John Franklin photo

Cropped photo of John Franklin published in The Town Talk in 1972

It was 1959 when priest John Franklin was stripped of his ability to minister to Catholics in the New Orleans area because he had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor.

Yet within a few years, Franklin was working as a priest in central Louisiana, holding invocations at prep sports awards banquets, presiding over funerals — and by 1966, allegedly abusing another child.

He was still a priest 20 years later, when he fatally shot himself in the head shortly before he could be tried on charges that he sexually abused a preteen altar boy in Florida.

His suicide note said he preferred to be “a dead memory than a living … disgrace.”

Franklin’s story, buried in the balkanized record keeping of the U.S. Catholic Church, has slowly resurfaced following his appearance on last year’s list of credibly accused clergy abusers from the Archdiocese of New Orleans and a listing this week on the release from the Diocese of Alexandria.

It stands as a local example of how past church leaders around the globe, fearing public scrutiny more than child safety, allowed for decades the secret movement of priests between dioceses despite instances of abuse.

Jason Berry, a journalist who has reported extensively on the decades-old abuse scandal, said Franklin is emblematic of a time when society understood child abuse less than it does today and bishops were more concerned about forgiving and rehabilitating a priest rather than doing right by victims.

“The standard line is, ‘Oh well, society didn’t know how bad it was and the church was in the dark as well,’” Berry said. “But the church does have a certain specialty in defining sin.”

“What non-Catholics are aghast at is a church that has such a rigid sense of human sin would show such unfailing myopia toward the sexual crimes within clerical ranks," Berry said. “The hypocrisy is large indeed.”

At the time of his suicide, the only child abuse case to which Franklin had been publicly linked was the one for which sheriff’s deputies in Pensacola, Florida, arrested him in March 1986.

However, the church’s recently released lists now show he had actually left a trail of abuse nearly three decades long, starting before the peak of U.S. priest abuse in the 1960s and 1970s.

Franklin was ordained in 1956 — when he was about 31 — and came under the command of New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel after arriving in the archdiocese from the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, church officials have said. He had also previously served in Atlanta.

He served at Ascension of Our Lord church in Donaldsonville — which is now supervised by the Diocese of Baton Rouge — as well as at St. Gabriel in New Orleans.

Then in 1959, Rummel removed him from public ministry following an allegation of child sexual abuse that officials have released almost no details on.

The removal didn’t mean Franklin was no longer an ordained priest.

An Archdiocese of New Orleans spokeswoman on Friday said it had no information on where Franklin ended up after his ouster.

But the Diocese of Alexandria knew. By 1964, he had landed at Holy Trinity in Shreveport, which at the time was part of that diocese.

His arrival came after his name was omitted from the 1963 edition of the Catholic Directory, a yearbook of priests in the U.S.

Terry McKiernan of the watchdog site BishopAccountability.org, said the absence of a priest from that published guide is often a tell.

While it’s not clear why Franklin wasn’t listed among America’s priests, in other cases that has happened when a cleric was sent away for treatment, McKiernan said.

In any event, new allegations of sexual abuse soon followed.

He was accused of abusing a boy in 1966, which a review board in Alexandria investigated and found credible enough to reach a settlement with an abuse survivor in 2005.

The Diocese also reported that upon reviewing his file this year, officials found multiple other instances of Franklin abusing boys that they also deemed credible.

The Diocese of Alexandria refused to provide the names of any churches under its supervision where Franklin or anyone else on its list of abusers worked, citing a desire to avoid re-traumatizing communities “over a sad portion of their history.”

Many other dioceses have provided this information, and victims advocates say it is essential in part because it makes it easier to identify serial abusers and help others to come forward.

McKiernan, using editions of the Catholic Directory published at the time, was able to track his progress.

McKiernan said Franklin began 1966 stationed at St. Mary’s Assumption and St. Anthony in the Avoyelles Parish town of Cottonport.

In the middle of that year, McKiernan said, Franklin was transferred to St. Joseph Church in St. Joseph, a Tensas Parish town more than 100 miles away.

He later became pastor of St. Louis church in the Alexandria-area town of Glenmora before leaving the diocese in 1973, having made the local papers for delivering the invocation at a high-school sports awards ceremony and organizing a program meant to provide the public with a better understanding about church doctrine.

McKiernan said so many assignments for Franklin in a short period of time is suspicious in retrospect. He said he was bothered that Alexandria’s list lacked a list of pastoral assignments and New Orleans’ didn’t include how much time clerics spent at any one church.

“What’s happening is (church leaders) feel pressure to reveal information but want to reveal it in a way that makes it less useful than it ought to be,” McKiernan said. “If you want to make it hard to understand the priests’ career … you’re going to leave those gaps.”

In 1975, Franklin went to live at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama, and became the retreat center director there.

By 1977, he began going by the name Jonathan instead of John, that year's Catholic Directory shows. 

At some point over the following 10 years, Franklin took on a temporary assignment as a pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida.

It was there that his behavior finally caught law enforcement’s attention.

Police arrested Franklin on March 25, 1986, after a 12-year-old altar boy reported that Franklin molested him at the church.

He faced a trial on second-degree charges of lewd acts involving the boy.

A few weeks before his court date, as he walked along a meditation path at the abbey in Cullman, he shot himself in the head, United Press International reported in 1986.

In his suicide note, Franklin apologized for any “disappointment or embarrassment” that killing himself may have caused. But he also professed his faith in the love and compassion of Jesus and his mercy, insisting that he tried to live as Jesus would have asked.

"I hope none of you will ever be accused in such a way or have to face such a situation in your life,” he added, according to UPI.

His supervisor at the abbey said at the time that Franklin had been deeply depressed. It seemed “inconceivable,” he said, that Franklin could ever hurt another person.

Franklin has now been named on lists of clergy with credible allegations of sexual abuse against them in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the Diocese of Alexandria, and the Diocese of Birmingham.

The Archdiocese of Atlanta and his home diocese of Savannah did not include him on their lists of credibly accused clergy.

Staff writer John Simerman contributed to this report. 

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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