Suffolk Fights the Fire, Nassau Lets It Burn

By Paul Vitello
Hartford Courant [Hartford CT]
February 11, 2003

Two public servants received the same emergency call from their citizens last spring. It was about a fire in a church. One servant sent help, but when it turned out the fire had been burning for some time he called it off. Too late, he said.

The other servant sent help, too, and his people stayed on, trying to contain the blaze. When it was out they sifted through rubble to determine the cause of the fire. He issued a long, detailed report explaining what happened and recommending ways to prevent such fires happening again.

In today's little parable, of course, the role of the first servant is played by Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon, the second by Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, and the role of the church is played by the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The burning church building of this story is a fire trap, as it turns out -- a kind of slum managed by bishops with all the contempt that slumlords have for their tenants.

They ignore warnings of danger, dismiss calls for safeguarding their tenants (not to mention their property), and are, as it turns out, fashionably obsessed with accounting and the bottom line.

"We have the lowest ratio of losses-to-assets of any diocese," one church slumlord boasts, "and the lowest ratio of losses to number-of-priests of any large diocese in the country."

He is talking about the sexual abuse of children by priests -- and how effectively the diocese has avoided taking responsibility for it.

Denis Dillon, our first servant, has never prosecuted slumlords of any variety -- not literal ones, not figurative ones. He is a public servant, it should be said, who has spent a quarter century in office giving free passage to corrupt politicians, brutal corrections officers, bad cops, just about anyone with any kind of uniform or position in society. Look up his record of protecting society's weakest.

He spent some weeks last spring poking at the records of the Diocese of Rockville Centre before declaring that there was nothing he could do about allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests. He looked at allegations going back 25 years. There was nothing he could do, he said on April 29, six weeks after taking up the review, "because all these cases are time-barred by the statute of limitations."

The second servant, Spota, formally issued a Grand Jury report yesterday about the same 25 years of allegations. It was based on eight months of investigation. He too noted the expiration of statuatory limitations. Unlike Dillon's bloodless report about "cases ... time-barred by the statute" -- remember, he was talking about children -- Spota's report was filled to overflowing with respect and feeling for society's most powerless members.

His report found at least 23 priests of the diocese had committed serious sexual assaults on countless children in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The grand jury was pointedly specific about the acts: rape of children, oral sex with children, anal penetration of children, mental cruelties against children described in heart-rending detail: A boy, for instance, who confesses to a phobia, and who is then tormented by his confessor, a priest, who only relents in exchange for sex. To this, Dillon put his hands in his pockets and said too late.

To this, Spota said enough.

It is like the old psychology experiment, where two people witnessing the same crime describe it completely differently. In this case, one is looking at his watch and misses the thing entirely. The two DAs, both practicing Roman Catholics, maintain publicly cordial relations. Spota says he has "the highest regard" for Dillon, though it does not seem possible that this is literally true.

The anger in Spota, which was evident as he spoke yesterday at a news conference in Hauppauge, comes forth most on the issue of official silence.

The problem of sexual abuse of children, he makes clear, was the fault of the diocese's silence -- more so than the priests' criminal acts.

The diocese moved molesters from parish to parish without warning the new parishioners. The diocese silenced whistle-blowers. The diocese deceived parishioners. The diocese gave sexually predatory priests a wink and a nod. The diocese never acted to protect its children except under the threat of publicity, or in the church's quaint and somehow profane language, "the threat of scandal."

"It's not my responsibility to worry about the boy," one assistant to the bishop is quoted as saying. "My responsibility is to the bishop."

How could Spota view that priest with such well-deserved anger and not feel similarly toward a neighboring district attorney whose official posture says pretty much the same, exact thing?

"You bastard," a nun recalls telling the bishop's lawyer when he dismisses her allegations against a certain priest whom she believed was molesting children. The allegations were too old, the bishop's lawyer had said. The statute of limitations had run out.

"These people are hurting," the nun says to the bishop's man. She is in the grand jury's report. "Why do you care about the statute of limitations? That's not why we are here." It would be one servant is an avatar of silence.

The other gives voice to the unheard voices in a burning building.


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