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Jury Tells of Abuses by Priests

Jun 19, 2002 | New York Daily News

A Westchester County grand jury issued a damning report yesterday that details numerous instances of sexual abuse by Archdiocese of New York priests and accuses church officials of chronically covering up clear-cut cases of criminal behavior.

The panel, which met 15 times between April and early June, heard from 21 witnesses — including eight alleged victims — and said it didn't return indictments only because of statute of limitations rules.

Instead, the grand jurors issued a 13-page report that documents the sexual abuse and calls on the state Legislature to eliminate the statute of limitations, which expires when a victim who was a minor turns 23.

Much of the abuse involved varied sexual contact between the victim and the member of the clergy, sometimes by force, the report said.

The grand jurors contended that church officials lied to victims when asked about other allegations against the same priest and routinely questioned the veracity of victims' claims, "even in the fact of substantial evidence."

Not a single instance was discovered where church officials reported sexual misconduct allegations to law enforcement. The panel noted that it also failed to find a single church official who had ever recommended that the victim file a report with police.

Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, slammed the report as "unbalanced, unfair and inaccurate." He said that church officials have asked for a Friday court hearing to discuss the report.

'Unique Impact'

The grand jury also heard testimony about long-lasting psychological effects of the abuse, saying the misconduct "had a unique impact on the vulnerable victims involved, because of the position of religious authority held by their abusers."

Many of the victims testified they had been taught to believe that the abusing priest, often a family friend, "is always right" and "sits at the right hand of God." The victims said they kept quiet for fear of not being believed by their family, retaliation or punishment from God.

"Armed with this powerful shield, abusing clergy members knew they could rely on the child-victim's silence," the grand jurors wrote.

In one case, a 14-year-old boy said he'd been forced to have sexual contact with a priest five times. According to the evidence, when the priest contended the youth had been the aggressor, church officials "adopted the clergy member's version of events as 'true fact' in all of its future entries into the offender's personal records."

Demands for Reports

In addition to seeking the elimination of the statute of limitations in such cases, the grand jurors want the Legislature to require clergy members and other employees of religious institutions to immediately report to law enforcement any allegation of sexual abuse against a minor.

Failure to make such reports — already required of teachers, nurses and others — would be a felony.

The panel also wants criminal penalties for any individual or organization that allows an employee with a known record of child sexual abuse to have access to minors.

In addition, the grand jurors said a state law should be passed to prohibit the church and individual priests from entering into confidentiality agreements when settling claims of sexual abuse involving minors.

One of the the investigation's targets was the Rev. Gennaro Gentile, whose alleged pattern of sexual abuse was detailed by the Daily News in March.

Gentile was one of six priests suspended by the archdiocese in April. The grand jurors were prohibited by law from discussing specific priests in their report

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