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DA: New Abuse Laws Needed

Feb 11, 2003 | Newsday

In releasing a scathing report on alleged sexual abuse by priests, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said yesterday that the grand jury could have indicted 23 priests for sexually abusing children and charged the church hierarchy with a cover-up if the proper state laws had been on the books.

"This report is the truth," said Spota, holding up a bound copy of the grand jury report, which provides the first detailed look at how Catholic church officials on Long Island handled complaints about abusive priests. "It is the truthful account of what was really going on in the Diocese of Rockville Centre."

The 180-page report, first reported yesterday in Newsday, charged that church officials concealed the alleged criminal behavior of its priests and used "deception and intimidation" in dealing with abuse victims. Saying the report shatters the church's "culture of silence," Spota said yesterday that the diocese "willingly sacrificed truth for fear of scandal and for monetary considerations."

Spota began the news conference by saying the "overwhelming number of priests perform their sacred ministry with honor, dignity and respect." The district attorney said 45 percent of the witnesses before the grand jury were clergy.

Much of the reaction yesterday was to the explosive finding that abuse victims were deceived by the diocese, which covers 1.3 million Catholics in Nassau and Suffolk counties. A good portion of the report details how a priest identifiable as Msgr. Alan Placa, former vice chancellor of the diocese, devised a strategy to deal with victims and then bragged of how he kept settlement costs down by his quick response in getting to the victims and finding out what they knew.

Placa, who was acting as the church's lawyer, represented himself to victims as providing pastoral outreach, the report said.

In a statement, the diocese said yesterday that it "unequivocally rejects the characterization of its actions given by this report. Specifically, the accusation that the Diocese of Rockville Centre conceived and agreed to a plan using deception and intimidation to prevent victims from seeking legal solutions to their problems is simply not true."

An abuse victim lauded the report: "The church has always taught us to pray, pay and obey. What the Suffolk grand jury has said is that the church now should pray, pay and obey the laws of the land."

The report, which provides stark details but did not name names, noted that the diocese paid $1.7 million to victims to settle cases and confirmed many recent media reports about alleged abuse by priests. Using excerpts from the the testimony of a priest identifiable as Msgr. Francis Caldwell, the head of the diocese office of priest personnel, the report supported sworn statements by the Rev. Michael Hands, who is awaiting sentencing for abusing a youth.

Caldwell admits that he asked Hands to keep silent about his allegation that he was molested at Trinity High School in Hicksville by Msgr. Charles "Bud" Ribaudo. Caldwell also acknowledges that Hands was correct in believing that if he didn’t keep quiet, the diocese would not give him promised money for medical expenses and career counseling, the report said.

"I think I might have implied that, yes," said Caldwell, who is described as a high-ranking diocesan official in the report.

In early January, just after Hands’ statements about Caldwell, which were made to a lawyer without cross-examination, became public, an article in the Long Island Catholic quoted George Rice, the attorney for the diocese, as saying, "The reliability of this type of testimony is always suspect."

The article did not use any direct quotes from Caldwell but said he "said emphatically that he never asked or advised Father Hands to lie to anyone or to retract any charges, and that he did not make or imply any connection between the diocese’s continuing financial support of Father Hands and the priest’s changing or withholding his charges against Msgr. Ribaudo."

The grand jury also found that the diocese knew for many years about allegations that Ribaudo was an abuser but didn’t take action until 2002. The report stated that a priest identifiable as Ribaudo "had the art of seducing teenage boys down to a science" and that he abused 12 Trinity students, including sodomizing one of them. Ribaudo in the past has denied Hands’ allegations.

When asked which of the stories of abuse in the report struck him the most, Spota recounted the case of "Priest A,' who was transferred to another parish after complaints were made about him.

"The priest had sex with a boy in the rectory, in his room, on his bed. After the sex act was completed, the priest rolled off the boy. On the wall over the bed was a crucifix. He pointed to it and said, ‘I’ll talk to you later.’" Spota said. "I’m a practicing Roman Catholic; I can’t imagine a priest doing that."

The grand jury was unable to file indictments because too much time has elapsed to bring criminal charges. Instead, it made numerous recommendations for changes in state law, including eliminating any statute of limitations in cases involving sex crimes against children. Generally, statutes of limitations are 5 years from the date of the incident.

In grand jury proceedings, prosecutors can ask questions of a witness, who may not have an attorney present in the room with them.

Grand juries are looking at the handling of priest abuse cases from Phoenix to Boston, and reaction to the Suffolk report was also national. SNAP, the organization representing survivors of abusive priests, said the Suffolk findings were worse than what happened in Boston. "This is not about priests who molest and bishops who cover up, it is about church officials who deliberately heap harm on people who have been harmed," said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP who testified before the Suffolk grand jury last fall about the experience of victims.

"This is something we heard, suspected and feared in different dioceses, how victims were horrifically betrayed, but to see it spelled out chilling in black and white" Clohessy said. SNAP sent an electronic link to the grand jury report early yesterday to its 90 national coordinators, who forwarded it to the hundreds of abuse victims in their areas.

Michael Dowd, a Manhattan attorney who represents abuse victims, said the finding of fraudulent practices by the church now may allow victims to bring civil lawsuits against the church, regardless of whether too much time has passed or if they settled in the past. He expects to file a lawsuit on behalf of up to 20 Long Island victims in two weeks.

Dan Bartley, co-director of Long Island Voice of the Faithful, an organization of lay people seeking church reforms, said he was surprised to learn that the diocese had paid $1.7 million in settlements to abuse victims.

"Catholics have a right to know what their donations are being used for," he said. "It’s unfortunate that it takes a grand jury for us to find out " Bartley said he had no doubt that the report will be the topic when the group meets Thursday at North Babylon High School.

A spokesman for Nassau District Attorney Denis Dillon said yesterday that the Suffolk report confirmed the findings of their office last spring: that no criminal charges could be brought and that state law needs to be changed. Rick Hinshaw, the spokesman, said Dillon feels the "current bishop has moved to address a lot of the problems brought out in this report."

Hinshaw said Dillon is not offering any comment or criticism of the report or Spota’s decision to convene a grand jury: "Our handling of it was equally effective in determining what new legislation was needed to handle these situations in the future."

Bishop William Murphy was in Boston yesterday preparing to testify about his role in the handling of the abuse cases during the eight years he was top deputy to Cardinal Bernard Law, who recently resigned his position. Murphy was invited to testify before the Suffolk grand jury but declined.

Joanne Novarro, the diocesan spokeswoman who is a member of Murphy’s governing cabinet, read the three-page response to an array of television cameras at diocesan headquarters. She declined to take questions, except to say "absolutely' when asked if parents can trust their children to the diocese.

The statement notes that the grand jury report covers more than 45 years and that some incidents took place many years ago. It says that ways of dealing with abuse has changed over time. According to the statement, "It is unfair to use today’s standards to judge sincere attempts in the past to assist victims and to help perpetrators not to offend again."

Despite its criticism of the grand jury report, the diocese will try to make use of it. "We will carefully study this report. If any information contained within it might further enhance our commitment to [respond to the victims of abuse and protect children in the future], it will be promptly adopted," the statement said. Murphy also supports changing state law to make it mandatory that all who work with children report suspected abuse to law enforcement, the diocese said.

The diocese also criticized Spota’s methods. "The very way the evidence was gathered guarantees that it contains only bits and pieces that do not add up to an accurate picture of the genuine concern to stop abuse and protect children that has truly characterized the Diocese of Rockville Centre," she said.

The diocese also complained that Newsday printed a story about the report before it had a chance to review the document, saying it was "an attempt [by Spota] to control the media and its reaction to it." Newsday stated in its Monday story that the report was filed Friday with the Suffolk court clerk’s office.

The statement noted that Hands, who cooperated with the grand jury, cut a deal to get a more lenient sentence in his own abuse cases. "It is ironic that the most immediate effect of this investigation was a reduced sentence for a priest abuser for his supposed cooperation with the grand jury," the statement said.

Spota yesterday praised Hands for telling them where to find church documents "we would never have known existed." Emily Constant, the bureau chief who headed up the presentation to the grand jury, said that while most of the offenses were in the past, some instances of the diocese’s failure to remove abusive priests did come to light during the start of Murphy’s tenure, which began in September 2001.

Again using excerpts of Caldwell’s testimony, the report describes how concern over recent bad publicity for the church in Boston prompted Murphy to remove Ribaudo in March 2002. Caldwell testified that Murphy sent the popular pastor of St. Dominic’s in Oyster Bay twice for counseling after Hand’s allegations became known.

Murphy, who returned Ribaudo to St. Dominic’s, said he was very pleased with his work in the parish and wanted to treat him to dinner. Then, Hands’ allegations became public.

Prosecutors questioned Caldwell about Murphy’s motivation in "cutting loose" Ribaudo as well as other priests suspected of abuse.

Q) But that changed once media attention came: is that right?

A) Yes.

Q) And that basically was the sole reason? It was not like he re-evaluated the Ribaudo case. He was on the Ribaudo case from the start.

A) That’s right.

Q) So it was publicity that guided the decision.

A) And he was one of many ... correct.


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