Priest Facing Child Sex Abuse Allegation Committed Suicide

By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - A Roman Catholic priest who was facing a newly disclosed allegation of child sex abuse from 1980 committed suicide, a coroner ruled Friday.

The Rev. Don A. Rooney, 48, was found slumped over the wheel Thursday in a pharmacy parking lot in suburban Hinckley, a gunshot wound to the head. Cuyahoga County coroner Elizabeth Balraj ruled it suicide.

The priest left a note. "It was just to notify a family member. That's all," Balraj said.

Rooney's church, St. Anthony of Padua Church in nearby Parma, planned a prayer service Friday night for the priest. Arrangements for his funeral were not complete Friday.

Bob Tayek, spokesman for the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, said it remains unclear whether Rooney knew he was under investigation for the alleged abuse.

Tayek said a woman had called on Monday to allege that Rooney, as a newly ordained priest, sexually abused her in 1980 when she was a girl. The alleged abuse occurred at Rooney's first priestly assignment, at Sacred Heart Church in Wadsworth.

The diocese had asked Rooney to attend a meeting with Bishop Anthony Pilla on Wednesday but did not tell him that it was about the allegation, Tayek said. Pilla has been outspoken about the need within the diocese to identify priests who have abused children.

Rooney's family reported him missing when he did not show up, Tayek said. Wadsworth police and the Cuyahoga County's Department of Children & Family Services were then notified of the woman's complaint.

Asked if the woman who made the allegation may have told Rooney, Tayek said he did not know but that the diocese had no reason to believe the priest was aware of the charge.

"That's simply a correlation we can't draw," Tayek said.

Wadsworth police Sgt. Mark Anderson declined to discuss the investigation, saying it was confidential.

Jim McCafferty, executive director of the children's services agency, said he did not know of any other claims of children being abused by Rooney.

Tayek said Rooney, who was ordained in 1979, "did normal pastoral work" at his parish and there were no other complaints or allegations against him. But later Friday, Tayek said the diocese was looking into more allegations that came after people learned of the priest's death.

He would not say how many more allegations were made.

"As the day progressed we at the diocese did receive some additional phone calls regarding allegations that, since Father Rooney's death, related to him, so we asked those parties to, along with us, make the proper phone call to investigative authorities," Tayek said.

The Roman Catholic church's view of suicide has changed over the years but is still considered a major sin, said the Rev. Joseph Murphy, a professor of theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum, a seminary in Columbus where Catholic priests are ordained.

Murphy said Catholics believe life is God-given and it is not up to them to decide whether life is worth living.

He said a funeral Mass and Christian burial is now usually accepted for suicide victims.

"We're just all in shock," said Victoria Pisano, a parishioner at St. Anthony of Padua. "I can't believe he would take his life being a man of faith. No matter what you do, God forgives you."

A national examination of child sex abuse cases among priests intensified since January, with the disclosure in Boston that former priest John J. Geoghan had been moved from parish to parish after being accused. Since January, several priests out of more than 47,000 nationwide have been suspended or forced to resign.

Rooney was contemplative in his prayer and recently taught a class at St. Anthony of Padua on deeper prayer, said Pisano, a 12-year parishioner.

"He gave tremendous homilies. They were heart-moving; they made you walk away and think," she said.

Rooney had served as associate pastor at St. Anthony since 1999. He also had served at St. Columbkille in Parma, St. Patrick in Cleveland and St. Margaret Mary in suburban South Euclid.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)