Mass. reports 1,000 church abuse victims

Associated Press, July 24, 2003
By DENISE LAVOIE, Associated Press Writer

BOSTON — An in-depth examination of sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese found that Roman Catholic priests and other workers probably molested more than 1,000 people over six decades. The Massachusetts attorney general called the figures “staggering” Wednesday as he issued a report with the findings.

“The mistreatment of children was so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable,” said Attorney General Tom Reilly, who blamed church leaders for the scandal.

The report ends a 16-month investigation by Reilly’s office and a grand jury session that was convened last summer to consider charging church leaders.

The extent of abuse outlined in the report dwarfs what’s been found in other dioceses. Still, while the document provides a comprehensive look at what Catholic officials knew, when they knew it and how they covered it up, Reilly said he was hamstrung by state laws that were too weak to allow criminal charges to be filed against the hierarchy.

Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned last December, “bears the ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure,” Reilly said in the 76-page report.

The cardinal was aware of the abuse even before he arrived in Boston as archbishop in 1984, and he and his inner circle were actively informed about complaints against numerous priests. But with only rare exceptions did any of Law’s senior assistants advise him to take steps that would put a halt to what became the systematic abuse of children, Reilly said.

“The choice was very clear, between protecting children and protecting the church. They made the wrong choice,” he said. “In effect, they sacrificed children for many, many years.”

Reilly also warned that the archdiocese’s new abuse policy, announced in May, is insufficient to guarantee the safety of children. Among other problems, the attorney general said the archbishop retains too much control over investigations, discipline and members of a lay review board.

Members of Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group organized after the abuse scandal broke, called for resignations of church leaders implicated in the report.

The group’s president, Jim Post, called the report “a chilling picture” of how leaders betrayed children and the church.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the church has already taken “substantial steps” to prevent child abuse. Law’s successor, archbishop-elect Sean Patrick O’Malley, is to be installed next week and has pledged to heal the fractured archdiocese.

“The Archdiocese of Boston reiterates its commitment that the archdiocese will treat sexual abuse of a child as a criminal matter, that it will end any culture of secrecy in the handling of such matters … and that the archdiocese is committed to work at every level to ensure the safety of children,” Coyne said.

The archdiocese itself documented 789 allegations of sexual abuse made against 237 priests and 13 other church workers from 1940 to 2000. When evidence from other sources was included, the number of victims rose to at least 1,000, Reilly said.

About a dozen state grand juries nationwide, and many more prosecutors, have reviewed molestation claims against dioceses dating back decades. But none has come close to uncovering the scope of abuse that was found to have occurred in Boston, the nation’s fourth-largest diocese.

As church documents released over the past year have shown, most abusers frequently went unpunished, sometimes being given new assignments in parishes where lay Catholics were unaware of the clergymen’s past troubles.

“The magnitude of the archdiocese’s history of clergy sexual abuse of children is staggering,” Reilly said.

Several church officials criticized by Reilly have gone on to leadership positions around the country.

Bishop John McCormack now heads the diocese in Manchester, N.H. Reilly said McCormack insisted that abuse information be kept from parishes and failed to establish a system for restricting priests diagnosed as abusers.

In a statement Wednesday, McCormack did not address the substance of Reilly’s report, but said he worked hard in Boston and in New Hampshire to ensure that protecting children was the church’s priority.

Reilly said Bishop Robert Banks, now with the diocese in Green Bay, Wis., did not do enough to restrict abusive priests’ duties and withheld information about the child sexual abuse history of the Rev. John Geoghan — whose case sparked the scandal — during a 1989 criminal investigation.

Banks issued a statement of apology.

“While well-intentioned at the time, I deeply regret that I did not act more decisively in taking out of ministry those who abused our children and young people. For this I am truly sorry,” Banks said.

The investigation in Massachusetts did not uncover any evidence of recent or ongoing sexual abuse of children. But Reilly said it was too soon to say if abuses have stopped — and cast doubt that recent changes in state law were enough to prevent future abuses.

About 110 of the 237 priests accused of sexually abusing children since 1946 graduated from the archdiocese’s main seminary, St. John’s in Brighton, according to the report. Reilly said there was no indication that the archdiocese analyzed why that was so, or changed how it screened applicants.

Public outrage over the scandal prompted the state to enact a law making reckless endangerment of children a crime. Under the statute, someone who fails to take steps to alleviate a substantial risk of injury or sexual abuse of a child can face criminal charges.

Victims and their advocates said Reilly’s report shows that more needs to be done.

“The fact is that a group of lawless rogues were allowed to reside in our community and to harm our children under the protections of the freedom of religion and the First Amendment, and this simply cannot be allowed in the future,” said attorney Jeffrey Newman, whose firm represents more than 200 alleged victims in lawsuits against the archdiocese.

In all, the archdiocese is facing more than 500 abuse-related suits. Church officials have repeatedly said they remain committed to working toward an out-of-court settlement.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday July 24, 2003.
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