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Predator priests hide in plain sight; Living secret lives in our communities

By CASEY ROSS - The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA)
May 22, 2004

Law enforcement officials say priests accused of sexual abuse constitute the largest group of unregistered sex offenders in the nation, and some are warning that they have no way to prevent more children from being abused.

‘‘We ask where they are now, and (church leaders) say, ‘We don't know where they go after they've been removed from ministry,''' Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh said this week. ‘‘It's as if they're saying, ‘they're your problem now, not ours.'''

Two years after prosecutors began reviewing lists of priests accused of sexual abuse, only a handful of those priests have been criminally charged, and dozens more are living in Massachusetts communities without the knowledge of neighbors or police.

Prosecutors say they could not bring charges against most priests because the statute of limitations had run out on their alleged crimes. In other cases, they were unable to locate witnesses.

The Romney administration was warned of the building threat posed by accused priests this week by Catholic lay groups who spoke during a meeting of the governor's commission on domestic violence and sexual abuse.

While acknowledging the danger, an official with the Executive Office of Public Safety said the administration will not force the release of names without legal proof that priests have abused in the past.

‘‘There is a delicate balance that needs to be struck to make people safe without erroneously maligning potentially innocent people,'' spokeswoman Katie Ford said.

‘‘The administration is open to seeing a proposal on any changes that need to be made. We're always looking for ways to make the law stronger.''

Catholic leaders in Massachusetts have declined to publicly identify priests who were accused of abuse but never criminally charged because their cases were too old or witnesses could not be located. Attempts to get comment from the Boston Archdiocese this week were unsuccessful.

In February, the archdiocese released a report saying 162 of its priests have been accused of sexual abuse in the past 50 years, but lawyers for abuse victims and others estimate the numbers are much higher.

Officials within the archdiocese have refused to identify accused priests despite the fact that other large dioceses - in Baltimore, Los Angles and Tucson, Ariz. - have released the names to provide a full accounting of the scandal.

An attorney for sexual abuse victims said the Boston Archdiocese's refusal could lead to more abuse.

‘‘These priests represent an enormous danger,'' said Carmen Durso of Weymouth, a lawyer for about 100 abuse victims. ‘‘They are people who are very adept at what they do. The fact that it takes so long for victims to come forward is a tribute to their skill as predators.''

Many names of priests accused of abuse have been released by victims lawyers in the past two years, but a complete list has not been released. Catholic lay groups say the inability to track accused priest means they can turn up at schools, summer camps and other settings where they can continue to abuse children.

Outside the church, the only officials with access to the names of accused priests are district attorneys, and most say they have an obligation to withhold the names unless they can press charges.

Since the abuse scandal broke only a handful of alleged abusers - Paul Shanley, John Geoghan, Robert Gale and a few others - have been criminally charged. Most escaped prosecution because the statue of limitations - 15 years for serious sexual crimes - ran out before law enforcement became aware of their cases.

District Attorneys in Norfolk and Plymouth counties said that while they have vigorously pursued charges, they will not release the names of accused priests unless they were successful in building criminal cases.

‘‘I've had people literally walk off the street into my office and tell us about being abused, and those stories always affect you,'' Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz said this week. ‘‘But we have to be objective and professional and make our decisions based on the law.''

Walsh was the only district attorney to publicly identify accused priests. In 2002, he listed the names of 20 priests accused of sexual misconduct, saying he was prompted to act by the church's secrecy and failure to cooperate with his office.

‘‘We broke a rule by disclosing these names,'' Walsh said this week. ‘‘And we broke it because this situation is different. We did not get a chance to prosecute these people because this information was kept from us. ... These priests should not benefit from the church's wrongdoing.''

At the time he released the names, Walsh also announced charges against the Rev. Donald J. Bowen, a priest in the Fall River diocese who was accused of continually sexually abusing a girl for seven years when she was between the ages of 9 and 16.
Walsh said investigators in his office discovered that Bowen had been working for a Boston-based religious order in Bolivia for 30 years. Because he was living outside the country, the statute of limitations on his alleged offenses did not expire.

‘‘When we looked up the web site of his religious order the first image that popped up was father Bowen surrounded by a group of children,'' Walsh said.

Catholic lay groups said they have discovered accused priests substitute teaching at Massachusetts high schools, working at Boston hotels and living in communities from Brockton to Falmouth to Cambridge.

‘‘They are out there with money and tons of time on their hands and a continued sexual attraction to children,'' Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of the Coalition of Catholics & Survivors, the organization that brought concerns to the Romney administration this week. ‘‘It's a very dangerous set of circumstances.''

Cruz said he shares the frustration of lay groups and other law enforcement officials about the threat posed by the accused priests but said he would not publicly identify them unless they had clearly admitted their abuse.

He said much of the information he received from church officials on the accused priests was sketchy and incomplete, and most of it was also decades old.

‘‘I'll never forget the day the information came to us,'' he said. ‘‘There were cases from 30 and 40 years ago, some from before I was born. They were impossible to prosecute not only because of the statute of limitations but because there were no witnesses.''

Casey Ross may be reached at [email protected]
Copyright 2004 The Patriot Ledger


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests