradford E. Ableson, concluded that chaplain problems weren’t simply a matter of fuzzy math.

He wrote that the corps’ claim that its problems are small “is not supported by the facts. Navy chaplains, in fact, create a disproportionate number of problem cases.”

Ableson also wrote that “the high incident of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment cases by junior officers indicates a dearth of character by an unacceptably high number. … Too many officers with integrity problems are nurtured by the CHC (or Chaplain Corps) culture and advanced by the CHC system. Systematic remedies are required.”

Though unearthed by the suing evangelicals, the report includes a variety of faith groups, including some of their own. Names were omitted from the document.

According to the report:

• One Baptist minister exposed himself to children.
• A Roman Catholic priest was imprisoned for drugging and molesting enlisted personnel.
• One Catholic priest was a heroin addict.
• Three officers — a Baptist, a Catholic and a United Pentecostal Church International chaplain — were punished for downloading pornography onto U.S. government computers. The priest was reported to have downloaded it in the presence of someone he was counseling.
• A Lutheran was accused of being a Peeping Tom.

The chaplains suing the Navy say the Chaplain Corps has run without scrutiny for years. A Navy spokesman, however, said the Chaplain Corps is a fine organization that serves sailors in times of peace and excels in times of war.

Lt. Jon Spiers, Navy personnel spokesman, said the chaplaincy does not maintain a log of clergy misconduct. Spiers, however, defended the chaplaincy, saying he has spent a lot of time with Rear Adm. Barry Black, the immediate past chief of chaplains and his successor, Rear Adm. Lou Iasiello.

“One message that was consistent was, ‘Look at the amazing work that the chaplains and religious program specialists have done during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom — helping people deal with real tough circumstances. They’ve been doing this for 200-some years, as long as the Chaplain Corps has been around. These are people who day in and day out spend their time helping others.”

The list of naval chaplains accused or convicted of crimes listed in military documents, court depositions and news reports, however, staggers.

“When I came into this case and people started telling me stories, my initial reaction was, ‘That can’t be,’ because of my Army experience,” said Schulcz, also a retired lieutenant colonel. “But it didn’t take me too long to realize there’s a different culture in the Navy. There seems to be a lack of interest in the truth.”

Abuse allegations

At least five Catholic Navy chaplains are known to have faced court-martial over, or have settled out of court on, sex crime allegations. At least two of the priests were stationed in Europe.

The case most often referred to by the suing evangelicals is that of Robert Hrdlicka, a former lieutenant convicted of multiple counts of sexually abusing boys at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, in 1988 and at a Marine Corps base in Beaufort, S.C., from 1990 through 1992. The boys were aged 7 to 11.

Hrdlicka served nearly six years in prison after pleading guilty during a court-martial. He is now believed to live in St. Louis but could not be reached for comment.

According to court-martial documents obtained by Stars and Stripes, Hrdlicka was found to have abused boys on two occasions in Sicily and five occasions in South Carolina.

According to other documents obtained by Stripes, several priests — including one accused of harassing evangelical chaplains — vouched for Hrdlicka or asked to have him pardoned and turned over to church officials for treatment.

Ronald Buchmiller, a priest and retired Navy captain whom several evangelicals accuse of discrimination while he served as command chaplain in Naples, Italy, wrote a letter asking for counseling for Hrdlicka rather than prison.

“I have known Robert Hrdlicka as a chaplain and a friend for eight years,” Buchmiller wrote. Buchmiller said that while posted in Virginia Beach, Va., Hrdlicka “always seemed to be involved with groups, and programs appeared to be growing because of his obvious zeal and concern for human needs.”

Buchmiller also said that he was often in contact with Hrdlicka when the latter was stationed at Sigonella. “All of our conversations were filled with the enthusiasm of building educational and community-oriented programs. Visiting with other chaplains and families from Sigonella, I heard of the long hours he put into their community. Frequently they spoke of having sought his counsel. He was known for his ability to heal and respond to human needs.”

Buchmiller said Hrdlicka displayed “shock and disbelief” at being accused of molesting boys. In the letter, Buchmiller asked that Hrdlicka be sent to St. Louis for counseling.

Buchmiller, now pastoring a church in Lakeside, Calif., declined further comment.

At least three other Catholic chaplains and the archbishop of the military services also wrote letters asking that the military have mercy on Hrdlicka.

Hrdlicka requested clemency himself, admitting his guilt but hoping for counseling instead of jail.

“During the past few months, I was able to stop lying to myself and seek some type of help,” Hrdlicka wrote in his clemency request. “… I am trying to get help, help geared to my situation, help geared to the special circumstances of a priest who has betrayed his vocation, his people and himself.”

Shortly after his release in 1999, Hrdlicka and a former cellmate tried to infiltrate Canada by saying they were clergy with plans to start a children’s charity, according to the Associated Press. Canada refused them entrance due to their prior convictions.

Four brothers demanded $2 million last year from the Lincoln Diocese in Nebraska, saying Hrdlicka molested them in 1978 before he joined the Navy.

The latest Navy priest to be accused of sexual misconduct, Cmdr. Brian Bjorklund, was suspended in July. The chaplain stationed in Lemoore, Calif., was restricted from priestly duties by the Detroit archdiocese for allegations involving a minor prior to joining the Navy.

Another allegation to surface from Europe involves the Rev. Carl Peltz, a former Navy chaplain who was stationed in Iceland in the 1980s.

In May, the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Mich., announced after a review that it had no credible evidence to show that Peltz sexually abused a 12-year-old boy while stationed in Iceland in 1985. Peltz currently serves at St. Ambrose Parish in Parchment, Mich.

The Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio, however, previously paid $25,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Peltz’s accuser. Though the diocese settled out of court in 1993, Peltz’s accuser renewed his allegations in 2002 once the wider priest sex abuse scandal hit the news. The subsequent review in Kalamazoo sided with Peltz. Peltz also maintains his innocence.

“Father Carl Peltz has been a dedicated and caring priest serving the faithful of the Diocese of Kalamazoo since 1997,” Bishop James Murray said in a prepared statement. “I am grateful for his service and regret the painful process he has had to endure this past year. I am also grateful for the many people who have supported him during this time. Father Peltz remains a priest in good standing of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, and I hope he will enjoy many years of fruitful ministry.”

Peltz will not talk to the media about the ruling or accusation and had the diocese or his attorney respond on his behalf.

“He had a rough time,” diocese spokesman Brent King said. “He’s had some physical ailments as well. It’s been rough on him physically and emotionally. It was in the media, then it came back to life. It was settled 10 years ago.”

‘Spielberg’ incident

The class-action campaign also levels charges of false promotion in connection with Cmdr. John Lyle, a Catholic priest who first made headlines when he was principal of a private high school, where he enrolled a 27-year-old Iranian porn actor as a student.

The faux student claimed he was the nephew of Hollywood director Steven Spielberg.

Court documents allege Lyle was illegally switched from a reservist lieutenant commander to an active-duty commander following the school scandal. Recalling a reserve chaplain at that rank is against naval regulations — in fact, court documents allege, Lyle should have been demoted to lieutenant.

“Because recalling Reserve chaplains at this rank violates Secretary of Navy Instruction 1120.4A and is therefore illegal, the Navy’s recall orders deceitfully disguised Lyle as a flight surgeon,” a petition for Lyle’s recall states.

Copies of Lyle’s orders obtained by Stars and Stripes do in fact state that Lyle would serve in the sky, not the pulpit.

“You will be assigned to duty in a part of [an] aeronautic organization of the Navy involving flying,” the orders from September 2001 read. They said Lyle would be designated a “student naval flight surgeon.”

The suing evangelicals allege Lyle’s promotion is an example of bias in favor of certain faiths.

“This is illegal,” Schulcz said. “The Navy has favored liturgical chaplains by bringing them into active duty without having paid their dues.”

One evangelical called it a “power grab.”

“Why didn’t he come in as a lieutenant?” asked former chaplain Ron Wilkins, a Baptist from Oklahoma who has filed his own discrimination suit. “If he wanted to minister to the troops, why didn’t he come in as a lieutenant? Why would he want to shuffle papers?”

Lyle, contacted at this current post at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla., declined a request for an interview.

“Since this matter is still in the court, it would not be appropriate for me to make any comments,” Lyle wrote in an e-mailed response. He said he welcomed the opportunity to defend himself, but felt it unnecessary to do so.

Lyle referred further questions to Navy public affairs. Spiers, the spokesman for naval personnel, declined further comment.

The Iranian-born student whom Lyle enrolled, born in Tehran as Anoushirvan Fakhran, had changed his name to Jonathan Taylor Spielberg and claimed he was the director’s teenage nephew.

The man parked his BMW, license-plated “SPLBERG,” in Lyle’s parking space at Paul VI High School in Fairfax, Va. The impostor had told the school he was researching a teen movie. The school found out something was up when it attempted to contact Uncle Steven through DreamWorks SKG to complain of the truancy of the “nephew.”

In January 2000, Fairfax police arrested Fakhran on charges of forgery and submitting false documents to the high school, misstating his age on a name-change petition, and for possessing a book police said contained child pornography. The man formerly known as Fakhran was really 27.

According to the Fairfax County Circuit Court, Fakhran Spielberg pleaded guilty to forgery and in July 2000 was handed an 11-month suspended sentence, two years probation with a mental health program and 100 hours’ community service.

As for the principal, Lyle left Paul VI at the end of the 1999- 2000 school year and went on active naval duty. School officials say the end of his tenure there had nothing to do with the Spielberg incident.

“His departure was part of a larger decision by the Oblates \[priestly order\] to withdraw their presence from this school community due to a shortage of priests they had to staff the school,” Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools at the Diocese of Arlington, said in a prepared statement.

The superintendent’s assistant, Maureen McMahon, said Paul VI was a good school and that Lyle didn’t err in admitting Spielberg.

“There’s no way he could have known,” McMahon said.

Fairfax City Police Detective Michael Boone said Lyle was never investigated during the Spielberg case, but that his future was left to the school.

Former chaplain kills

The saddest case related to the Navy chaplaincy is that of the Rev. Michael Tabb, who in September went to prison after pleading guilty to beating his wife to death shortly after finishing duty as a chaplain at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Tabb’s wife had just given birth to their second son.

Police in east Texas arrested the Methodist minister, now 42, on Aug. 14, 2002, for the murder of Marla Tabb, 35. Tabb had moved to the town of Troup in June 2002 to serve at two churches immediately after leaving the Navy. According to United Methodist Church spokeswoman Joretta Purdue, Tabb became a Navy chaplain in 1998.

On Sept. 29 of this year, Tabb pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 55 years behind bars.

“We’ve never had a case where a reverend or a pastor had committed murder,” said Matt Bingham, chief felony prosecutor for Smith County. “We still don’t know the motive.”

Bingham said that under Texas law, Tabb would not be eligible for parole for decades.

“He’ll do 27½ years, day for day, before a parole officer ever hears from him.”


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