This is not an uplifting Easter story. It’s more of the Good Friday variety, when mankind’s worst instincts are on display, prompting feelings of anger, betrayal and profound sadness.
Following former Franciscan friar Paul West’s conviction this past week by a Leflore County jury, I received a call from Arthur Baselice Jr., a retired Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, police detective who now lives in New Jersey.
He had been following the case of West, who was convicted and given what amounts to a life sentence for sexually abusing La Jarvis Love in the 1990s, when Love was a student at St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School and West was a teacher and later principal.
Around the same time that West was preying on Love and allegedly two of Love’s cousins, another friar from the same Wisconsin-based Franciscan province was allegedly abusing Baselice’s son and namesake, Arthur Baselice III.
Hell hath no fury like the parent of a child abused by a priest.
Baselice laid out the story to me, one that is heavily confirmed by Pennsylvania prosecutors, media accounts and Catholic Church authorities.
The Rev. Charles Newman spent more than 20 years as a teacher, principal and president of Archbishop Ryan High School, the largest Catholic school in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Even after his 2007 arrest on embezzlement charges, some former students of the school described him as a “saint” who gave money to poor students in need, including one year arranging for the roughly $10,000-per-student tuition for three siblings to be covered by the archdiocese.
Baselice himself took Communion from Newman, went to him for confession and even had him bless the house the family bought in New Jersey.
They trusted him fully, only to later learn that Newman and another friar who worked at the high school sexually abused their son during his junior and senior years and allegedly turned him on to alcohol and drugs that would later claim Arthur’s life.
It wasn’t until Arthur was in his mid-20s — about the time authorities began investigating Newman for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the archdiocese and the Franciscan order — that Arthur’s parents learned of the sexual abuse. Baselice said he had a feeling something wasn’t right years before — Newman would regularly pull his son out of classes — and even confronted the priest on a couple of occasions about his suspicions. The cop, though, didn’t push the issue because of the hesitancy of Catholics, especially those raised in the faith from birth, to question the morals of a priest.
By the time the scandal surfaced, Arthur was broken, suffering from depression and drug addiction. Once a strapping football player, “he went from very stocky to a skeleton,” Baselice said. Arthur died in 2006 of a heroin overdose that, according to his father, was probably accidental. He was 28 years old.
Newman and the other friar were never charged with sex crimes because, under Pennsylvania law at the time, the statute of limitations had expired. A 2004 lawsuit against the archdiocese and the Franciscan order, which had earlier tried to get Arthur to accept a $50,000 settlement, was unsuccessful for the same reason.
In 2009, Newman pleaded guilty to stealing what authorities estimated as $900,000 over a 17-month span while he was in the top job at the high school. Prosecutors claimed almost $54,000 of the stolen cash went to Arthur to fund his drug habit and keep him quiet about his past sexual relationship with Newman.
At his sentencing, Newman denied supplying Arthur with drugs or paying for them. The priest said the money he gave him was not “hush money” but to help Arthur pay off gambling debts. He said he only had sexual relations with Arthur once, that it was consensual and that it occurred after Arthur had graduated from the high school and was over the age of 18. Among those who did not believe Newman’s story were his own religious order and the Philadelphia Archdiocese, both of which found Arthur’s accusations to be credible.
Newman spent more than four years in prison. Now in his 70s, he lives in Wisconsin, according to Baselice, and remains a priest but supposedly not in active ministry.
Although Baselice has been more strident than most in exposing the sins of an accused pedophile, there are sadly thousands of more stories like this, not just in the Catholic Church but in other denominations and in nonsectarian youth organizations, most notably the Boy Scouts. Early efforts to cover up the abuses — putting a higher priority on preserving an institution’s image than on the safety of children — only made the disillusionment worse.
The abuses and the coverups have tarnished these institutions in a way that it may take decades for them to recover. They may never regain the standing and trust they once held.
Baselice, previously a devout Catholic, won’t be in anyone’s church on Easter Sunday. He said he retains his faith in God but not in those who are supposed to be his agents here on earth.
“I don’t despise the Church,” he says. “I despise the people running the Church.”