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N.H. settlement averts criminal charge vs. diocese
By J.M. Hirsch, Associated Press, 12/10/02
"The church in New Hampshire fully acknowledges and accepts responsibility for failures in our system that contributed to the endangerment of children," Bishop John B. McCormack said at a news conference. "We commit ourselves in a public and binding way to address every weakness in our structure."
Attorney General Philip McLaughlin held a separate news conference earlier to announce the settlement, which means the diocese won't be charged.
McLaughlin, who leaves office next week, said he was confident of winning a conviction. But he said settling does more to achieve his goals -- changing the church, and making it accountable by releasing thousands of pages of personnel records and other documents after victims' names are blacked out.
"It speaks for itself when you view it," he said of the documents, already in his possession by court order. "It doesn't get viewed at all if you're in a criminal trial."
The settlement is a new wrinkle in the priest-sex abuse crisis across the country.
Grand juries this year have indicted individual priests elsewhere, and a grand jury in New York state concluded its review with a report accusing the archdiocese of sheltering molesters. The New Hampshire settlement is the only one reached so far under the imminent threat of criminal indictment of a diocese.
The state was pursuing misdemeanors under its child endangerment law, which experts believed would have been the first criminal charges ever against a U.S. diocese. Violations carry fines of up to $20,000 for institutions.
The statute's felony provisions are for sexual assaults and child pornography.
County prosecutors have been working for months on possible criminal charges against individual priests, but virtually all are barred because many years -- often decades -- have passed. Dozens of victims have reached civil settlements totaling about $6 million this year.
The settlement includes provisions to deter future abuse and requires annual audits by prosecutors for five years to ensure compliance.
Priests and other employees must strictly follow the state's mandatory reporting law for suspected child abuse and must immediately report suspicions even if the victim is no longer a minor.
The diocese also must beef up training and education.
McLaughlin praised the victims, mostly men in their 40s and 50s, for coming forward during his 10-month investigation.
"Understand what it would mean to a 10, 11, 12, 13-year-old boy, and sometimes a girl, to be in the presence of a priest who to them seemed to have a stature if anything beyond that of Mom and Dad," he said. "Consider the abject humiliation of people who today are asked to reflect on things done to them as children over which they had no control whatsoever. And then consider the courage, the moral courage and fortitude of those people."
"Their willingness to assist us here will protect children," he said. "That is a gift they gave us."
McCormack also spoke to the victims.
"We are sincerely sorry for the harm you have endured," he said. "Our sorrow rises from within the core of our hearts."
McLaughlin had planned to seek indictments against the diocese on Friday in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester. Instead, he submitted the settlement, which was approved Tuesday by Judge Carol Ann Conboy.
The investigation reached back to the 1960s and involved more than 50 priests and more than 100 alleged victims. McLaughlin said he had confirmed reports of molestation involving more than 40 priests and was prepared to bring charges based on five or six of them, involving about 30 victims.
The investigation was triggered by a flood of sexual abuse charges against Boston-area priests beginning late last year. Some of the alleged abuses occurred in New Hampshire or involved priests or victims who had lived in both states at some point.
McCormack figured prominently because he had been a top aide to Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law before becoming bishop of Manchester in 1998.