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Diocese abuser list long awaited

Lawyer criticizes ‘culture of secrecy’

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / January 20, 2011

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In the fall of 2002, the year the clergy sexual abuse crisis exploded in Boston, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore released a list of priests who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse over the previous five decades. Following a scathing 2005 grand jury report on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that listed the names of clergy abusers, that archdiocese established an online gallery, complete with photographs and assignment records of credibly accused priests, as well as a separate list of pending cases. And the Archdiocese of Chicago has kept an updated list of clergy abusers on its website since 2006.

But the Archdiocese of Boston, at the epicenter of what has become a global sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, has not yet followed through on Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley’s suggestion almost two years ago that he would soon post a list of all Boston-area priests credibly accused of sexual abuse.

Such lists have long been a top priority for victims and their advocates.

“It’s not just about safety of children in the future, it also enables people who have been suffering terribly from past abuse to come forward,’’ said Terence McKiernan, codirector of BishopAccountability.org, an online archive that tracks sexual abuse by Catholic clergy around the United States.

Officials of the Boston Archdiocese insist they are working on producing such a list, but they have not explained why it is taking so long or when it might be finished.

As many dioceses have discovered, compiling such lists of abusers can raise difficult issues. Abuse reports often surface long after the criminal statute of limitations has expired, sometimes even after the accused priest has died.

The church has its own legal process for reviewing sexual abuse claims, but because its investigations are conducted secretly by church employees and appointees, they are viewed with skepticism by those pressing dioceses to publish the lists. Some lawyers say independent investigators or panels, not the church, should be the final arbiter of whether a complaint against a priest is credible and therefore a basis for including him on a list of clergy abusers.

“Compiling a list of those credibly accused is a step in the right direction,’’ said Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has represented many victims of clergy abuse. “But it’s still a half-truth, because [church officials] still have more information that they are holding back.’’

The issue came to a turning point in Boston yesterday, when lawyer Mitchell Garabedian posted on his firm’s website a list of 117 priests and other church workers who, he said, have been accused of abuse by at least one of his clients. The Catholic Church, he said, has paid a settlement for at least one abuse claim against each of those named.

But Boston church officials said yesterday that, in three cases cited by Garabedian, the complaints were found to be unsubstantiated by an archdiocesan review board.

Garabedian, speaking at a press conference, criticized the archdiocese for maintaining what he called a culture of secrecy, nearly a decade after the scandal broke.

“The attitude of the church has not changed,’’ Garabedian said.

The Archdiocese of Boston strongly disagrees. Church officials say the process for preventing and dealing with sexual abuse has undergone a metamorphosis. All allegations are immediately reported to law enforcement; priests accused of abuse are removed from ministry pending an investigation; a variety of procedures have been established to protect children, from background checks for employees to abuse-prevention training for children. During O’Malley’s tenure, archdiocesan officials say, the church has settled nearly 800 complaints of sexual abuse.

The archdiocese declined to make anyone available to discuss the list issue for this report, but noted in a statement that it routinely discloses the names of priests removed from active ministry pending an investigation of a sexual abuse complaint. Officials reiterated their intention to disclose “additional information about credibly accused clergy,’’ but said diocesan officials “continue to evaluate the complexities of this initiative.’’

Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean emeritus and professor at Duquesne University School of Law and a specialist in canon law, said he sees a number of benefits to dioceses compiling the lists.

“Only by being honest, truthful, and transparent about what happened in the past can the hierarchy get this behind them and successfully lead the church on to the future,’’ he wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

He also sounded a note of caution.

“Priests have rights, and the civil courts are open to them when they are defamed,’’ he wrote. “So a diocese should only list men who they are certain abused youngsters. The basis of such a list cannot be suspicion; it must be certainty.’’

Tom Roberts — editor at large for the National Catholic Reporter, who is working on a book about the abuse crisis — said one issue that is not often discussed is “what obligation a Christian community might have, in the love it professes, to the sinner, even the sex offender.’’

“Unfortunately,’’ he wrote in an e-mail, “the public outrage at how the scandal was handled hasn’t allowed much room for such discussion.’’

Before the Archdiocese of Boston publishes a list, it must grapple with a variety of questions, including whether to list the names of priests who worked in Boston but were members of religious orders or affiliated with other dioceses. The archdiocese must also decide whether to list priests accused of abuse after they died, and the accusations had not been investigated by the church or a legal authority.

The Archdiocese of Chicago’s list, for example, does not include clergy who are members of religious orders, and it does not include clergy who died before they could defend themselves against the allegations against them.

The Boston Archdiocese, in its statement yesterday, noted that the 11 priests who had worked in Boston and whose names had not been publicly connected to sexual abuse before Garabedian released his list, were dead when the complaints against them first surfaced. In each case, church official said, there had been only one person who had filed a report of abuse.

“In cases when an accused priest is deceased, it is nearly impossible to conduct a thorough and fair investigation into a claim,’’ the archdiocese said.

Anderson said that the diocesan abuse lists are important, but of limited utility because priests often serve in multiple places during their career. One of his current cases, he said, involves a priest who abused children in three countries and two states.

“He was caught five times and abused countless kids,’’ Anderson said. “If he had been in the Archdiocese of Boston, as an Irish priest, he wouldn’t even be on that list’’ if it included only diocesan priests.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.