Church Files Reveal Depth of Priest Sex Abuse Scandal
State: Diocese Was 'Willfully Blind' to Danger Children Faced
By Annmarie Timmins and Daniel Barrick and Amy Mcconnell
Monitor [Concord NH]
March 4, 2003
The Diocese of Manchester knowingly endangered children by mishandling accusations of sexual abuse by nearly 35 priests for almost 60 years, according to an exhaustive report released yesterday by the state attorney general's office.
The report, which accompanied 9,000 pages of church files, also showed that the church demanded silence from victims it settled with; that the police did not always pursue misconduct; and that parents sometimes believed the church over their children.
"The state was . . . prepared to establish that in some instances, the diocese was willfully blind to the danger its priests posed to children," the state's report said.
New Hampshire Bishop John McCormack issued his own analysis of the state's investigation yesterday that included the lessons the diocese has learned from its mistakes. In a telephone interview yesterday afternoon, McCormack said he did not regret the publication of the church's misconduct.
"It's a difficult report to read," McCormack said. "It's going to cause pain to everybody who reads it. But I think out of our pain we are going to be healed. There is an old proverb: A crisis can become an opportunity."
It was uncertain yesterday whether the state's report will fuel mounting calls for McCormack's resignation.
The state's report details the church's mishandling of clergy abuse in the years before McCormack arrived in Manchester in 1998. But he has been widely criticized for similar mishandling during his previous assignment in the Archdiocese of Boston. A poll released last month showed that 72 percent of Catholics surveyed thought he should step down.
Jeff Blanchard, a member of the New Hampshire Voice of the Faithful, said yesterday's revelations made clear the need for change in the church. He stopped short of saying that change should include McCormack's dismissal.
"The focus should be on the personal responsibility of the church leadership," Blanchard said. "It's not just a matter of individuals, but the culture of the institution. The institution itself has some deep questions about how it's managed itself over the years."
The report issued yesterday was the result of an investigation that former attorney general Philip McLaughlin launched in February 2002 after reading about the clergy abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese.
At McLaughlin's urging, McCormack released the names of the priests he believed faced credible allegations of child sexual abuse. That list came out in February 2002 with the names of 14 priests. In the next several months it grew to nearly 50 names. (The state released files on only 35 of the diocese's accused priests.)
At the direction of Will Delker and James Rosenberg of the attorney general's office, several investigators have spent the better part of the last year interviewing victims and priests. Their results allowed McLaughlin to broker an unprecedented deal with the diocese in December.
McLaughlin agreed to drop the state's child endangerment case against the church in exchange for McCormack's admission that the church had failed children and his promise to report all future abuse to the authorities.
But many have said the real strength of the state's agreement would be yesterday's publication of the church's own files. It was the first such action taken in the country.
"It's horrible, but it's a relief," said Ann Hagan Webb, New England coordinator for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "It always helps to have the truth told, even if it's years after the fact."
The Diocese of Manchester oversees all the state's Catholic churches and serves more than 300,000 parishioners. Yesterday's report revealed that several of the accused priests served in parishes in central New Hampshire, including those in Concord, New London and Suncook.
The state focused its 200-page analysis on eight of those cases it felt best proved its child endangerment case against the diocese. They are Paul Aube, Albert Boulanger, Gerald Chalifour, Robert Densmore, Roger Fortier, Raymond LaFerriere, Leo Landry and Gordon MacRae.
Boulanger died last year; MacRae and Fortier are in prison for sexually assaulting children. The others have been suspended. At least three of them, Aube, Chalifour and Landry, cooperated with state investigators.
That cooperation, combined with the state's other interviews and research, revealed consistencies in the way the church - and others - dealt with victims of abusive priests.
In the cases of Aube, Chalifour, Densmore and MacRae, the church demanded silence from the victims whom they had offered settlements. It was not unusual for the diocese to require the victims' counselors to keep the abuse secret too.
The church settled one $25,000 claim against Aube acknowledging that the confidentiality agreement "might be deemed to benefit the Diocese primarily."
Densmore's file contained something similar.
Then-Chancellor Francis Christian settled a $2,110 claim with a victim in 1993 with these words: "Going public now with the events . . . would not only put you in a compromising position due to the publicity but would also jeopardize Fr. Densmore's limited ministry to no constructive end."
The files also showed how many parents encouraged, even required, their children to respect their priests. A woman whose son was abused by Chalifour required her son to spend time with him because she believed the priest would straighten out his troublemaking.
And in some cases, the parents didn't want to hear their children's allegations.
In Aube's case, a now-adult victim told investigators last year of his mother's response when he told her Aube had "hurt" him. The victim was 12 at the time.
"And you know, she just kind of looked at me funny," the victim said. "And I said he does other stuff to me too that I just couldn't go into it and I was crying and then she slapped me and told me not to lie about the church."
Last year, one of Boulanger's victims told investigators that when he recently told his parents of Boulanger's abuse they almost didn't want to come to his wedding.
In a couple cases, the police offered limited - or no - response to the allegations brought to them.
In Aube's case, the Nashua police in 1975 agreed to Bishop Odore Gendron's request that his department not make a report on his department's discovery of Aube having sex with a boy in his car. The police chief later said he had no recollection of that request or the incident.
The Chalifour file contains a Massachusetts police report made out after a boy reported that Chalifour had abused him in a hotel room. The police urged the boy's parents to pursue the matter, but there is no indication they filed charges or investigated the allegations.
The diocese did not address the details of the individual files yesterday. Its report instead focused on the lessons it had learned from its mistakes.
Church officials said they had learned to pay more attention to victims; report allegations to the police; involve more people in the church's investigation; maintain more thorough files; handle allegations more consistently; and bolster awareness training to prevent more abuse.
The state required at least two of those changes: reporting abuse to the police and maintaining more complete files.
McCormack said yesterday the church didn't know had badly it had failed children until the state's investigation prompted more victims to come forward with their stories.
"The number of allegations and the number of (accused) priests has really raised the critical awareness of the dimensions of this problem," he said. "The toll it's taken on me is that I have become aware that it's been a very hard time for victims. And for our church. The best I can do as bishop is to acknowledge what is past, to correct it and move on."
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