The News Journal The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington said this week it has no plans to release the names of 15 priests it says sexually abused minors in incidents dating to 1952.
That could change, said diocese spokesman Robert Krebs, depending on future discussions and the recommendation of the Diocese Review Board convened by Bishop Michael Saltarelli to advise him on allegations of sexual abuse.
Last week, the diocese announced that one priest had been relieved of ministry duties and two others had resigned after the review board found that allegations against them were “credible” and met the church’s definition of sexual abuse.
Officials released the names of the priests and details of their ministries, giving parishioners and community residents their first glimpse into where and when the men had served in the diocese, which encompasses Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
They did not, however, divulge how many victims had been identified, what the circumstances or locations of the abuse had been, or where the priests now were living or working.
Of the remaining 15 priests, officials will say only that seven are dead and none of the others is in active ministry. No allegations against other priests are pending, Krebs said.
“The status of priests who were removed in the past is one thing that may be considered by the review board,” Krebs said. “The first obligation was to deal with the allegations they’ve just dealt with. But going forward, it may be considered.”
Saltarelli would not comment.
The Vatican approved new church policy in December defining sexual abuse and establishing procedures for how bishops should deal with allegations. The new policy was developed after last year’s national scandal revealed accusations against hundreds of priests and raised questions about how the church handled the problem.
The new policy requires independent investigation of allegations, reports to civil authorities, the removal of any priest from ministry if allegations are substantiated, and the commitment to be “as open as possible” with parishioners and the community, while still protecting the privacy of those involved.
Using the new policy, the Wilmington diocese’s new review board investigated three priests presented by diocese officials, with offenses alleged in 1987, 1981 and the 1970s.
Vincent Bifferato Sr., chairman of the review board and a retired Delaware Superior Court judge, said the board’s inquiry is similar to the way a grand jury determines whether there was good cause for a criminal arrest. The board considers the act alleged by the victim, whether that act meets the church’s definition of sexual abuse, and determines the intent of the priest and whether sexual gratification was a motivation for the act.
Based on the findings, the review board tells the bishop whether the allegations are credible enough to justify removing the man from ministry.
“People think we have the power to put these guys in jail,” Bifferato said. “All we can do is remove them from the position of authority that they could exercise over somebody and commit sexual abuse of a juvenile.”
Bifferato was surprised when The News Journal asked whether the board would recommend releasing information about the other 15 priests. The diocese acknowledged last year that it had substantiated allegations against them.
“I didn’t know there were that many,” Bifferato said. “It’s quite possible they would bring them before us.”
Krebs said the diocese has given its files on the 18 accused priests to Attorney General M. Jane Brady.
“Everything we know about, they know about,” he said.
Brady said Delaware’s statute of limitations for criminal prosecution has expired on all of the cases here. Delaware’s clock for prosecuting any child sexual abuse case after July 1987 expires two years after the abuse is reported.
“I don’t like people to be able to do the harm that has been done and get away with it,” Brady said. “That’s true whether it’s a member of the clergy or a neighbor or an uncle or a grandfather.”
Statutes of limitations are designed to ensure the state acts swiftly in response to criminal charges. The longer the delay, the more memories fade and evidence is lost.
Delaware has no statute of limitations for murder. Some states, such as Maryland, have no statute of limitations for felonies.
“We’ve had debates within the office about eliminating the statute of limitations for certain crimes, including crimes that occurred when you were a child. I’ve not come to any firm conclusion,” Brady said. “The practical issue is whether we’re going to be able to prove it.”
The time frame within which a civil suit can be filed is even narrower, said Bartholomew J. Dalton, president of the Delaware Trial Lawyers Association. And, he said, no one here is suggesting that the limitations be suspended as California lawmakers did for the year 2003, allowing victims to file suit no matter when the offense took place.
“The recent revelations certainly make that something that our Legislature may want to think about,” Dalton said.
Privacy for victims
The Archdiocese of Baltimore the oldest in the nation – has been among the most aggressive in divulging details about priests and other church workers accused of sexually abusing minors. The names and ministry assignments were released by church officials for each allegation.
Krebs said the Diocese of Wilmington is doing what it is obliged to do: ministering to victims, removing offenders from active ministry and reporting allegations to authorities.
The diocese released details last week, he said, because “it affects folks in parishes. We need to be as transparent as possible in dealing with the situation as it affects our parishioners, the people in the pews.”
But that new openness does not yet extend to the other 15 priests.
Patrick Schiltz, a former professor at Notre Dame Law School who has worked on hundreds of sexual abuse cases for bishops and church officials, has a consistent recommendation.
“When allegations against a priest are found to be true by the church or are admitted to by the priest, the church should disclose the name of the priest and what was done, in part to protect others,” Schiltz said. “Churches can and should publish the names of priests.”
The Rev. Marie M. Fortune, a Protestant minister who is founder of the Seattle-based Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence and editor of the Journal of Religion and Abuse, said the issue of child sexual abuse is not limited to the Catholic church. But how it responds is important because of the magnitude of last year’s revelations.
“The process has to have integrity. And the public will come to trust the process if in fact they see that it’s carefully carried out and openly reported and that the goal is trying to find out what happened here and not covering up,” she said.
Jim Barnett, whose seven children have attended Catholic schools and St. Mary Magdalen Church in Sharpley, where one of the accused priests resigned, said the diocese did the right thing in revealing the names.
“I assume when they divulged names they knew it was absolutely true,” said Barnett. “These things shouldn’t be kept secret. When you see something like that, it raises concerns.”
Barnett said he was not concerned about his children, who tell their mother everything, but that’s not the case in all families, he said.
“You would not want to keep a secret with my children,” he said. “But that doesn’t change it for other families, where maybe a child is not going to say anything. My general feeling is that between the Catholic church and the other authorities, I think they’re moving in the right direction.”
Difficult balances must be struck between the public’s legitimate need to know the status of sexual offenders and the victim’s right to privacy, said Schiltz, who now is associate dean of the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis.
In many cases, he said, it is the victims who have requested secrecy. Some have never told their families what happened and agreed to tell church officials only after assurances that their identities would not be revealed. In some places, he said, it would be easy to figure out who the victim was if the priest’s name were divulged.
“If you’re talking about a priest at a fairly small parish, say between 1980 and 1982, who abused a teenage boy, you can pretty easily put together who was probably abused,” Schiltz said. “There may be a dozen teenage boys, only four were altar boys, and there was one that father was seen with a lot.”
It is impossible to know what sanctions and consequences have been imposed on the 11 living priests against whom allegations were substantiated here. Many victim groups call for every offending priest to be defrocked. But that is a decision with far-reaching implications, Schiltz said.
If the priest is defrocked, the church loses all oversight authority. Where the statute of limitations has expired as in all of the Wilmington diocese cases civil authorities have no control over the activities or whereabouts of the priest, nor must they report where they reside.
“He probably should remain at least technically a priest, so the church can try to exercise control over him,” Schiltz said. “Otherwise, maybe he gets an apartment over the local Dairy Queen or shows up at the Little League field.”
Allowing an abusive priest to remain in the church community can send conflicting messages, though, Fortune said.
“Symbolically, it’s very important that there be some sanction – defrocking, removing credentials or what have you,” she said. “The question is: Is there a way to maintain any real oversight or is it just a facade of supervision? With pedophiles, we know they’re out there and will find ways to be out there, going after kids.”
Expert opinion on whether abusive priests could be rehabilitated has changed over the years, Schiltz said. In some cases, he said, bishops made wrong decisions about how to reassign priests. In other cases, they relied on expert advice.
Now, Schiltz said, bishops are trying to operate in a much different culture when dealing with allegations that a priest has sexually abused a child.
“The pendulum has swung,” he said. “Ten to 15 years ago, no one would believe the victim. It’s just the opposite today. I think the assumption is that you’re guilty.”
Where criminal courts must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” Schiltz said, church officials must err on the side of safety, determining instead what is more likely than not.
“When you’re hiring a baby sitter for your kids, you don’t say unless I’m certain beyond a reasonable doubt that he is not an abuser, I’m going to hire him. The church is hiring baby sitters for kids. So it has to have tougher standards.”