Victims React to Report on L.I. Priest Sexual Abuse

By Daniel J. Wakin
New York Times
February 12, 2003

grand jury's assertion that the Diocese of Rockville Centre secretly battled to protect priests while pretending to extend a pastoral hand to sexual abuse victims goes beyond anything seen since the scandal in the Roman Catholic Church erupted a year ago, victims of abuse and their advocates said yesterday.

A 181-page grand jury report accused the diocese of systematically protecting scores of abusive priests and failing to safeguard children. At its heart was an analysis of the work of a three-member intervention team of diocesan officials.

While masquerading as sympathetic listeners, the officials were actually doing everything they could to fend off dozens of victims, keep their charges quiet and keep abusive priests in the ministry, the grand jury said in the report, which was released on Monday.

"I have not frankly seen a team that is so sinister and dedicated to the purpose like this," said one lawyer, Jeffrey Anderson, who added that he had pressed cases in more than half of the nation's dioceses.

Similar accusations have been made elsewhere, but on an isolated scale. In Albany, plaintiffs accused the diocese of trying to manipulate them through a church-affiliated therapist who connived with the bishop. The Diocese of Sacramento in California was accused of setting up a victims' hot line answered by a lawyer. In a case in Grand Rapids, Mich., a church lawyer seemed informed about the workings of a church-run therapy group, victims' advocates said.

But such efforts pale in comparison with those in Rockville Centre, the nation's sixth largest diocese with 1.3 million Catholics in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, said Stephen C. Rubino, a lawyer involved in abuse suits against priests. "We had never seen anything as sophisticated as that one," Mr. Rubino said.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said the church had often sought to induce victims not to report cases to the authorities or to keep them away from lawyers.

"I think the extent to which Rockville Centre followed the instinct is quite remarkable," said Professor Hamilton, who has been an adviser to the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Joanne C. Novarro, a spokeswoman for the diocese, did not return a phone call yesterday, but on Monday she said the diocese took all allegations of abuse seriously. Ms. Novarro criticized the report as unfair and said it did not take into account improvements in the diocese's performance.

The grand jury presented memorandums and testimony that appeared to show a system to dispose of sexual abuse cases with a minimum of fuss and money.

An internal memorandum in March 1995 described the team's tasks as administrative oversight over accusations, monitoring legal responses, creating a system of supervising accused priests and keeping contact with accusers.

Two of the three members were lawyers, the grand jury said. The team started as the Office of Legal Affairs, to handle legal matters. But the members soon became the main point of contact with victims.

In case after case detailed by the grand jury, victims, family members or acquaintances were immediately put in touch with a lawyer-priest from the team. Several witnesses told the grand jury that the official never said he was a lawyer.

In one instance, the official told a parish employee who reported suspicious behavior that the priest would be sent for treatment, the report said. What about the boy, the employee asked. The grand jury report said the official replied: "It's not my responsibility to worry about the boy. My job is to protect the bishop and the church."

In another case, the lawyer-priest told a nun who had intervened that a meeting with the victim was a waste of time because the statute of limitations on the abuse had expired, the grand jury said.

According to the report, the nun responded with an epithet, and said: "These people are hurting. Why do you care about the statute of limitations?"

Several people interviewed yesterday told similar stories.

John Salveson, 47, of Bryn Mawr, Pa., who said he was abused as a boy in the 1970's, said his parents met in 1989 with Msgr. John A. Alesandro, a member of the team.

"Literally, the first words out of Alesandro's mouth were, `You know, the statute of limitations has run out,' " Mr. Salveson said. "It tells me they couldn't have less interest in helping the people they abused. It's all about defending against lawsuits and protecting their bank accounts."

Robert G. Fulton, a former priest who served as director of health services for priests in the diocese from 1990 to 1997, said the team filtered information to him. "If they didn't want me knowing anything, they wouldn't tell me anything," Mr. Fulton said.

When guidelines for handling accusations were laid out in 1992, the team continued to handle the cases.

"The policy appeared to protect perpetrator priests," the report said. "In practice, this was a hollow promise; the only entity that the intervention team protected was the diocese."

The grand jury said that the team also ignored the advice of the church's own psychiatric experts about problem priests. Nor did it tell pastors or parishioners about them, the report said.

The grand jury report said the team acknowledged a conflict of interest. In a 1993 internal memorandum, a team member advised other diocesan officials referring victims, "Please do not identify me as an attorney."

But the team found good things to say about itself. In the 1980's, one member wrote a memorandum that appears to have been addressed to the bishop at the time, John R. McGann; he was succeeded in 1999 by Bishop James T. McHugh. The current bishop, William Murphy, took over in September 2001, after Bishop McHugh's death, and dismantled the team in April.

The writer said the diocese had paid only $4,000 in claims. "We have suffered no major loss or scandal" making the diocese unique in the country, the writer said. The writer also told of helping "other bishops" and religious congregations with sexual abuse problems and of being involved in more than 200 such cases around the country.

While his name never appears, Msgr. Alan J. Placa's shadow hovers throughout the grand jury report.

Monsignor Placa was the architect of the diocese's legal strategy, a national expert in the field and the crucial member of the intervention team. Several months after the panel was ended in April, he was suspended from the ministry after being accused of abusing children. Monsignor Placa is a close friend of Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor, and works for Mr. Giuliani's consulting business.

The grand jury report does not mention names. But it often refers to a priest who is a lawyer as dealing with victims. The description fits Monsignor Placa, and lawyers for victims have said he is the author of confidential legal memorandums quoted by the grand jury.

Monsignor Placa, who has defended his work on the panel and denied misconduct, did not respond to a request for an interview yesterday.


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