The Navy has punished more than 40 chaplains during the past decade for offenses including sexual abuse and fraud — a misconduct rate much higher than for other officers, according to documents that detail the Navy’s alarm at the problem.
“Navy chaplains, in fact, create a disproportionate number of problem cases,” Navy Chaplain Corps official Bradford E. Ableson wrote in a 1999 memo that is among several documents obtained by the Associated Press.
The previously undisclosed documents detail offenses that included adultery, spousal assault and sexual harassment that were so prevalent that in 1999, then-Navy Secretary Richard Danzig ordered a new training and oversight program to ensure the Navy’s nearly 870 chaplains met high moral standards.
Mr. Ableson, the deputy executive assistant to the chief of Navy chaplains, wrote the memo to give his boss details on the extent of the problem.
The chaplain corps implemented that retraining program but hasn’t tracked how many chaplains have been punished since then, said Lt. Jon Spiers, a chaplain corps spokesman.
Court records and news stories show that since 1999 at least one chaplain has been convicted of indecent acts and a recently retired chaplain was charged with murder.
Lt. Spiers said the chief of Navy chaplains, Rear Adm. Barry Black, has made enforcing ethical standards his top priority. Adm. Black has been nominated to become the U.S. Senate chaplain.
Lt. Spiers said the chaplain corps shouldn’t be judged by its members’ misconduct.
“To say the actions of a few speak for the service of the many thousands of men and women who serve and have served as Navy chaplains does an injustice to all the good work these officers give so willingly,” Lt. Spiers said in a written reply to questions submitted by the AP.
Mr. Danzig declined comment through an assistant at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he is a senior fellow.
In interviews last year, Lt. Spiers acknowledged one case mentioned in the 1999 memo — that of Neal Destefano, sentenced to five years in prison in 1994 for drugging and molesting two Marines.
Mr. Ableson’s 1999 memo stated that “Chaplain Corps disciplinary cases are monitored by … the Chief of Chaplains Office.” But Lt. Spiers said the chaplain corps no longer keeps statistics on punished chaplains.
“If these cases were monitored in 1999, they are not now,” he said.
Most of the punished chaplains, 28 of the 42, were accused of sexual misconduct or harassment, according to the documents obtained by the AP.
For example, a Roman Catholic chaplain went to prison for molesting the young sons of sailors and Marines. A Seventh-day Adventist chaplain was court-martialed for an indecent assault during a counseling session. Three chaplains — a Baptist, a Catholic and a United Pentecostal Church International minister — were punished for downloading pornography onto Navy computers.
Despite its relatively small size, the chaplain corps had at least 39 officers disciplined between 1994 and 1999 — more than the number disciplined among the rest of the Navy’s 32,000 regular officers, Mr. Ableson wrote.
The regular officers had a discipline rate of 2 per 1,000, while the rate for chaplains was 45 per 1,000, other Navy memos said.
The corps’ troubles have continued.
In 2001, Catholic chaplain Cmdr. Robert Milewski was convicted of fondling a sailor during a massage the year before and fined $48,000.
Lt. Spiers said chaplains are held to the same standards as other Navy officers. But Mr. Ableson’s memo questioned whether the chaplain corps fosters tolerance for misbehavior.
“Too many officers with integrity problems are nurtured by the CHC [chaplain corps] culture and advanced by the CHC system,” he concluded.
The system rallied to the defense of some convicted chaplains, according to Navy records.
Catholic chaplain Lt. Robert Hrdlicka pleaded guilty to molesting boys in 1993. Before his sentencing, six other Catholic Navy chaplains and the church’s archbishop for the military services urged authorities to send Lt. Hrdlicka to a church-run treatment center.
“It is my fervent hope and prayer that he will be able to return to the active ministry as soon as possible,” wrote then-Cmdr. Robert L. Kincl.
Instead, Lt. Hrdlicka went to prison.
The 1999 memos also show that some chaplains were given light punishment for serious offenses.