Bishop Sends Letter Detailing Abuse Reforms

By Gregory D. Kesich
Portland Press Herald [Maine]
Downloaded March 4, 2003

Saying he is "personally saddened and distressed" over allegations of sexual abuse by clergy members, Bishop Joseph E. Gerry wrote to the state's Roman Catholic families last week about the year-old scandal that has rocked his church.

In his first direct mailing on the issue in a year, Gerry outlined the steps that church leaders have taken since the allegations of abuse surfaced, and the steps planned for the future.

"It has been a tumultuous and painful year for all involved, especially the victims/survivors," Gerry wrote. "We are not only determined to deal with the recent crisis in the church, but to become a leader in the fight against sexual abuse of children in our society."

The letter was mailed to 83,000 households last week, said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. In addition to the letter, the envelope contained brochures that describe services available to abuse victims, and training programs that the church has adopted to prevent future abuse. The mailing contained no new announcements, Bernard said, but summarized the year's developments from the bishop's perspective.

The letter began arriving in homes as a nine-month criminal investi- gation appears to be drawing to a close without any prosecutions expected.

Last May, the church turned over decades of personnel records relating to 51 priests and other clergy, living and dead, who had been the subject of sex abuse complaints. None involved a currently active priest.

The records were collected by investigators from the state Attorney General's Office and distributed to the state's eight district attorneys. Several district attorneys have said they found no case recent enough to prosecute under state law.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said Monday that two districts still have open cases, and when they are resolved all of the prosecutors will decide whether to issue a report.

If a report is written, Robbin said, it would come out of the Attorney General's Office.

The scandal erupted in February last year when church leaders announced that two active Aroostook County priests, the Rev. John Audibert and the Rev. Michael Doucette, had admitted to and received treatment for sexually abusing children in the past. Both priests were later removed from the ministry, but remain priests in the diocese.

In April a third priest, the Rev. Leo James Michaud, was removed from his parish in Ellsworth after an allegation of child sexual abuse.

The bishop's mailing follows last Friday's announcement that the church had set up a 10-member review panel to advise Gerry on sexual abuse complaints. The panel, headed by Daniel Wathen, the former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, will review allegations of abuse and advise Gerry on their credibility.

In his letter to church members, Gerry wrote that the church has urged victims to report abuse, and has hired someone to help them by arranging counseling and organizing support groups. The diocese also has set up a toll-free number and advertised in newspapers to encourage victims to come forward.

Gerry said a new training program has already been completed by 1,600 clergy and church employees and is mandatory for all church personnel. The diocese will also do background checks on employees and volunteers who work with children.

Gerry said the church has hired a professional investigator to look into abuse allegations, and he repeated the policy he adopted last March: No employee of the diocese "with a credible allegation of child sex abuse" can work or minister.

The letter was received with skepticism from members of Voice of the Faithful, an organization of lay Catholics that formed in response to the abuse scandal.

Paul Kendrick, a Voice organizer, said the bishop should welcome more outside scrutiny. Voice has organized a committee of child abuse experts to develop a plan that uses the best methods for addressing past and future abuse, and to present alternative programs.

Kendrick said victims will be reluctant to talk with a church employee, either a counselor or investigator, if what they say could be used against them in a lawsuit.

He said the church's review board could be a positive development, and he particularly applauded the selection of Edna Chace, whose son was abused by a priest.

Staff Writer Gregory D. Kesich can be contacted at 791-6336 or at:

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