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Alerting police not required by diocese sex abuse policy

Sunday, June 9, 2002

By Kathleen A. Shaw
Telegram & Gazette Staff


WORCESTER -- The Catholic Diocese of Worcester's new policy on addressing allegations of sexual abuse is considered by some to be an improvement, but questions are being raised about why contacting law enforcement authorities isn't among the guidelines.

Bishop Daniel P. Reilly said in an interview last week that the new policy does not include calling police, but does state that information about such allegations will be forwarded to the district attorney's office.

“We have not done that, but anyone making an allegation can call police on their own. We will not stop them,” he said.

The bishop said the new policy puts the diocese in the position of being able to do something about a scandal that he admitted is worse than even he thought. “We have been reacting to events. Things have just been coming so fast and furious.
“I feel like we have been under Niagara Falls, and now we have some way of responding to the problem and doing what is absolutely necessary to bring about healing for the victims and to provide a safe environment for the children,” the bishop said.

The new policy also is evolving, according to Bishop Reilly. He said he is pleased that the U.S. Bishops conference this week in Dallas will consider defrocking priests for sexual misconduct.

The Worcester Diocese's policy doesn't cover defrocking priests, the bishop said, because doing so previously required approval by the Vatican. He said he favors defrocking priests who abuse people and noted that the diocesan policy will be revised to include provisions adopted by the bishops.

William J. Allen, who said he was sexually abused by the Rev. David L. Blizard in the mid-1970s, said he was surprised to discover there was no mention of calling police. Mr. Allen said he was abused while he was studying to enter the priesthood. After undergoing therapy, he said he reported that he was abused by the priest to a “hot line” established by the Worcester Diocese in the early 1990s, but that there was no follow-up to his complaint.

“I feel that there should have been more emphasis given to the immediate reporting of assault or abuse to civil authority,” Mr. Allen said of the diocese's new policy. “I am left with the sense that the diocese is still trying to control and manage a reporting process which should actually start not with diocesan officials, but with law enforcement.”

Rev. Blizard subsequently was removed from active assignment by the diocese and has moved out of the area.

Lawyer Daniel J. Shea, who has filed civil suits on behalf of some alleged victims of sexual abuse by clergy members, said he believes the new policy is fraught with illegality because of the absence of a requirement to notify law enforcement authorities. Most lawyers, he added, will avoid talking at length with clients in such cases until they have checked to see whether there is an active police investigation. Discussing a case with a client during an ongoing police investigation would foul the process, he said.

The new policy leaves the diocese with the role of policing, which constitutes a conflict of interest, the lawyer said. Reporting an allegation first to the church, according to Mr. Shea, puts the diocese in a position of “tampering with witnesses.
“I just find this to be horribly inappropriate,” he added.

Patricia O'Leary Engdahl, a mother, lawyer and former assistant district attorney, said the Worcester Diocese's new policy on handling allegations of sexual misconduct requires more extensive participation by laymen in the church.

Ms. Engdahl, who was born and grew up in Worcester and now lives in Rutland, will oversee implementation of the new policy. She is now setting up a system to conduct criminal records checks of all priests and diocesan employees and is working on training clergy and employees on complying with the recently passed state law mandating the reporting of any suspected abuse.

“I will be going out to parishes to talk about these issues and bring them up to date on the CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) checks and mandated reporting law,” she said. She is organizing groups of laymen to go into parishes and help Catholics deal with the loss of priests who have been removed because of sexual misconduct allegations.

“I also want to get feedback from the parishioners on what they believe needs to be done,” she said. Ms. Engdahl, too, believes the new policy is one that will change and evolve.

She said a person who wants to make a formal complaint to the diocese concerning recent abuse should call (508) 929-4348. After lodging a complaint, callers then will be asked to contact the state Department of Social Services immediately. The DSS focuses exclusively on children under 18. Ms. Engdahl said anonymous complaints will not be considered by the diocese, but will be taken by the DSS.

She said two members of the diocese's Initial Review Committee will meet with those lodging complaints, and a written report of the allegation will be made. The complainant will be asked to sign the report.

Those who make complaints can begin directly with Ms. Engdahl. “I will ask them whether they want to come in to talk with me or someone else,” she said.

Ms. Engdahl, who has two school-age daughters, said she handled a number of sexual abuse cases involving children and rapes of women when she was an assistant district attorney in the Worcester district attorney's office. A graduate of Suffolk Law School, she also has worked for the Henry Lee Willis Center in Worcester and has experience in dealing with DSS.

One member of the review committee who met with the complainant then will make an oral report to DSS and to the bishop. A written report also will be submitted to DSS within 48 hours of the time the complaint is received in order to comply with the state-mandated reporting law.

The complaint information then is to go to the diocese's Pastoral Care Committee for review at its next meeting. The committee is to study the report and recommend actions to be taken.

“The diocese will cooperate fully with the Department of Social Services and civil authorities involved in the investigation of the allegation,” according to the policy.

A person who wants to report past sexual abuse should call the same number. Two members of the review committee will meet with the person and prepare a written report for the bishop, the district attorney in whose jurisdiction the abuse is said to have occurred and to the alleged offender. Ms. Engdahl said anonymous complaints will not be considered to be credible.

The information will then go to the pastoral care group, which will make a recommendation to the bishop.

Should the alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse be a member of a religious order, the chairman of the Pastoral Care Committee will report the allegation to the major superior of the order. If the alleged offender is a priest from another diocese, the committee chairman will notify the bishop of the person's home diocese.

Mr. Allen said he supports the role of the committee, “especially as it relates to keeping the bishop more up to date regarding the best approach to pastoral care for victims and families, current civil laws, the newest info on children's mental health issues and up-to-date education on abuse issues.”

However, he added that he believes the various committees in the complaint process should include more laymen.

“I cannot help but wonder how someone who works for the diocese can objectively serve as a “victim advocate,” Mr. Allen said, especially if there are legal proceedings.

“I also wonder if the complainant will be able to trust someone from within the same institution which hired the alleged abuser,” he said.

Mr. Allen said he also questions the preparation by the Initial Review Committee of a written report to be signed by the complainant.

“I wonder what the downstream implications of such a signed document could be for the accuser in a court of law? I would not sign it until I knew the answer to that question,” he said.

“I am also puzzled by the reference to involvement of the district attorney only in cases of abuse of someone over 18, rather than including the DA in the processing of accusations by victims under 18 as well,” he said.

Mr. Allen questioned why follow-up steps aren't spelled out in the policy in cases in which the alleged offender belongs to a religious order.

“Does the diocese wash its hands of the case once it has reported the abuse to the (order's) major superior,” he asked.

The bishop said he has spoken to many people in the diocese, including victims and families of victims, and believes the policy is a good start.


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Kathleen A. Shaw can be contacted via e-mail at kshaw@telegram.com.


Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org