Priest: Abuse Hidden
By Rita Ciolli
Seeking to protect a popular monsignor in a wealthy Oyster Bay parish, a top church official pressured the Rev. Michael Hands, a Catholic priest who has admitted to sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy, into keeping quiet about his allegations that the monsignor had abused him as a teen, according to a sworn statement obtained by Newsday.
Hands said in the statement that the head of priest personnel for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, Msgr. Francis Caldwell, asked for his silence because the church wanted to return Msgr. Charles "Bud" Ribaudo to St. Dominic's in Oyster Bay. Bishop William Murphy had pulled Ribaudo as pastor there in September 2001, as soon as he learned of Hands' allegation that Ribaudo had "inappropriate sexual contact" with Hands while he was a student at Holy Trinity High School, Hands said.
But three months later, Hands said in the statement,, Caldwell told him that "we" wanted to return Ribaudo to the parish by Christmas. "And I was told that the only way that could happen is if I promised never to talk about it, to never tell anyone," Hands said.
The extraordinarily detailed statement provides an insider's view about how the Long Island diocese handled the cases of priests accused of abusing minors. Some abusers were shipped out of state, especially to Florida in what Hands said was known as "The Florida Solution." For 138 pages, Hands, 36, once considered a rising star in the diocese, names names and tells what he had learned from his years as a priest.
In return, Hands, who has also testified before the Suffolk grand jury investigating the diocese's handling of abuse cases, hopes to win leniency when he is sentenced in Nassau County Court later this month for sodomizing a teenage boy he had befriended.
Most of the sexual contact with the teen occurred while Hands was assigned to St. Philip Neri Church in Northport, where the priest became very close with the boy's family. In June of 2000, Hands was transferred to St. Raphael in East Meadow, but the sexual relationship continued until the boy ended it and told his parents. Hands pleaded guilty in March to five counts of sodomy and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child.
For his statement, Hands was questioned by Michael Dowd, the Manhattan attorney representing more than 100 alleged priest victims in the New York area, including the family of Hands' victim. There was no cross-examination in the session, which took place Dec. 26. Dowd said yesterday that Hands' statement will be used in a civil lawsuit against the diocese. Dowd also said the family will not oppose a sentence of 5 years' probation for Hands, who has asked the Vatican to release him from the priesthood.
When asked for response to Hands' allegations yesterday, a representative of the diocese said that he had not seen the statement and that neither Murphy nor Caldwell could be reached for comment. Ribaudo, who has retired from the diocese, also could not be reached for comment. But in April, Ribaudo had told Newsday he was "flabbergasted" by Hands' charges. "I categorically deny that there was any sexual relationship between us then or in the 22 years I have know him since," he said.
In his statement, Hands said it wasn't until August 2001, after months of psychological treatment, that he was able to acknowledge the "inappropriate sexual contact" he said Ribaudo had had with him years earlier.
Murphy was not yet installed as the head of the diocese when Hands told Caldwell about his experience with Ribaudo.
In response, Hands said, Caldwell told him they were busy planning the party for Murphy's installation. "They didn't want to tell him about this until after the party," Hands said.
About a month later, Murphy was told about Hands' allegations and within a week the new bishop ordered Ribaudo removed as pastor of St. Dominic's for psychiatric evaluation.
Parishioners were told their pastor, who had a history of heart problems, took a leave for medical reasons. The parish, which also operates an elementary and high school, has some of the diocese's biggest donors as members, including Computer Associates founder Charles Wang and Cablevision founder Charles Dolan. Hands, who headed youth ministry programs in his parishes, was, until his arrest, also active at St. Dominic High School, were Ribaudo had made arrangements for him to visit the campus once a week.
Then in early December 2001, Hands said he was called by Caldwell at the treatment facility Hands was attending in Maryland and was asked to keep quiet about Ribaudo. "They asked me, Caldwell asked me specifically, who did you tell besides your therapist?" Hands said.
Hands said it was his understanding that for his silence the diocese would help him financially to make the transition to private life after he voluntarily resigned from the priesthood.
"In the conversation I had with Monsignor Caldwell I felt that they will make this agreement, that they will help me in paying my insurance and medical and help me get the therapeutic help that I need, and help me to make the transition, whenever that occurs, but then it was very important that I also gave them my silence about Bud Ribaudo," Hands said in the statement.
Hands said he told Caldwell that while he wasn't planning "to go on Montel Williams," telling a judge about Ribaudo's "violating his sexual boundaries" would help explain his behavior with the teen.
Caldwell, according to the statement, even told Hands he should tell his mother in Florida to stop talking about Ribaudo to her friends because word was getting back to Long Island. "And he wanted me to call my mother or he would call my mother himself and stress with her the importance of keeping silent, because Bud Ribaudo was now back in a parish and they wanted to keep him back in the parish," Hands said.
Hands went on to say that other priests have told him that Ribaudo was returned to St. Dominic's because there were "very few priests in the diocese who could bring in as much money in this parish. He's a very important priest to keep there."
Within months, the sex abuse scandal unfolding in Boston was also reverberating on Long Island. In March 2002, Newsday began checking into reports that Hands had implicated his former mentor. At that point, Hands said Caldwell called him and asked him to deny to Newsday that Ribaudo had ever molested him.
"I don't know why I was included in the decision process as to how the diocese handles Bud Ribaudo. He told me to think about it, with the strongest recommendation that I should do this. Because, he said, it's the right thing to do, to call and to deny this," said Hands, who refused to do so.
Newsday printed a story on April 5 saying that Ribaudo submitted a letter of resignation on March 12 and was stripped of his priestly powers on March 27.
Dowd said that while Murphy inherited Hands' case, his behavior is questionable. "I think he walked into a situation that had existed before his arrival, but everything suggests that there was nothing different about the way things were handled in Boston or Rockville Centre. And nothing changed in Rockville Centre when Murphy became bishop here," Dowd said.
In the statement, Hands also told of how he visited then-retired Bishop John McGann in December 2001, four months after his arrest, to discuss his plight. McGann said he was praying for Hands, his family, and the family of his victim. "He told me that during his term as bishop that he had handled many circumstances like this," Hands said. "And he told me that he always believed that a priest should always get a second chance and that his policy was to give a guy a second chance," if his psychologists recommended it. McGann died a month later.
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