Grand Jury Reports Long Island Diocese Protected 58 Abusive Priests

By Gill Donovan
National Catholic Reporter [Long Island NY]
Downloaded February 21, 2003

A grand jury investigation report released Feb. 10 charged the diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., with protecting 58 sexually abusive priests through what it called a "sham" policy designed to protect the church's reputation and minimize payouts to victims.

The 180-page report from the Suffolk County grand jury was written after more than 30 priests and more than 40 victims of abuse testified. The grand jury also examined thousands of church records over a nine-month period.

The report said, "The response of priests in the diocesan hierarchy to allegations of criminal sexual abuse was not pastoral. In fact, although there was a written policy that set a pastoral tone, it was a sham. The diocese failed to follow the policy from its inception, even at the most rudimentary level."

The grand jury also heard testimony about the diocesan policy from Fr. Michael Hands, now imprisoned for child abuse, who had agreed to cooperate with authorities in return for sentencing considerations (NCR, Jan. 17). According to the Associated Press, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who made the report public, said Hands' testimony was "absolutely material" to the grand jury proceedings.

The Rockville Centre diocese, led by Bishop William Murphy, is the nation's sixth largest, with 1.3 million Catholics. Prior to becoming bishop of Rockville Centre, Murphy had been chief assistant to Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop of Boston. Murphy was unavailable to comment on the report's release in New York because, according to his spokesperson, Joanne Novarro, he had traveled to Boston. Murphy was scheduled to give testimony there Feb. 12 to a grand jury investigating whether he and other Boston church officials should face prosecution for their mishandling of abusive priests in Boston.

Though the Suffolk County grand jury could not indict any of the abusive priests because a five-year statute of limitations had expired, it recommended that the New York legislature abolish the statute in cases of child abuse and pass a law requiring all clergy to take suspicions of child abuse to police.

Most of the accounts of abuse recorded in the report occurred during the tenure of Bishop John McGann, who led the diocese from 1976 to 1999. Bishop James McHugh followed him and was replaced by Murphy in 2001.

The report concluded, "the history of the Diocese of Rockville Centre demonstrates that as an institution they are incapable of properly handling issues relating to the sexual abuse of children by priests."

The report documents allegations of the rape of cheerleaders and altar boys, of acts of molestation and seductions in churches, rectories, on camping trips, and in the homes of the minors who were abused. It tells of instances in which priests provided minors with pornography and alcohol, and of cases in which the diocese received allegations and didn't report them to police, but instead transferred the accused priests to other parishes.

The report does not name the accused priests but instead refers to 23 of them by letters of the alphabet, saying, for instance, that Priest D abused "a minimum of six boys who ranged in age from 10 to 17."

In a Feb. 11 report, Newsday, a Long Island daily, recounts the charges against each of the 23 and in many instances identifies the priests by matching the crimes described in the report to allegations it has learned from victims.

Spota unveiled the report at a news conference in Hauppauge. He said that in his examination of the thousands of pages of church documents he had found no evidence that the diocese ever reported a case of an abusive priest to police.

Spota said of the grand jury report: "This document tells all of us what was really happening in the Diocese of Rockville Centre for years and years and years. High-ranking prelates protected 58 colleagues from disgrace rather than protecting children from these predator priests."

According to The New York Times, Spota, a practicing Catholic, said he was particularly offended by the actions of one priest who abused a boy in his rectory bedroom and then gestured to a crucifix and said, "I'll talk to you later."

The grand jury report said that in 1990 the diocese created what it called an "uninsured perils fund," which was designed to cover claims for sexual abuse, trampoline accidents and exposure to asbestos. The fund came from parish donations and paid out about $1.7 million. "Not surprisingly, there have never been any payments made from the fund for either asbestos or trampoline accidents," the report said.

The grand jury further identified the role played by the diocese's Office of Legal Affairs, usually identified as the "intervention team," formed of three people assigned to handle allegations of sexual abuse. Two members of the team were lawyers. Murphy dismantled the team last April.

The grand jury has charged that while the team tried to appear sympathetic to victims, its goal was actually protecting the diocese through discouraging lawsuits, persuading victims to not go public with accusations and assisting abusive priests in efforts to remain in ministry.

Though the grand jury report didn't name the team, according to Newsday, one of the members was, in all likelihood, Msgr. Alan Placa, the diocese's former vice chancellor who in April was temporarily removed from ministry for allegations that he had sexually abused minors at a school where he served as dean 25 years ago. The paper identified Placa as "Priest F" in the grand jury report.

Priest F was the diocese's chief engineer of its legal defense policy. He often served the diocese by collecting information that might challenge the credibility of an alleged victim, should a lawsuit be brought. In many cases, Priest F was the first person from the diocese to contact alleged victims.

Only rarely did he identify himself as an attorney. The report quoted a memo from Priest F in which he asked a diocesan official to not identify him to alleged victims as a lawyer:

"In fact, in these cases, I am functioning in an administrative capacity," he wrote. "My legal training is very useful in helping to gather and analyze facts, and in helping us to avoid some obvious pitfalls, but we must avoid 'frightening' people: I have had several people refuse to see me without having an attorney of their own present, because they are afraid that 'the church lawyer' will somehow do them harm."

Priest F, according to the report, "ignored, belittled and revictimized" victims. "In some cases, the grand jury finds that the diocese procrastinated for the sole purpose of making sure that the civil and criminal statutes of limitation were no longer applicable." The report said that in once instance, Priest F told a nun that seeing one victim was a waste of his time because the statute of limitations in the case had expired.

According to the report, the nun's response was, "You bastard, these people are hurting. Why do you care about the statute of limitations? That's not why we are here."

Responding in a news release Feb. 10 the diocese called the report unfair. It said that the diocese "unequivocally rejects the characterization of its actions" in the document.

"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 to their problems is simply not true," the release said.

Elsewhere in New York, a clerical abuse review panel met in Manhattan Feb. 10 to hear testimony from Daniel Donohue, a former seminarian who has accused Msgr. Charles Kavanagh of having molested him. Kavanagh, suspended in May, previously served as pastor for St. Raymond's Church, one of the largest parishes in the Bronx. Kavanagh is regarded as one of New York's leading fundraisers.

Donohue appeared at the meeting with 10 members of his family. After the meeting the family told The New York Times that neither side seemed satisfied. The archdiocese said it wouldn't comment on the panel's activities.

The archdiocese, according to Donohue, wants to see a letter Kavanagh sent Donohue, who has said that since it is his last leverage for obtaining a meeting with New York Cardinal Edward Egan, he won't show it until he meets with the cardinal. Egan has declined to meet with him.

Joseph Zwilling, archdiocesan spokes-person, said that, as a matter of policy, Egan won't meet with victims.

Gill Donovan is a staff writer for NCR. His e-mail address is


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