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Maine Prosecutors Get Look at 33 Priests' Files

Catholic church decries move as 'humiliating'

Portland Press Herald - May 30, 2002

The personnel files of 33 living Roman Catholic clergymen from Maine accused of sexually molesting children were opened for prosecutors Tuesday, a number that a church spokeswoman called "humiliating."

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who is heading the investigation of sex abuse within the church, said none of the priests is now active. The files provided information about priests who have been forcibly removed from the ministry, others who have retired and still others who left the priesthood for personal reasons.

The list offers the most complete picture to date of the size of the sex-abuse crisis in the Maine Church. Combining the accusations with allegations against men who are now dead and those made by victims who can not remember the name of their abusers, gives investigators have an idea of how many priests may have committed sex crimes in the state.

The numbers were confirmed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

"Yes, it is a large number," said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman of the diocese. "We wish it was zero. This is tough information to swallow. This is a difficult day. It is humiliating."

Since January, three of Maine's parish priests have been removed from the active ministry following credible allegations they they had sex with minors. But before Tuesday there has been no statistical information quantifying the number of allegations against priests who no longer serve in parishes.

According to prosecutors:

-- There have been allegations made against 51 no longer active priests, including 18 who are now dead.

-- Of the 33 still living but inactive priests, 25 were part of the Diocese of Portland and under the direct control of Bishop Joseph Gerry and his predecessors. Eight were members of religious orders, such as the Jesuits or Christian Brothers.

-- There are 209 retired, inactive or former priests from the diocese. That means one in eight of has been the subject of allegations of sexual misconduct with children.

The investigators completed their review of the files by late Tuesday afternoon. The next step will be putting the information together and distributing it among the state's eight district attorneys, including Anderson, who will decide whether to file criminal charges. That process is expected to take a few weeks.

Anderson said the data provided by the church closely matches the allegations that alleged victims have made directly to her office. After reviewing the files, she said there were few surprises. "There are no smoking guns there," she said.

Whether or not to prosecute will be a complicated decision, Anderson said, in part because most of the alleged conduct happened in the 1970s, and outside the statute of limitations. Even after reviewing all the information that has come to light so far, Anderson said she is not sure if she will be able to bring a case in her jurisdiction.

A complicating factor is that priests typically serve a number of parishes in their careers, and the same priest may face charges in more than one county

The Attorney General's office of investigations will continue to help prosecutors gather information after the cases are referred, Anderson said.

Some Catholics around the state accepted the information with sadness, others with anger.

Patricia Shannon, a parishioner at St. Mary's Church in Bath, was struck by the number of complaints. But, she pointed out that they are only allegations at this point and may not be true.

"This brings people out of the woodwork to make some fast money," Shannon said.

Shannon voiced concern that the sex abuse scandal has obscured the good work done by so many Catholic priests, including the Rev. Richard Rice at St. Mary's, whom she called "one of the shining lights."

Edward Sargent, a parishioner of St. Joseph's in Ellsworth —the former parish of the Rev. Leo Michaud who was removed from the ministry last month after an old allegation of sex abuse surfaced — believes the complaints cannot be ignored, as they apparently were by the diocese for many years.

"My thinking, personally, is that way back in the beginning, if someone was accused of a crime, and these are crimes, that should have been turned over to the proper authorities and dealt with," Sargent said. "It makes no difference that these are priests. A crime's a crime."

A leading critic of the Maine church called the numbers "extraordinary." Paul Kendrick, who has worked to organize a Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a national organization that calls for structural changes in the governance of the church, said he was saddened to learn the size of the problem here.

"The first thing I think of is how many victims are out there who have not come forward and who have been abused by these people. And also the number of families who have been damaged by this," he said.

Church hierarchy also bears some of the blame, Kendrick said. Because victims were often compelled to sign confidentiality agreements before the church would settle claims, the problem was kept a secret and allowed to grow, he said.

The Maine Chapter of Voice of the Faithful will hold it's first meeting at 7 p.m. today at Riverton Elementary School. The group's goal is to support victims of abuse and to demand more of a role for lay people in running the church.

"I think it is the revulsion about this kind of secrecy that is calling the Catholic laity into action ... and never let this happen again," Kendrick said. " We need accountability."

People who say they were abused by priests renewed their call for the church to release the names of all the clergy members who have been accused of crimes so people can protect themselves and their children.

Anderson and Attorney General Steven Rowe said Maine law may prevent them from releasing the names of anyone who is not the subject of a criminal prosecution, but the church is under no such restriction.

In February, Bishop John McCormack, the leader of New Hampshire's Catholics, publicly released the names of all of that state's inactive priests who had been accused of sexual abuse of children. Other bishops have taken similar steps.

"Isn't it scary that 33 pedophiles are living somewhere and people have no idea of who they are?" said Cynthia Desrosiers, the Maine Coordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "If the church wanted to do the right thing, they would instantly release those names, so people could protect their children."

But Bernard said that was not going to happen. Releasing the documents to the prosecutors gives them all the information they need to protect the public, Bernard said. Since none of the charges has been proven, she said, the church must be fair to priests who could be innocent.

"From the beginning we have been interested in two things," Bernard said "We have been interested in making sure that children are safe and we have been interested in due process (for the priests,) To put someone's name out in the public, possibly someone who is dead and can't defend himself, that's not due process."

Jeanne Palais Stephens, a parishioner of St. Patrick's in Portland and the past president of Maine Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, said she feels the church is moving in the right direction.

"I'm just sorry it has taken all this sadness and grief for the church to take these steps," she said. "I'm very glad that the victims have come forward. I also agree with the course of action the bishop has taken."

Stephens said she still thinks there is much more that needs to be done before church leaders can put an end to the crisis caused by a minority of priests who abused their authority, and the bishops who kept their abuse secret.

"I still think there has to be a show of great compassion for the victims," she said. "I'm sitting and waiting to see what more is done. I believe that the Catholic Church is a compassionate institution."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests