Bristol District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. yesterday released the names of 20 priests accused of sexual misconduct in complaints to the Fall River Diocese, drawing praise from advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse and denunciation from others who said Walsh had run roughshod over the rights of the accused.
During a news conference in which he also announced the indictment of a one-time Fall River priest on abuse charges, Walsh said he knew his extraordinary decision to name priests facing accusations too old to prosecute would create controversy. But he said his frustration at the recalcitrance of church officials, including Bishop Sean O’Malley, had forced him to act.
”We will not be a party to protecting the darkness, to protecting the silence and secrecy,” Walsh said, adding that he hopes the release of the names will embolden other victims to come forward with accusations that might fall within the statute of limitations, the window of time in which child sex abuse charges may be prosecuted.
The Fall River Diocese, in a statement, said it had ”cooperated fully with the district attorney and his office to ensure the safety and protection of children in our parishes.”
There has been no similar large-scale release of priests’ names in the Boston Archdiocese, where two of Walsh’s peers – Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley and Norfolk District Attorney William Keating – said yesterday they would not release the names of priests similarly accused unless they are able to secure criminal indictments. And some attorneys representing accused priests, as well as some known for defending civil liberties, said Walsh had tarred the reputations of clergymen who may never get a chance to defend themselves at trial.
”This is so unfair because you’re saying to people who supposedly did something decades ago that because they can’t be prosecuted, because the statute of limitations has run out, they’re going to be convicted in the press,” said Michael Altman, attorney for a priest suspended earlier this year by the Boston Archdiocese. ”That’s not how the justice system is supposed to work.”
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense attorney and civil libertarian, also criticized Walsh, saying that the priests who were named but remain unindicted won’t have the legal tools of a criminally charged defendant – including the right to subpoena evidence and witnesses.
”I think what the district attorney did is unprofessional, unethical, and in many ways immoral,” Silverglate said.
But attorneys for victims of clergy sexual abuse hailed Walsh’s decision to release the names of priests facing accusations too old to prosecute, saying that Walsh had encouraged other victims to come forward while underscoring the need to widen or abolish the statute of limitations in cases of this kind.
”Today’s action is a signal to the Legislature that the statute of limitations for child rape and molestation must be changed,” said Roderick MacLeish Jr., a Boston lawyer with the firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents more than 200 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group, also praised Walsh, saying that Walsh had given solace to those who might have been abused by the priests he named and had provided valuable information to parents seeking to protect their children from sexual molesters. Walsh said that none of the unindicted priests he named were in active ministry; two are dead.
As he named those priests, Walsh also announced the indictment of the Rev. Donald J. Bowen, 64, who left the Fall River Diocese in 1971 to work in Bolivia, where he currently resides, under the missionary Society of St. James. Bowen was charged with sexually abusing a girl from the time she was 9 years old until she was 16. The accusation was still open to prosecution because the statute of limitations is suspended when the accused leaves the state.
Walsh, in explaining his decision to release the names, cited O’Malley’s failure to hand over the names of accused priests years ago, and said the bishop’s inaction probably had resulted in an injustice for both the alleged victims and accused priests.
”We’re prohibited from an effective prosecution and the priests are prohibited from an effective exoneration. That’s the injustice for the victims and the guys on the list,” Walsh said.
O’Malley, who has had a reputation for forthrightly addressing the issue of clergy sexual abuse, is scheduled to leave the Fall River Diocese next month to be installed as the leader of the Palm Beach, Fla., Diocese, which has been rocked by the resignations of its last two bishops over sexual abuse allegations.
O’Malley did not respond to Walsh directly. But, in a statement, the Fall River Diocese strenuously rejected Walsh’s criticisms, saying that abuse cases had been consistently reported to authorities for the last 10 years.
”At no time did the district attorney have to threaten or cajole. It has never been our intention to conceal anything from law enforcement agencies. Had public officials asked for past records at any time, the diocese would have made them available,” the statement said.
Coakley said she would not follow Walsh in releasing the names of accused but unindicted priests, citing the unfairness of treating priests accused of sexual abuse differently than anyone else accused of committing a crime.
David Traub, a spokesman for Keating, said: ”From the very beginning this investigation has been treated like any other investigation, and this office does not release the names of people who are investigated but not charged,” Traub said.
Still, Walsh does not appear to have violated any law or any of the rules of professional conduct for attorneys or prosecutors, according to Arnold R. Rosenfeld, the former head of the state board that oversees lawyers’ conduct.
The action Walsh took yesterday mirrors a decision earlier this week by Cardinal William H. Keeler to publicize the names of 83 priests accused of sexually molesting minors in the Baltimore Archdiocese over 70 years.
In a letter to 180,000 Catholic households, Keeler said he would review the names of the accused priests, none of whom are active, with clergymen now serving the archdiocese and then post the names of the accused priests on the archdiocesan Web site. ”At times, we have let our fears of scandal override the need for the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse,” Keeler said in his letter.