Vindication, and Sadness, at Release of Jury Report

By Elissa Gootman
New York Times
Downloaded February 12, 2003

OCKVILLE CENTRE, N.Y., Feb. 10 - Even among those who suspected the worst - who believed the reports about abusive priests and diocesan officials more concerned with protecting their image than their parishioners - the report released here today struck a painful blow.

The 180-page report, prepared by a Suffolk County special grand jury that was impaneled to investigate abuse allegations and how the Diocese of Rockville Centre handled them, is the most significant official account of problems in the Roman Catholic Church on Long Island.

Lawyers for abuse victims said they hoped it would be a powerful tool for use in civil lawsuits, even when the statute of limitations had expired. Victims' advocates said they hoped the report would spur lawmakers to extend the statute of limitations and amend other laws to penalize church officials who fail to report abuse allegations. And Catholics who have criticized the church for its secretive policies said their sense of vindication had been dwarfed by an overwhelming sadness.

"It vindicates us, but we would never say that we're happy to see the report," said Sheila B. Peiffer, co-director of Long Island Voice of the Faithful, a lay group formed in response to the sexual abuse scandal. "It's kind of like the Dylan Thomas quote `After the first death, there is no other.' You don't have to have large numbers to realize how horrific the situation is."

Mrs. Peiffer said the report would make it more difficult for Catholics to choose not to believe the accounts of abuse. "This has the weight of authority," she said.

At a news conference today, a spokeswoman for the diocese, Joanne C. Novarro, criticized the Suffolk district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, for releasing the report to the news media before the diocese had enough time to read it thoroughly and respond to it. She also said the report played down the diocese's sincere efforts to respond to abuse cases.

She said the diocese "remains committed to do all in its power to respond to the anguish and suffering" of abuse victims.

The Rev. William F. Brisotti, the pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, in Wyandanch, said that even before the report was released, he knew of a case in which an abusive priest had been transferred to another parish. "It's just a very, very dark day in the history of the church on Long Island," Father Brisotti said. "I'm very saddened by the whole thing."

At a news conference at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, leaders of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said they were particularly disturbed by a section of the report indicating that members of the church's legal affairs department had counseled victims not to report instances of abuse to civil authorities.

"This is not the first time we've seen a cover-up by a diocese," said David Cerulli, the New York coordinator of the victims' group. "But this is the first time we've seen that programs used by the church used deception."

Michael G. Dowd, a Manhattan lawyer who said he represented about 100 people who were sexually abused by priests, said that by referring to the findings of a church policy that steered victims away from court, civil lawyers could argue that the statute of limitations for civil cases did not apply. "It's going to be a virtual nuclear bomb for the diocese in trying to defend any of these civil cases based on the statute of limitations," he said.

While the report does not recommend that anyone be indicted, Laura A. Ahearn, director of Parents for Megan's Law, said it could help some victims to heal. "It's extremely empowering because for years they have sort of hidden behind a truth that they know is there, but everybody around them has denied," she said. "This has to be an incredible sense of justice."


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