Massachusetts authorities say the Catholic diocese headed by Bishop Sean P. O’Malley, who’s scheduled to take over the Diocese of Palm Beach next month, “sat on” information about abusive priests for years, making prosecution of most impossible.
Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh Jr. announced Wednesday that one priest had been indicted, and took the extraordinary step of releasing the names of 20 others his office has been investigating but hasn’t charged.
Two have died, and the statute of limitations has run out on most of the other allegations, all based on incidents that occurred before 1980.
“If we got the names 10 years ago, maybe we would have been able to prosecute some more of them,” Walsh told the Fall River Herald-News. “But now we’ll never know if we could have indicted others. The most frustrating thing about it is that some may have gotten away with rape.”
The diocese denied any deliberate cover-up.
“It was never our intention to withhold information,” diocesan spokesman John Kearns said Thursday. “Since day one, the bishop has been committed to the attitude that we cooperate with law enforcement in any kind of investigation.”
The bishop would not comment further, Kearns said.
O’Malley was assigned to Fall River in 1992, as Walsh was prosecuting James Porter, a priest accused of raping and molesting scores of children.
Porter pleaded guilty to 41 charges and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison.
The diocese paid millions of dollars in settlements to 99 people who said they were victimized by Porter.
The Diocese of Palm Beach is looking to the arrival of O’Malley as a healer, after its last two bishops resigned in disgrace over past sexual misconduct. Anthony J. O’Connell, who left in March, and J. Keith Symons, who stepped down in 1998, both admitted sexual misconduct.
In Fall River, O’Malley was credited with reaching out to Porter’s victims and developing policies to prevent and deal with abuse. They included setting up a board to review allegations, requiring all priests and seminarians to undergo criminal background checks and mandatory reporting of allegations to police.
Until this year, Massachusetts law did not require churches to report such allegations.
Kearns said O’Malley and his top aide didn’t do a complete review of old files until the sex abuse scandal exploded within the Catholic Church last winter and other dioceses began turning over records to prosecutors.
“When the bishop came in, there was no list of names,” Kearns said. “Some of those allegations go back almost 50 years. Any new allegation that came forth was turned over the the DA, but not until January of this year was there any interest in reviewing all the files.”
In March, O’Malley first offered the district attorney’s office a list of priests who had been accused of abuse, but without precise information about the alleged victims and the times, places and nature of the accusations.
Walsh, who was already investigating some priests based on victims’ allegations, warned the diocese that it could face a grand jury subpoena if it didn’t provide full details. Then bishop then complied.
The Rev. Donald Bowen was the one priest on the list who could be prosecuted, even though his alleged abuse of a young girl took place between 1965 and 1971.
The 15-year statute of limitations for sexual abuse of a child didn’t apply because he had left the diocese and the prosecutors’ jurisdiction, in 1972 to work in a Bolivian mission, according the district attorney’s office.
Walsh said Bowen’s attorney indicated Thursday that he would return voluntarily to face the charges.
Walsh said he and his staff decided to release the names of the other priests, even though they hadn’t been charged, in hopes that other victims would come forward with evidence.
He said the the decision “did not come easily.”
“In the end,” he said, “the deciding factor was this: We will not be a party to perpetuating the darkness, to protecting the silence and the secrecy.”