Grand Jury Report: Long Island Diocese Protected Abusive Priests

By Frank Eltman
Associated Press, carried in Boston Globe
February 10, 2003

HAUPPAUGE, N.Y. (AP) The Diocese of Rockville Centre repeatedly protected priests accused of sexual abuse by transferring them and setting up a mechanism that protected them from being discovered, according to a report by a special Suffolk County grand jury.

"Professional treatment recommendations were ignored and dangerous priests allowed to minister to children. Diocesan policy was to expend as little financial capital as possible to assist victims but to be well prepared for the possibility of enormous financial and legal liability," says the 180-page grand jury report released by the county district attorney's office on Monday.

"Although there was a written policy that set a pastoral tone, it was a sham," the report says. "The diocese failed to follow the policy from its inception, even at its most rudimentary level.

"Abusive priests were transferred from parish to parish and between dioceses. Abusive priests were protected under the guise of confidentiality, their histories mired in secrecy," the report says.

Diocesan spokeswoman Joanne Novarro said the diocese "unequivocally rejects the characterization of its actions given by this report, specifically the accusation that the Diocese of Rockville Centre conceived and agreed to a plan using deception and intimidation to prevent victims from seeking legal solutions."

The grand jury was presented evidence detailing the sodomy of altar boys, abuse of cheerleaders and how other youth were shown sexual videotapes and given alcohol.

The grand jury was unable to file indictments against the diocese because of a five-year statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases, meaning too much time has lapsed since the abuse cases to bring criminal charges, the district attorney's office said.

Citing their inability to file indictments, the grand jury made several recommendations. They include amending several state laws such as eliminating the statute of limitations on child sex abuse allegations and including clergy among those who are required to report suspected child abuse directly to police.

"It is very clear and this grand jury has found with certainty that this diocese is incapable of policing its own," District Attorney Thomas Spota said. "We will not be satisfied until we have reporting requirements directly to law enforcement."

The Rockville Centre diocese covers 1.3 million Catholics in Suffolk and Nassau counties; it has 134 parishes and is the sixth largest in the nation.

The report said that "aggressive legal strategies" were used to discourage lawsuits by victims.

"Priests who were civil attorneys portrayed themselves as interested in the concerns of victims and pretended to be acting for their benefit while they only acted to protect the diocese," it says. "These officials boldly bragged about their success and arrogantly outlined in writing mechanisms devised to shield them from discovery."

The special grand jury interviewed 97 witnesses over a period of eight months. They included 47 victims or family members; 31 priests, of which 19 were pastors; and seven members of the diocese hierarchy. The report did not say how many abusive priests there were.

Bishop William F. Murphy, who took over the Diocese of Rockville Centre in 2001, was not subpoenaed but declined to voluntarily testify before the grand jury, said Bob Clifford, a spokesman for Spota.

As the former second-highest ranking official in the Archdiocese of Boston, Murphy was involved in nearly one-third of that city's priest sex abuse cases while serving as top deputy to Cardinal Bernard Law. He is scheduled to testify Wednesday before a Massachusetts grand jury investigating whether he and other church officials can be prosecuted for allegedly protecting abusive priests.

The Rev. Michael Hands, who has pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a teenage boy in Nassau and Suffolk counties, cooperated with the grand jury in its investigation into priest sex abuse in both counties.

Spota said Hands' testimony was "absolutely material" and was key to the investigation.

The report describes one case in which a priest found to be in possession of a pornographic video involving a 15-year-old boy was never criminally prosecuted even after admitting to the crime. Another priest who helped file a claim on behalf of a female abuse victim was prevented by church officials from receiving another assignment.

In another case, the report describes a priest who "wreaked havoc by sexually abusing children during his first two assignments as an associate pastor." Even after reporting the incidents of abuse to a pastor, the report said, the pastor "never told anyone about the abuse that he was aware took place from at least 1979 into the 1990s."

"The pastor told the grand jury that the climate in the diocese of Rockville Centre was to keep sexual abuse quiet," according to the report.

The diocese also failed to thoroughly screen candidates for the priesthood and did not keep adequate files on clergymen about whom it had received warnings.

The grand jury began compiling its report last year after the sex abuse scandal of the Boston archdiocese was made public.

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