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New York grand jury says church lied to victims of abuse

(Original publication: June 19, 2002)

WHITE PLAINS — A Westchester County grand jury described a Roman Catholic Church lying to its congregations and humiliating victims of sexual abuse, in a damning report released yesterday that recommends making it a crime to allow abusive clergy to be around children.

The panel, convened by District Attorney Jeanine Pirro in April to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy in Westchester, did not indict any priests, and it was unclear yesterday whether any charges would ever be brought.

"I think the grand jury clearly was frustrated that the statute of limitations precluded us from going forward on what were clearly prosecutable cases," Pirro said yesterday.

The report, the first New York grand jury action in the current scandal, asks the state Legislature to amend the law to provide criminal penalties for permitting a clergy member with a record of child sexual abuse to have access to minors. It also says the statute of limitations should be eliminated in cases where the victim of a sex offense is a minor.

"I think it's a very realistic assessment of what needs to be done," Pirro said, adding that legal changes are necessary to ensure such sexual abuses do not happen again.

During the spring, under pressure from district attorneys in the area, the church's New York Archdiocese turned over 40 years' worth of accusations against priests.

But from the beginning, it was clear that most of the information was too old to result in indictments. The statute of limitations for prosecuting sex abuse cases is generally five years, though for minors it is now five years after a victim's 18th birthday.

The scandal that started at the beginning of the year in Boston has resulted in the removal of more than a half-dozen priests in the New York Archdiocese from their assignments.

Among them were the Rev. Gennaro Gentile and the Rev. Kenneth Jesselli, both at one time at Holy Name of Mary Church in Croton-on-Hudson. Gentile was accused by at least four families in the parish of touching boys improperly; the allegations against Jesselli were not made public.

A law enforcement source told The Journal News last month that the District Attorney's Office had seized two church computers from Holy Name of Mary, including Jesselli's personal laptop and a parish computer that was available to both priests. It is not known whether any evidence was found on the computers.

Pirro's office would not say whether any other grand juries were investigating allegations against priests.

The grand jury heard from 21 witnesses, including eight victims of sexual abuse or misconduct. Its 13-page report does not actually name the Catholic Church, because the grand jury was prohibited by law from singling out any individuals or institutions.

Included in its findings:

• One member of the clergy was given routine injections of the chemical castration drug Depo-Provera and was sent back to the community as if cured. No supervisor was told, making monitoring impossible.

• None of the victims was directed to law enforcement authorities, leading the grand jury to infer that "this was an orchestrated effort to protect abusing clergy members from investigation, arrest and prosecution by civil authorities."

• In one case, a high-level official appeared before a congregation to vouch for an alleged abuser against whom multiple accusations had been made.

The official is not identified, but the details are similar to what occurred after Croton parishioners Vincent Nauheimer Sr. and Patricia Nauheimer filed a civil lawsuit against Gentile on behalf of their sons. The archdiocese's vice chancellor for priest personnel, Monsignor Edward D. O'Donnell, appeared at the church to tell parishioners that the charges against Gentile were unfounded.

The grand jury also recommends that the state Legislature require clergy to report allegations of sexual abuse of minors to law enforcement immediately. Such a bill already has been introduced in Albany, though it appears stalled. The New York Archdiocese has vowed to report allegations to civil authorities.

Finally, the report recommends that the state prohibit confidentiality agreements when settling claims of sexual abuse involving minors, a provision that Roman Catholic U.S. bishops adopted when they met in Dallas last week.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests