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Sins of the Fathers

Grand Jury says New York diocese long protected abusive priests

By Rita Ciolli, Staff Writer
February 10, 2003

Catholic church officials on Long Island failed in the past to protect children from sexual abuse by priests and cannot be trusted to protect them now without changes in state law, according to a withering Suffolk County grand jury report to be released this morning.

The 180-page report depicts, sometimes in lurid detail, how the hierarchy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre concealed the alleged criminal behavior of its priests and used "deception and intimidation” in dealing with abuse victims. The report repeatedly points out how avoiding bad publicity was paramount.

Calling the diocesan policy of dealing with abusive priests "a sham,” the report exposes a "system that left thousands of children in the diocese exposed to predatory, serial child molesters working as priests.”

The report estimates that abuse cases cost the diocese $2 million, with about $1.7 million of that being paid to victims in settlements.

And with abuse allegations on record by 2002 against at least 58 priests, according to an internal memo cited in the report, the only priest who was defrocked at that point, was one who admitted to having an affair with an adult woman.

The grand jury's findings were to be announced this morning by Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota. The report was filed Friday with the office of the Suffolk court clerk by Supreme Court Justice Patrick Henry, who had oversight of the grand jury. The grand jury began investigating the diocese in May after details of the scandal in Boston reverberated on Long Island.

The grand jury was unable to file indictments because too much time has lapsed to bring criminal charges, which is one of the reasons it is calling on the legislature to eliminate any statute of limitations in cases involving sex crimes against children.

Because the grand jury used its findings to publish a report recommending changes in state law, names are not allowed to be used. Offending priests are assigned letters from A to W. Diocesan officials are referred generically by their duties. Diocesan Chancellor Msgr. Robert Brennan sent an e-mail message Sunday night to all pastors informing them that Bishop William Murphy had gotten word of the report's release.

"The Diocese has not yet seen the report nor has the Diocese been informed of its content,” Brennan wrote.

Kevin McDonough, an attorney for the diocese, said Sunday night in a telephone interview, "The diocese hasn't seen the report, and until we do review the grand jury report, we are not in a position to respond to it.”

The grand jury report details how cheerleaders were raped, altar boys were sodomized and Catholic youths were shown pornographic movies and plied with alcohol in rectory bedrooms.

In one instance, according to the report, a pastor found a homemade pornographic movie in a priest's bedroom. After watching the tape, he realized that a 15-year-old boy from the parish was involved in one of the sex acts. The pastor reported the incident to the "highest level of the diocese.”

Despite the fact that the offending priest admitted to the abuse during subsequent treatment and the crime was prosecutable, "no consideration was given to reporting the abuse to law enforcement,” according to the report. Neither was an effort made to locate and assist the victim, it said.

"Not one priest in the diocese who knew about these criminal acts reported them to any law enforcement agency,” the grand jury report stated in recommending changes to state law that would mandate that priests and other church supervisors report such crimes.

Using testimony from victims and internal documents obtained by subpoena, the report finds that abusive priests were transferred from parish to parish despite pastors, other priests and school principals repeatedly asking that the accused clerics be stopped from ministering.

In one case, according to the findings, a priest who reported his concerns and helped the victim's mother pursue her complaint had a memo placed in his file from a high-ranking official saying "no serious consideration” would be given to offering the concerned priest another assignment.

"In the diocese of Rockville Centre, a priest who molests children should suffer no disgrace, but one who advocates on their behalf risks banishment,” the report says.

Diocesan officials charged with placing priests in jobs often kept colleagues in the dark about the troublesome background of some abusers. In one case, a priest was allowed to become a chaplain at a diocesan high school even though other priests complained about him taking boys on private trips and letting them in his room at the rectory. One of the complaining priests said he feared the interest in the boys was more personal than pastoral.

The grand jury report also found poor screening for candidates who wanted to enter the priesthood and a failure to keep adequate files on the warnings received about them. A priest in charge of vocations once advised against accepting a candidate into the seminary, but the report does not specify why. He was ignored, and the priest went on to molest children, according to the report.

Despite some glaring examples, the grand jury report says many of the priests involved with personnel issues recalled few details of abuse cases when they testified. "Even when presented with documents that should have refreshed their memories of these important issues,” the report says, "they could not recall many of the cases they handled.”

According to the report, the Office of Legal Affairs played a powerful role in the abuse cases and bears much of the responsibility for the diocese's failures. Significant emphasis is placed on the aggressive legal strategies that were employed. Calling it a "carefully orchestrated plan,” the report says members of the "intervention team” appear to be providing pastoral care but were, in reality, acting as a legal counsel for the diocese.

One document details how an unidentified diocesan official boasted of how the method he devised for Long Island has been used in about 200 other priest abuse cases around the country.

The memo appears to be written by Msgr. Alan Placa, a key player in handling abuse complaints against priests in the late 1980s. It says this speedy effort to get to the victim and find out all the details and facts makes the Long Island diocese "unique” in its handling of abuse cases. He noted costs were down here compared with some other dioceses where settlements range from $20,000 to $100,000.

"We have suffered no major loss or scandal due to allegations of sexual misconduct by religious personnel ... the Diocese of Rockville Centre has paid out a total of $4,000 because of claims of sexual misconduct.”

In a 1996 memo, an unidentified official who appears to be Placa writes that Rockville Centre has the "lowest ratio of losses to assets of any diocese and the lowest ratio of losses to number of priests in any diocese in the country. Our system is in place and working well.”

The report comments that the ratio analogy reveals the true concerns of the diocesan team assigned to take care of abuse cases. "What it all came down to was a simple accounting issue, nothing more or less,” the report says.

The report finds that as of October 2002, there was a balance of $11 million in a special account to pay abuse claims. The fund, created in 1985 by Bishop John McGann (now deceased) to pay for "uninsured perils,” was to cover the costs of abuse cases, asbestos exposure and trampoline accidents. The seed money was provided by special assessments on parishes, and the fund grew from investment returns. There were never any payments for asbestos or trampoline costs, the report says.

While money was used for abuse cases, there are few documents or accounting ledgers to explain the details of where the money went. In fact, until three years ago, there was no paperwork needed to get a payment from the fund.

The grand jury approximates that since 1989, $2 million was spent from the fund, with $1.7 million to pay legal settlements. Other money was used to pay the bills of the psychiatrists, psychologists, hospital and treatment centers that worked with troubled priests. Not included in the $2 million paid out was another $66,000 used to pay for debt that an abusive priest ran up on his credit card, which the report says probably was for gambling losses.

Another $70,000 was used to pay off the mortgage of an accuser so he could live without any housing expenses. The report notes that an employee who works for the diocese handling insurance matters said the actual amount paid for abuse cases "could be much higher” than $2 million.

The report provides no overall look at how many abusive priests there were and what happened to them. However, some specifics can be gleaned from diocesan memos the grand jury examined. A July 1994 memo labeled "CONFIDENTIAL” said there were 55 suspect priests, 14 cases were labeled active, two other active cases were priests working outside of the diocese, two were in litigation, 32 were inactive and five deceased. Of all the cases involving abuse of minors, not one priest had been removed from ministry, and of the 20 priests still alive, only five had been sent for evaluation.

A 2002 internal diocesan memo updating the status of abuse cases found 58 priests, with 14 still serving in Nassau and Suffolk and three working in other dioceses. Some had died and others resigned.

The grand jury subpoenaed the secret personnel files of 43 priests, heard testimony from 97 witness and reviewed 257 exhibits, according to sources familiar with the report.

In conclusion, the grand jury said the history of the diocese "demonstrates that as an institution they are incapable of properly handling issues relating to the sexual abuse of children by priests.” Even though a new policy was instituted in 1992 after the abuse scandal began to unfold in other parts of the country, nothing had really changed on Long Island, the report says. That is until prosecutors and the media began asking questions.

"The spotlight shining on the Diocese from the outside world is the only thing that caused them to change their behavior,” the report states. That's when priests accused of abuse were either forced to resign or were suspended.

As one diocesan official told the grand jury, "Everybody was cut loose.”

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
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