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Spotlight Report

Other denominations report abuse charges

By Michael Paulson and Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 7/19/2002

Spurred by heavy publicity over the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, several other religious denominations say they are investigating allegations that some of their Massachusetts clergy have sexually abused minors in the past.

Local officials of the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Methodist Church, and the American Baptist Churches say they have recently received allegations against clergy that they are reporting to prosecutors and disclosing to their churches.

The denominations say they are meeting the requirements of a law that went into effect June 3 mandating that they report any past or present allegation of child abuse to state officials.

The numbers are tiny in comparison to the number of accused Catholic priests, and there appears to be only one new case in which a non-Catholic denomination knowingly allowed an accused molester to remain in ministry without notifying congregants. But the newly reported allegations illustrate that the Catholic Church is not the only church whose clergy have sexually abused children.

''There is a new environment in which victims feel freer and safer to come forward,'' said the Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, president of the Massachusetts conference of the United Church of Christ, the state's largest Protestant denomination. ''Additionally, other clergy and laity are more attuned to the possibilities of abuse, and more willing to come forward with information.''

A survey of the state's 11 district attorneys' offices shows that the new law making religious denominations mandated reporters has led to dozens of reports.

The state's Department of Social Services, which under the law is supposed to be notified if the alleged victim is still a minor, has received two new cases, according to spokeswoman Carol Yelverton.

Prosecutors said most of the cases now being reported are too old to pursue. But they are pursuing some cases in which the alleged perpetrator appears to have left Massachusetts, freezing the statute of limitations. And prosecutors said the new law seems to have had the desired effect of putting denominations on notice that they cannot shield themselves from secular laws.

''It's a whole new ballgame,'' said Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating, whose office has received a handful of referrals.

The allegations are against ministers from a variety of denominations.

The New England conference of the United Methodist Church says it is reviewing allegations against 10 ministers but that none are still serving - all have either resigned, retired, or died - and some allegations date back 40 or 50 years, according to the Rev. Wendell D. Luke Jr., the top assistant to Bishop Susan W. Hassinger.

Luke said he expects all the allegations to be reported to local prosecutors.

''It's not a matter that we have less than somebody else or more than somebody else,'' Luke said. ''We know that children have been abused, and the fact that some of the people who did so were ordained Methodist clergy is distressing.''

The Massachusetts conference of the United Church of Christ has received allegations against three active ministers, including a case in which a Methodist minister allegedly abused five minors in the 1970s and then transferred to the United Church of Christ.

The United Church of Christ was not notified by the United Methodist Church of the allegations against the minister until this year, when the Catholic Church scandal prompted the Methodists to notify the United Church of Christ and the county prosecutor of the past allegations against the minister.

In another case, a pastoral counselor reported to the denomination and to prosecutors that a minister acknowledged having abused a minor.

In both those cases, the accused ministers are still serving, and regional elected committees of clergy and laypeople are conducting investigations to determine whether to remove the men's ''ministerial standing.''

In the third United Church of Christ case, the denomination's regional committee has suspended for four months a Paxton minister, Rev. Donald W. Whitcomb, for alleged ''illegal behavior,'' such as supplying alcohol to minors, about 16 years ago. One person alleged that Whitcomb made a sexually inappropriate suggestion to a minor, but the regional committee could not substantiate the allegation. Whitcomb did not return a call seeking comment.

The Unitarian Universalist Association, a historically Protestant denomination that now includes people who do not consider themselves to be Christian, has reported three allegations to prosecutors, according to spokesman John Hurley.

Hurley said in one case, the accused minister had already been convicted and incarcerated, while in another case the accused minister is dead. He said in the third case the denomination received a complaint in March about an alleged instance of abuse in 1970. The alleged abuser left the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1974, saying that his ''theological perspective had changed,'' but Hurley said that the denomination has now forwarded his name and last known address to the local district attorney.

The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts has recently received allegations against two ministers, one of whom is now dead, according to executive minister Rev. Linda C. Spoolstra. In the second case, Spoolstra said she has received two allegations, one from 1960 and one from 1982, against a sitting minister, and she expects to turn over the allegations to local prosecutors, to launch a denominational investigation, and to notify the church where the minister is serving.

The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Boston, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as the Mormons), and The First Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Scientists), say they have not received any allegations of child abuse against clergy since the Catholic scandal erupted in January.

Until this year, religious organizations had managed to exclude themselves from being mandated reporters of suspected child abuse, led by lobbyists for the Catholic Church who had successfully argued that such a requirement would ruin the confidential nature of relationships between clergy and their followers.

But the outcry over the Catholic scandal caused a change in attitude among lawmakers and religious leaders, who amended the law in May, making Massachusetts the 30th state to include clergy as mandated reporters.

Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley has received 55 referrals since the law went into effect. Coakley said the vast majority are clearly beyond the statute of limitations.

''These are pretty old cases, and the source of them have not been just Catholic clergy, but Jehovah's Witnesses, Episcopalian, Unitarian, you name it,'' she said. ''It's a good thing, even if they don't lead to prosecutions, because it shows people understand the law and are complying with the spirit of the law.''

Berkshire District Attorney Gerard D. Downing, whose office covers the mostly rural western part of the state, said his office has received about 10 referrals.

''With few exceptions, these cases aren't actionable because of the death of the perpetrators or the victims, or because so much time has passed, but we have a couple under review,'' he said.

And in Bristol County, where prosecutors targeted the pedophile and former priest James R. Porter a decade ago, chief trial counsel Gerald T. FitzGerald said District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr.'s office has received about 10 referrals since the law went into effect. But FitzGerald described most of the referrals as ''kind of like cleaning out your locker.''

''We're getting old, old stuff, or a rumor about members of a congregation who were convicted of something out-of-state years ago,'' FitzGerald said. ''Still, this is stuff we're checking out.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com and Kevin Cullen can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/19/2002.
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