New Hampshire state prosecutors are close to deciding whether to bring criminal charges against the Diocese of Manchester for allegedly violating the state’s endangerment of children law by transferring priests known to face complaints of sexual abuse to new parishes, according to the chief of the attorney general’s criminal division.
If Attorney General Philip T. McLaughlin brings criminal charges, it would mark the first criminal charge against the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy in any state for effectively enabling sexual abuses. If a charge is brought, it would be against the diocese, not any individual bishop, said the official, N. William Delker.
The investigators are reviewing how the diocese handled the cases of more than 40 priests who have been accused in recent civil suits, as well as complaints about priests abusing youths in
New Hampshire between the early 1960s and the mid-1980s.
The principal question facing McLaughlin’s office is whether the Manchester diocese, which includes the entire state, placed children at risk by transferring priests to their parishes after receiving complaints about the priests’ alleged sexual misconduct.
Bishop John B. McCormack, who has headed the diocese since 1998, is not a target of the investigation. However, McCormack has been under fire in New Hampshire for failing to crack down on the clergy abuse problem. He also is being criticized in Massachusetts for not seeking tough sanctions against abusive priests during the seven years he handled such cases as a deputy to Cardinal Bernard F. Law.
In other states, prosecutors have so far been unable to bring charges against a diocese, or against supervisory bishops, because those states – Massachusetts among them do not have child endangerment statutes. Prosecutors also have been unable to build a case under other laws, including statutes aimed at accessories to crimes.
The New Hampshire criminal statute, a misdemeanor that carries a fine and jail term if there is a conviction, was enacted by the state Legislature in 1971. Under it, a person or entity can be prosecuted if there was a willful violation of a duty to care for, protect, and support children, and as a result the children’s welfare was endangered.
McLaughlin has had six investigators and two prosecutors, including Delker, assigned to the probe since June. The investigation is scheduled to conclude within two months, when a recommendation on whether charges should be brought will be presented to McLaughlin. ”We’re trying to understand how and why (the abuse) happened, to prevent it from happening again,” Delker, the head of the attorney general’s criminal division, said in an interview last week.
McLaughlin declined to comment on the investigation. However, in an interview in June, when asked his reaction to a meeting of US bishops on the clergy abuse problem, he disclosed that his office was examining how the Manchester diocese had handled priests after they were accused of misconduct.
At the time, McLaughlin told the Manchester Union Leader that he was ”absolutely convinced” church leaders in some dioceses, including Manchester, had broken the law by knowingly reassigning abusive priests. What remained to be seen, he said, was whether a legal theory could be developed that would allow prosecutors to bypass the one-year statute of limitations on the child endangerment law.
On Friday, McLaughlin said he was surprised by the Vatican’s statement that only ”a very small number” of priests had been accused of sexual abuse. ”We’ve had more than 40 here,” McLaughlin said. ”That to me is not a very small number.”
McLaughlin also noted that the statement from the Vatican made no mention of the role of the bishops responsible for moving offending priests from parish to parish. ”That is the issue that this office is focused on, and it’s a vital one,” McLaughlin said.
Last week, Delker said the office was considering several theories that would expand the statute of limitations beyond one year. He declined to detail the theories.
If a case can be made, the charges would be filed against the diocese, and not any current or past members of the Manchester diocese since the transfers of the priests with the worst records of misconduct took place many years ago and those responsible for the transfers are either deceased or too old to prosecute, officials said.
While individuals have been charged under the endangerment of children law in New Hampshire, it has not been used in recent memory to prosecute an organization, according to state officials who are responsible for the protection of children and youths.
However, Nancy Rollins, director of the New Hampshire division of Children, Youth and Families, said the intent of the law is to ensure that institutions entrusted with the care of children show they have policies in place to accomplish that goal.
The Rev. Edward J. Arsenault, chancellor for the Manchester diocese, said he was not familiar enough with the child endangerment statute to comment on the investigation. However, he said, the diocese is cooperating and has turned over all church records that prosecutors have sought.
David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a victims’ advocacy group, praised McLaughlin’s inquiry into the Manchester diocese’s practices. Clohessy said that since a review commission appointed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has said it will not review the past performance of bishops, the obligation rests with prosecutors.
”We will never know why this became the major problem it did until we understand fully the role of the dioceses and the bishops that controlled them,” Clohessy said. ”No matter how many individual priests are charged now, the people who are really responsible for this scandal are the bishops and their vicar generals who handled the cases inside the dioceses.”