AG Staff: Church Deal Was Best Decision

By Karen Dandurant
Portsmouth Herald News [Durham NH]
Downloaded March 15, 2003

DURHAM - In an unprecedented move, the two lead investigators of the church abuse scandal in New Hampshire met with church lay people to discuss the deal the state reached with the Diocese of Manchester over the handling of sexual abuse allegations.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Will Delker and Assistant Attorney General Jim Rosenberg met Thursday with members of Voices of the Faithful at St. Thomas More church in Durham to explain the terms of the agreement and to explain why prosecution against the hierarchy of the Manchester Diocese was not pursued.

Catholics from Durham, Exeter, Farmington, Lee, Dover, Concord and Merrimack braved a snowy night to get answers to their questions about this confrontation between the state and the church.

Delker said personnel from the attorney general's office had never met in such a forum to discuss a criminal investigation. He said it was possible only because stipulations of the agreement allowed for full disclosure.

Later, some VOTF members said they got a better understanding of the agreement, but others still felt victimized.

"I have been spiritually abused by the church and now by the legal system who let them off the hook," Bill Bonin said. "Our mission is to support victims, and there are many. We also want to support priests of integrity, but our church needs to be restructured to prevent the secrecy they maintain."

Delker said there were two primary reasons for seeking an agreement with the diocese rather than prosecuting individuals or the church as a whole. The main reason was the protection of the victims, he said.

"We reached the agreement pretty much on the eve of going to trial," Delker said. "We presented our terms and they were non-negotiable. Basically it was a take-it-or-leave-it deal. The evidence was overwhelming and we were prepared to go forward with multiple charges against the diocese."

Rosenberg said the alternative was a long trial that would have generated worldwide media attention on the victims and their families through.

The agreement the state reached with the diocese resulted in an admission that mistakes were made and that, had the state pursued charges of child endangerment, the diocese likely would have lost the case.

In addition, the agreement allows for the release of all church documents involved in the investigation, and gives the state the right to audit the activities of the church to keep future children safe.

"The press was the impetus for our inquiries," Delker said. "Former Attorney General Phil McLaughlin posed the question: Why was what we were seeing in Massachusetts not happening here? We called the diocese to ask about their practices and they agreed to provide us with the information on priests who had accusations against them. That resulted in the initial release of 15 priests in February of last year."

A grand jury was then convened. Delker said the diocese resisted cooperating with the investigation until the court ordered it in June to turn over all documents.

"From there, they literally opened their doors," Delker said. "No request was denied. Those documents were the basis for the formation of our task force. We looked at cases where the diocese knew about a priest, took no action, and as a result there may have been subsequent victims. Basically our focus was: Were children harmed as a result of the actions of the diocese?"

"The diocese did not agree because it was their wish," Lorraine Graham said. "You had the goods on them; that's why they agreed."

Delker said victims were interviewed - those who had come forward as well as those found through church documents.

One member of VOTF asked if the attorney general's office staff had any feelings that the church had destroyed or removed documents.

"If there was an intentional coverup, it was a bad job," Delker said. "The information we had was damning. There were clearly incidents where they knew but didn't respond. They left the priest where he was, or reassigned him without setting limits on his role in the church."

Unlike in Massachusetts, priests in New Hampshire are not excluded from a law that requires the reporting of suspected abuse of a child. The New Hampshire law dates back to 1971, whereas in Massachusetts priests were only included in the reporting law last year.

Under the audit agreement, the diocese has agreed to report to the state not only any children, but also adult survivors as they come forward.

The agreement with the state of New Hampshire is a formal, legal document, enforceable in court, Delker said.

Some questions had been submitted in advance by VOTF members. One asked whether the agreement prevents priests in the future from being prosecuted.

"The agreement does not insulate a priest from prosecution," Rosenberg said. "There are several criminal cases against priests now - Robichaud, Talbot and McGuire - and more investigations are pending."

Once a complaint against a priest has been found to be credible, Delker said, the agreement prevents that priest from ever being returned to a parish setting.

"Send a message to new Attorney General Peter Heed," VOTF member John Carroll said. "Tell him to prosecute with the full force of the law any future digressions."

"We sent a strong message that this is intolerable and will not be tolerated," Delker said. "I believe the message was heard."

Rosenberg said the diocesan management would not be prosecuted because of the difficulty of proving that any one person was at fault for the number of bad decisions made over the years."

"We are comfortable that we achieved all we wanted to in exchange for no individual prosecution of the management," Rosenberg said. "Had we gone to trial, it would have re-victimized the victims. It would have been brutal for them and made the O.J. trial look silly and small. The media spotlight would have gone all over the world."

The level of devastation a trial would bring to the victims could not be ignored, Delker said.

"The facts in the case are compelling," he said. "But, they could have mounted an aggressive defense on untested laws. It could have dragged on for years. The diocese has to be credited with not taking that course of action. Other states are not finding the same cooperation."

Delker added that the charges against the diocese would have been misdemeanors, resulting in possible fines and very limited jail time.

"Plus, we believe the court would have been very reluctant to impose the type of supervision we gained through the agreement," Delker said. "There would have been some real First Amendment questions involved."

VOTF member John Miskus said, "Bishop John McCormack is essentially the sole owner of the church. Why not go after one person?"

"In many cases, one bishop learned of an incident but did not act; however, there was not an immediate new victim," Delker said. "Then a new bishop would take over. To be able to prove any one person violated their duty of care would have been difficult. We would have had an easier time prosecuting the diocese as an institution for collective criminal decisions than to prove a case against one person."

Members questioned the part of the agreement that allows the diocese to destroy records of offending priests five years after their death.

Merrimack resident Carolyn Disco said, "Would you consider petitioning the court to keep the records? Forty-three percent of the victims who came forward did so for priests who were already dead. Priests die, survivors live and many do not come forward for decades."

Delker said the duty of the legal system was to look at the past with an eye to preventing the future victimization of children. He said their thinking is that once a priest dies, he can no longer victimize children.

"Plus, with the accountability we have now, we are comfortable we can prevent future abuse," he said. "The agreement is the first of its kind, and now other states are looking at what we did here. They are shocked at the level of access we have gained here."

VOTF member Maggie Fogarty said, "New Hampshire Catholics face the question of whether Bishop McCormack has the moral authority to lead the church. His defenders say his actions were under Cardinal Bernard Law. Did you come across instances involving McCormack?"

Delker said the issue of whether Bishop McCormack should step down is not a question of law, but one for the church to decide.

Some who attended Thursday's meeting with the prosecutors wondered why the church chose to cover up allegations rather than deal with them.

Jim Farrell said, "I read the documents. The graphic descriptions of what was done to these children made me sick. What went wrong that the diocese personnel were not as horrified as a normal person would be?

Delker said he could only speculate.

"I think they chose to elevate the church, to avoid scandal over the protection of children," he said. "It seems they chose the greater good of no scandal, a very, very wrong decision - a criminal one."

Rosenberg said the agreement changed at least the secrecy surrounding sexual abuse.

"Without this agreement, we would not have read word one," he said.

Fogarty thanked the AGs for the work they had done.

"We recognize that your work cannot dismantle the absolute power of the church. That's up to us as lay people."

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