Samoa takes steps to deport fugitive cleric

The Samoan government, prompted by a Dallas Morning News report, moved Wednesday to deport a fugitive Catholic priest for failing to disclose a child sexual abuse conviction before entering the country.

Immigration authorities also are investigating the priest's superiors in the Salesians of Don Bosco religious order because they, too, did not disclose the information, said Auseugaefa Poloma Komiti, senior adviser to Samoa's prime minister and Cabinet.

Samoan authorities served the Rev. Frank Klep with a deportation order late Wednesday afternoon, giving him two days to leave the country, Mr. Komiti said.

Deportation will force Father Klep back to Australia, where he is the subject of a nationwide arrest warrant on five charges of indecent assault. Samoan officials said they are coordinating his return with Australian authorities.

"We can't help but think what was foremost was to have Father Klep evade the law by assigning him overseas," said Mr. Komiti, who oversees immigration matters in Samoa. "They were not thinking or giving two hoots about the children of this country."

The Salesians' leader for Australia and the South Pacific, the Rev. Ian Murdoch, said Wednesday that "Father Klep's situation is under consideration" and that a further statement would be made today. He added that the Salesians "did not send Father Klep to Samoa in order that he evade the law."

Samoan officials also were investigating how a second Salesian priest with a history of sexual abuse, the Rev. Jack Ayers, entered the South Pacific island nation. The Salesians paid a settlement to Father Ayers' accuser, according to records The News obtained.

Mr. Komiti said Samoan authorities were trying to determine whether they were dealing with isolated incidents or a pattern. He said the investigations into Father Ayers and the role that Salesian officials played in helping Father Klep get into Samoa could be completed this week.

"It's becoming clear this was well-coordinated," he said. "They are looking at Samoa as if it is a safe haven for [abusive] priests. That's a big slap in the face in any book."

Father Klep moved to Samoa in early 1998 while he was a target of a criminal investigation in the Australian state of Victoria. He told The News in a recent interview that his Salesian superior at the time suggested the reassignment because "I think he realized that I'd probably feel a bit more comfortable being removed from the situation" in Australia.

The superior, the Rev. John Murphy, has said the priest's version of events was "not altogether true" but has declined to elaborate. Father Murphy now works in Samoa. He sponsored Father Klep's entry into the country, Mr. Komiti said.

Father Murdoch said in a statement this week that the order has "cooperated, and will certainly continue to cooperate, with any law enforcement agency."

He also continued to insist that Father Klep has no contact or ministry with children. Last month, The News observed and photographed the priest handing candy to children after a Sunday Mass and interviewed teenage boys who said they saw Father Klep regularly.

In completing paperwork required to enter Samoa, Father Klep did not disclose his 1994 abuse conviction, Mr. Komiti said. The priest was found guilty of assaulting two students at a Salesian boarding school outside Melbourne during the 1970s.

After he finished his sentence of nine months' community service, he came under investigation again. While the case remained open, he moved to Samoa in 1998.

Later that year, Victoria police filed five charges of indecent assault against him and issued an arrest warrant but did not seek his extradition. Victoria officials previously told The News that Australia had no formal extradition treaty with Samoa.

Australian federal authorities said this week they still could have sought Father Klep's return, but Victoria police never asked them for help. Victoria police declined to comment.

As for Salesian officials, the Samoan government is investigating whether they had a legal obligation to report Father Klep's criminal record when he came to Samoa. If they did, Salesian officials would probably face expulsion as well, Mr. Komiti said.

Aside from a legal mandate, Mr. Komiti said, "there was a moral imperative to do so. We have this feeling of being betrayed."

The Salesians also apparently did not tell Samoa's top Catholic leader that Father Klep was wanted in Australia.

Archbishop Alapati Mataeliga's secretary told The News that Father Murdoch had informed local church leaders about the 1994 conviction but did not fully divulge details of the 1998 charges.

The secretary, Puletini M. Tuala, said the archbishop was reconsidering his previous decision to let Father Klep remain in Samoa. Two weeks ago, Mr. Tuala told The News that the archbishop had decided to let Father Klep and Father Ayers stay.

"Although these incidents happened with these two priests, they have dealt with it themselves and with their congregation," he wrote. "They are valid and allowed to work in our archdiocese."

A man whom Father Klep had acknowledged abusing at the boarding school during the 1970s said he was relieved that the priest might have to face Australia's justice system. But, he added, "I'll believe it when I see it."

"He's had a pretty easy run," said the man, who spoke on the condition he not be named. "It's finally caught up to him."