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Diocese Admits Endangering Children, Avoids Prosecution

Files On Accused Priests To Be Made Public; State Oversight Strengthened

Dec 11, 2002 | Concord Monitor

The Diocese of Manchester admitted yesterday that it has harmed children over the last 40 years by knowingly shuffling priests accused of sexual misconduct from parish to parish.

The admission, part of a deal with the state, means the church will avoid unprecedented criminal charges of child endangerment. As part of the agreement, the church agreed to no longer handle sexual abuse complaints in the secrecy it has for decades.

Specifically, it will make public 10,000 pages of internal files showing how it handled - or mishandled - allegations of sexual abuse. It will begin reporting all abuse allegations to the police. And church officials must let the state audit its files on accused priests annually.

Attorney General Philip McLaughlin announced the agreement at the Legislative Office Building yesterday, declining to characterize the content of the documents, which will be released in about six weeks. But he said they made a compelling case that the diocese's policies had jeopardized the safety of children.

"In weighing the question of obligations to children against the question of preserving the reputation of the diocese . . . the children weighed very little," McLaughlin said. "(Church leaders) simply made choices for the diocese. And in doing so they put children at risk. In many cases, that risk resulted in them being molested."

Bishop John McCormack signed the agreement with an acknowledgement that McLaughlin had enough evidence to convict the church of child endangerment.

"Horrific acts of sexual abuse by some priests have resulted in terrible harm to children and youth," McCormack read from a statement yesterday. "In acknowledging our failures, we are saying to everyone who as been hurt by the inexcusable and criminal actions of some priests that I and other leaders of the church in New Hampshire are sincerely sorry."

The deal is the first of its kind in the country and follows months of media coverage and debate within the American Catholic Church about how best to deal with misconduct by priests. The announcement also comes as a blizzard of documents detailing McCormack's personal role in handling abuse cases in Massachusetts continues to be made public; files on nine additional accused priests are due out this morning in Boston.

McCormack said yesterday he will not oblige newspapers and lay people who have called on him to resign for his work in Boston.

Yesterday's announcement also follows a year in which 196 people have come forward with complaints against several New Hampshire priests, according to church documents. The church did not have the number of priests accused this year alone.

But outside of New Hampshire, reaction was cautious yesterday. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, distanced the church from the agreement.

In Massachusetts, state officials applauded McLaughlin for his investigation and ultimate agreement with the church.

Beth Stone, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts attorney general's office, said last night that the state is pursuing its own investigation of the church but cannot use the child endangerment law as McLaughlin did because it is new to Massachusetts and not retroactive.

McLaughlin's deal reached yesterday with the diocese does not affect the state's investigation of the 40 to 50 priests accused of sexual misconduct. County attorneys have been investigating those claims. McLaughlin said they will be charging and prosecuting those whose alleged crimes were not committed so long ago that they are outside the statute of limitations.

"Absolutely nothing impedes that from going forward," he said.

Father George Robichuad, formerly of St. Cecelia parish in Wolfeboro, is the only New Hampshire priest who has been arrested so far. He was charged in April on a felony charge of sexually assaulting a boy in Sanbornton in 1985 and is on administrative leave from the church.

McLaughlin said he decided against similarly pursuing individual church leaders for their oversight of abusive priests after reviewing the internal church documents connected to this investigation. Those files, as well as many interviews with victims, convinced him that it was the church's policies and practices, not its leadership, that most needed immediate attention.

Rather than go after a few convictions, each of which would net fines of $20,000 or less, McLaughlin opted to use his position and this case to forge significant changes in the way the church handles abusive priests. He said the future safety of uncountable children was worth more than fining a few church leaders.

McLaughlin took exception to a suggestion that by dropping his investigation he had settled with the church.

"I think of a settlement as a quid pro quo," McLaughlin said. "And I am at a loss to tell what the state quidded here."

The agreement requires several changes in the church's policy:

For starters, the church had never reported a case of child sexual abuse to state authorities before McLaughlin began investigating it in January. And it remains unclear whether church officials have reported any of the 32 allegations that have come directly to them since.
The reason, church leaders have said, is that they interpret the state reporting law to encompass only child abuse. If a victim waits until adulthood to come forward - as all have - the church does not consider itself obligated to report that abuse. Church officials instead encourage the victim to contact the police.

That will change with yesterday's agreement.

McLaughlin's agreement explicitly requires the church to report suspected child abuse regardless of the victim's age. Church officials must report a suspicion even if they don't know of a specific victim. The agreement also requires the church to train all priests and other personnel on that change in the reporting policy.

McLaughlin stopped short yesterday of saying the church had misinterpreted the law. "The interpretation was exceedingly self-serving," he said.

The agreement also requires the church to keep a file of all documents and information relating to an allegation of abuse until the person accused has died. Internal church files released from the Boston archdiocese recently and the New Hampshire church previously suggests that the Catholic church is already keeping those detailed files.
The real strength of the state's file-keeping requirements is that the church must make them available for the state's review once a year. The state has never had access to these files, which are kept in a room called the secret archive.

The agreement permits that state review to continue for five years. But Will Delker, the assistant attorney general who led the state's investigation, said the attorney general's office can extend that.

Finally, the agreement requires the church to allow the attorney general's office to review its training manuals and internal policies for dealing with sexual harassment.
McCormack responded to the state's demands separately, at his own news conference at Grappone Conference Center in Concord. He apologized for the church's past mistakes and vowed to be more protective of children.

"The measures we used were not adequate," he read from prepared remarks. "We made mistakes. The victims of abuse have suffered for those mistakes. The faithful suffered damaged trust in our church leaders. The church has suffered both in the bruised and strained relationships that have developed among the members."

He declined to elaborate on the church's past mistakes, saying he arrived in Manchester in 1998, after the bulk of allegations had been made against priests. He said that he insisted his staff cooperate with McLaughlin and the state's investigators in hopes of preventing future abuse.

Father Edward Arsenault, McCormack's assistant in charge of handling sexual abuse complaints, said he was thankful the state is helping the church do better by its followers.

"This public commitment to transparent, accountable structures for raising awareness of child sexual abuse . . . has one goal in mind," Arsenault said. "No child should ever be afraid to trust an adult, young or old, and especially a priest."

When asked why the church did not change its policies before McLaughlin began investigating it for child endangerment, Arsenault said it had no idea the problem of clergy sexual abuse was so prevalent.

According to numbers provided by Arsenault's office, the church received only 52 complaints against priests between 1943 and 2001. Only eight of them were still in ministry when the complaints came in; but still, those numbers mean nearly 6 percent of the state's priests were accused of sexual misconduct.

Since then, the numbers have grown, presumably because of the publicity given the clergy abuse scandal.

"We had no idea that this many people had been harmed," Arsenault said.

McLaughlin began his investigation at the start of the year, after following news reports about the clergy sex abuse scandal in Boston and wondering whether the New Hampshire church was guilty of similarly mishandling abusive priests.

In February, McLaughlin and the diocese held separate but related news conferences to announce that the church had reassigned priests accused of sexual misconduct. On Feb. 15, McCormack released the names of 14 priests who had credible allegations lodged against them; one was still assigned to a parish, but all were removed from active ministry.

In the months that followed, the diocese and the state pursued clergy sexual abuse individually. Periodically, the diocese has issued statements as it has removed priests newly charged with credible allegations.

The state, meanwhile, has been busy reviewing 10,000 pages of internal church files and interviewing victims in preparation for a criminal prosecution. McLaughlin was prepared to ask a grand jury to indict the church this Friday.

Six weeks ago, the two sides began quietly discussing a deal whereby McLaughlin wouldn't prosecute if the church would acknowledge the strength of his case and agree to substantial changes in the way it handles sexual abuse complaints.

McLaughlin dismissed suggestions yesterday that the church had been uncooperative during most of the process. He said it took time for both sides to understand each other's position and expectations.

McCormack signed the agreement Monday. McLaughlin signed it yesterday.

Before he shared the details with the press yesterday, McLaughlin paused and asked the media to consider the victims who had been hurt by priests and, ultimately, the church.

"Consider the complex emotions that they have dealt with," he said. "Consider the abject humiliation of people who today are asked to reflect on things done to them as children over which they had no control."

Toward the end of his remarks, McLaughlin came back to the victims. He said he hopes they and others will understand the choice he made in dropping criminal charges for a substantial change in the way the church handles abusive priests.

"I think and hope they know that while they may have suffered grievously as children and while I suspect many of them suffer grievously as adults, their willingness to assist us here will . . . help us protect children going forward," he said. "That is a gift they are giving to children of the future."

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