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N.H.: Church 'Willfully Blind' to Abuse

Mar 3, 2003 | AP For decades, leaders of the Diocese of Manchester were ``willfully blind'' to the danger that molesting priests posed to children, state prosecutors said Monday in a long-awaited report.

Even when priests admitted sexual misconduct with minors, Roman Catholic officials sometimes did nothing to restrict the perpetrator's conduct and failed to monitor him, the 154-page report from the state attorney general's office said.

The report, laying out evidence the state would have used against the diocese in a criminal case, was accompanied by roughly 9,000 pages of church documents, including personnel files and correspondence.

The material was released under an unprecedented deal struck last December by the diocese and then-Attorney General Philip McLaughlin, who has since returned to private practice. The church acknowledged its conduct had harmed children and that it probably would have been convicted of child endangerment, a misdemeanor, but for the settlement.

In a 12-page response released Monday, the diocese apologized, condemned child sexual abuse and described its toughened approach to dealing with molesters in the clergy. The church said it will now remove a priest after one credible allegation of abuse.

The church's response also said the diocese did not ``necessarily agree'' with all the state's conclusions, and could have mounted a vigorous defense had it been charged. But that would not have helped victims, it said.

``On behalf of myself and leaders of the church in New Hampshire past and present we are sorry for our inadequacies, but most of all we are sorry for the harm done to persons who were abused by priests and to the Catholic faithful who have been scandalized,'' Bishop John McCormack wrote in an introductory letter.

The state report said that in at least one case, the diocese insisted on keeping a civil lawsuit settlement confidential ``to prevent the victim from speaking with law enforcement about the sexual offenses of the priest.''

Prosecutors also accused unidentified diocesan officials of making ``apparently false statements'' in civil lawsuits and a presentencing investigation. ``This conduct may have constituted perjury, false swearing, or unsworn falsification,'' they said.

The state's report focuses on eight clergymen. Officials said they were not selected because of the seriousness of the allegations against them, but because their cases contained strong evidence the diocese had mishandled the molestation complaints.

Two of the eight priests at the center of the state investigation are in prison for criminal sexual assault convictions. The six others have been accused of abuse in civil lawsuits.

Among them is the Rev. Paul Aube, who has acknowledged molesting several minors during the 1970s. Aube became a key player in the state investigation when he told prosecutors last year that church officials insisted he continue working with children even after he admitted sexual misconduct with minors and asked for help.

In all, the report includes material on 35 New Hampshire priests, 19 from Massachusetts and five members of religious orders. One priest got an emergency court order Monday morning, barring the release of documents pertaining to him. A hearing on the order was scheduled for Monday afternoon.

The Manchester Diocese, which covers all of New Hampshire and serves about 326,000 Catholics, is one of only a few places where such a public window has opened on the inner workings of the church when confronted with abuse cases.

Thousands of pages of church documents have been released in Massachusetts during the past year by lawyers for victims and alleged victims suing the church. And three weeks ago, a grand jury in New York issued a scathing report accusing the Diocese of Rockville Centre of sheltering molesters and failing to protect children.

McCormack is named in the documents and state report, but prosecutors focused on incidents prior to 1998, when he became bishop of Manchester. He was previously a top aide to Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, and has been heavily criticized for allowing priests to keep serving there even after molestation charges surfaced.

In his letter Monday, McCormack said one of the most important lessons the church has learned is that ``a person who has sexually abused a minor cannot be adequately supervised or monitored.''

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