In a carefully worded statement, the Albany diocese on Wednesday signaled plans to change its policy of notifying parishioners and the public about the removal of priests believed to have sexually abused children.
In its first public remarks about a judge’s stern warning against public statements concerning sexual abuse by Albany priests, the diocese vowed to adhere to policies adopted by American bishops in Dallas last year, but stopped short of saying it would maintain its previous level of openness about clergy sexual abuse.
State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi on Monday warned attorneys and their clients including sexual abuse victims and church officials against making public statements that could influence a potential jury in all current and future lawsuits involving priests’ alleged sexual abuse.
“In our view, this ruling also does not conflict with the diocesan policy and practice of identifying priests who have been removed from ministry in accordance with the Charter and its norms,” the diocese said in a written statement.
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which was adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, imposed a zero-tolerance rule for priests who abused children and called for “openness” in such cases. But the policy did not explicitly call for public notification of the priests’ removal.
In his order, Teresi warned against “the characterization of a claim being credible or incredible, which results in the change of employment status or ministry status of an individual.” He also singled out victims’ attorneys arranging news media interviews with their clients, which he said could prejudice future jurors.
Teresi’s ruling came after several weeks of public disclosures from victims about the extent of sexual abuse in the diocese in the 1970s and 1980s and the way victims were handled last year by church officials.
In at least one case, Bishop Howard Hubbard and the diocese have refused to comment about new allegations from victims who provided the Times Union with information and documents that appear to contradict church officials’ prior statements.
“Now, under the guise of a court order, they can continue their status quo and saying nothing and say they are following the court order,” said Mark Furnish, an attorney at the state Senate and local spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
According to the national policy, the bishops adopted last year, dioceses must implement “a communications policy that reflects a commitment to transparency and openness.”
It also said: “Within the confines of respect for the privacy and the reputation of the individuals involved, dioceses will deal as openly as possible with members of the community.”
Experts said the national policy does not require notifying the public, as the diocese did in June 2002, when it removed six priests from active ministry, and this month, when it removed two others, the Revs. James Kelly and Joseph Romano.
A spokesman for the Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bill Ryan, said Wednesday that he was familiar with Teresi’s ruling but would not comment on it.
The diocese declined to elaborate or clarify its intent regarding whether it would notify parishioners and the public if any other priest is removed. “The court order has directed all parties to ensure a fair, public trial of all claims, rather than in the media. In respecting that court order we will not comment any further,” the brief statement said.
Teresi was particularly critical of several statements made by attorney John Aretakis, who represents about two dozen people who say Albany diocesan priests molested them. Aretakis has been critical of the diocese and has allowed reporters to interview some of his clients in recent months.
Hubbard has faced criticism about quietly giving one victim more than $225,000 during the height of the national scandal last year. Sister Maureen Joyce, who heads Albany’s Catholic Charities, also was criticized for taking part in the payments. The payments were disclosed for the first time last month when the victim spoke to the press.
The diocese is fighting one lawsuit filed by Aretakis that seeks damages under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO law, traditionally used to prosecute organized crime.