February 11, 2003
Suffolk County grand jury accused Roman Catholic Church officials on Long Island yesterday of protecting scores of pedophile priests for decades by using sham policies and a bogus "intervention team" to trick and silence victims, cover up crimes, avoid scandals and hold down financial consequences.
The panel said the Diocese of Rockville Centre — the nation's sixth largest, with 1.3 million Catholics in 134 parishes in Nassau and Suffolk Counties — had protected at least 58 abusive priests with aggressive tactics that purported to help victims and their families but that actually used intimidation, claims of confidentiality, hush payments and other means to avoid lawsuits and publicity.
Since 1990, the diocese has maintained a special "uninsured perils fund" to cover sexual abuse claims, asbestos exposure and trampoline accidents, the grand jury found. It said the fund, raised from parish collections, had paid $1.7 million in claims — none for asbestos exposure or trampoline accidents — but still had $11 million in its account last October.
As for dangerous priests, it said they were shuffled from parish to parish and often allowed to minister to children, while recommendations for psychiatric treatments were ignored and a "legal affairs" team, ostensibly set up to help sexual abuse victims, worked to suppress legal claims and husband the money.
"The grand jury concludes that the history of the Diocese of Rockville Centre demonstrates that as an institution they are incapable of properly handling issues relating to the sexual abuse of children by priests," the special grand jury said in a 180-page report based on a nine-month inquiry.
It said the failures, documented in testimony by priests and victims and in church records including secret archives on 43 priests, could not be attributed to incompetence. "The evidence before the grand jury clearly demonstrates that diocesan officials agreed to engage in conduct that resulted in the prevention, hindrance and delay in the discovery of criminal conduct by priests," it said.
The report did not name any diocesan leaders or abusive priests, and the grand jury said it was unable to file indictments against the diocese because of a five-year statute of limitations. But the panel called for new laws to eliminate time limitations on prosecuting child sex-abuse cases and to require that members of the clergy report child abuse directly to the authorities.
The report was one of the most comprehensive accountings of abuse by priests in a diocese since the pedophile scandal engulfed the Roman Catholic Church 13 months ago with disclosures that a Boston priest had attacked 130 boys over 30 years. Since then, hundreds of civil suits have been filed with claims totaling more than $100 million, and prosecutors across the nation have taken their investigations of clerical sexual abuse before dozens of grand juries.
A survey by The New York Times last month found that the crisis had spread to nearly every American diocese and had involved more than 1,200 priests and more than 4,200 victims in the last six decades. Those accused represent less than 2 percent of the priests in America, but research suggests that the extent of the problem remains hidden because many cases have gone unreported.
Yesterday's report was unveiled by the Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, at a news conference in Hauppauge. "This document tells all of us what was really happening in the Diocese of Rockville Centre for years and years and years," he said. "High-ranking prelates protected 58 colleagues from disgrace rather than protecting children from these predator priests."
Mr. Spota added: "Time after time, and despite overwhelming evidence that priests were committing crimes against children, they were willingly sacrificing the truth for fear of scandal and for monetary considerations."
Joanne C. Novarro, a spokeswoman for the Rockville Centre Diocese, called the grand jury report unfair and insisted that the diocese had taken all cases of sexual abuse by priests seriously and had improved its methods of handling such cases under Bishop William Murphy, who took over the diocese last year.
"While sexual abuse of minors is always a grave sin and a crime, the ways of dealing with it have developed over time," she said. "This is every bit as true of law enforcement officials as of church personnel."
Ms. Novarro added: "It is unfair to use today's standards to judge sincere attempts in the past to assist victims and to help perpetrators not to offend again. The diocese took extremely seriously any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor, sent the accused priest away for evaluation and treatment, and worked with the victims for a just settlement."
The spokeswoman also sharply criticized Mr. Spota for releasing the report to the news media before issuing copies to the diocese. She said that the diocesan lawyers were reviewing it and that neither she nor Bishop Murphy had read it.
Bishop Murphy was not at the briefing. Ms. Novarro said he had gone to Boston, where he is to testify on Wednesday before a grand jury investigating whether he and other church officials could be prosecuted for protecting abusive priests there. Bishop Murphy was formerly the top deputy to Cardinal Bernard Law and has been cited in nearly one-third of the pending cases in Boston.
The Suffolk grand jury, impaneled last May, heard 97 witnesses and examined 257 exhibits, including personnel records of the diocese going back to its founding in 1957, and what it called "secret archives" on 43 priests who have been accused of sexual abuse. "The vast majority of priests assigned to the diocese are dedicated to their pastoral ministry," the report said.
But the report — in what has become a familiar litany — presented evidence, often in graphic terms, of assaults by priests from the late 1970's: the rape and sodomy of altar boys, cheerleaders and others who were given alcohol, shown pornographic materials and seduced in rectories, churches or their own homes, or were taken to motels, peep shows or sex clubs or on camping trips and other outings.
Identifying the priests only by letters of the alphabet — A through W — the report detailed abuse that often continued for years. While many cases were brought to the attention of diocesan officials, it said, only one priest was unfrocked — for having an affair with an adult woman.
"The response of priests in the diocesan hierarchy to allegations of criminal sexual abuse was not pastoral," the report said. "In fact, although there was a written policy that set a pastoral tone, it was a sham. The diocese failed to follow the policy from its inception, even at the most rudimentary level."
Instead, it said, diocesan officials transferred the abusive priests from parish to parish or out of the diocese, but their records did not go with them. "Abusive priests were protected under the guise of confidentiality," it said. "Their histories were mired in secrecy."
Moreover, to carry out what the panel called its cover-up policy, the diocese in the mid-1980's set up what it called the Office of Legal Affairs, known unofficially as the "intervention team." It was, in fact, two high-ranking priests who were also lawyers.
Ostensibly they recommended treatments for abusive priests — recommendations that were filed away and forgotten, the grand jury said — and met with victims and their families, supposedly to discuss possible avenues of action.
"In reality," the grand jury said, "the office and the intervention team had one purpose, protecting the diocese."
To do this, the report said, the team used "aggressive legal strategies" to "defeat and discourage lawsuits, even though diocesan officials knew they were meritorious." Meeting with victims, the team treated crimes of priests as sins, not to be reported to law enforcement officials, and said that offenders were being treated.
"Victims were deceived," the report said. "Priests who were civil attorneys portrayed themselves as interested in the concerns of victims and pretended to be acting for their benefit while they acted only to protect the diocese."
One confidential, self-congratulatory memo written by a team member was quoted in the report as saying: "We have suffered no major loss or scandal due to allegations of sexual misconduct by religious personnel. Since I have been involved in this work, the Diocese of Rockville Centre has paid out a total of $4,000 because of claims of sexual misconduct."
In cases where money was paid from the uninsured perils fund, victims were asked to sign confidentiality agreements so there would be no publicity, the report said.
"The grand jury finds the actions of diocesan officials who were responsible for making and implementing policy reprehensible," it said.