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  Diocese Takes Initiative on Abuse

By Charles Dianis
Greenwich Time [Stamford CT]
June 8, 2003

STAMFORD -- The Diocese of Bridgeport yesterday unveiled a new sexual abuse policy and a new Office of Safe Environments to combat problems of sexual abuse.

Incoming diocesan employees and volunteers will be subject to criminal background checks, and the diocese will initiate sexual awareness training this fall. The new diocesan department will oversee the efforts and work to ensure complaints of sexual abuse are investigated.

"Our goal is very straightforward. Everyone who comes under the care and guidance of the Diocese of Bridgeport must feel safe, fulfilled and enriched," Bishop William Lori said at yesterday's news conference at St. John Fisher Seminary on Newfield Avenue.

Lori also said he expects the diocese to settle this year dozens of legal claims related to pedophile allegations against priests.

"Right now we are kind of midstream in the process," Lori said, the Connecticut Post reported in editions prepared for today.

Lori said the diocese expects to reach a "comprehensive global settlement." He did not elaborate.

In October 2002, diocese officials acknowledged receiving more than a dozen new complaints about alleged abuse by priests in the diocese since the 1970s.

U.S. Magistrate William Garfinkel, who presided over settlement negotiations, mediated in March 2001 a $15 million settlement between the diocese and 24 people who claimed to have been molested as children by priests.

Since the early 1990s, 20 priests in the diocese have been suspended for abusing children. Eight priests in the Bridgeport diocese left their positions last year in connection with sexual misconduct accusations.

Some left the church voluntarily; others were removed. The eight included the Rev. Sherman Gray, pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church in Stamford; the Rev. Albert McGoldrick, pastor of St. Paul Church in Greenwich; the Rev. Vincent Veich, co-pastor of St. Benedict-Our Lady of Montserrat Church in Stamford; and the Rev. William Donovan, a former assistant pastor of St. Leo Parish in Stamford.

The Rev. Alfred Bietighofer, former pastor of St. Mary Church in Norwalk, committed suicide in May 2002 after such allegations were made against him.

Another former Stamford priest, Laurence F.X. Brett, who served at St. Cecilia Church, has been accused of sexual abuse. He was living secretly on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten in August after disappearing in 1993, but later vanished again.

Lori said the sexual abuse policy is a revised version of guidelines the diocese adopted in the early 1990s. Copies of the new policy will be handed out during today's Masses and it will be posted on the diocese's Web site, www.bridgeportdiocese.com.

The diocese, which serves about 375,000 Catholics in Fairfield County, also announced yesterday it plans to release a new sexual harassment policy.

The sexual abuse policy was updated over the past several months to reflect tighter procedures endorsed last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"We were trying to make our policy match the new norms," said Monsignor J. Peter Cullen, vicar general of the Diocese of Bridgeport. "We wanted to give people assurances that we're trying to create a safe, wholesome environment."

The sexual abuse policy includes the creation of an Office of Safe Environments, which will employ a victims assistance coordinator to document all allegations of abuse by diocesan employees. Lori said he plans to name a director for the office in the coming weeks.

"This office will ensure every allegation is processed according to civil and church law," he said.

New Canaan resident Philip Lacovara, a member of the diocese's Sexual Misconduct Review Board, said the office is needed.

"It's always easier to develop information if people are aware of where to go. This creates an easy and explicit channel of communication," said Lacovara, a lawyer who served as counsel to special prosecutors investigating the Watergate scandal.

The review board, a lay panel formed last year by Lori, will continue to operate. The board examines allegations of sexual misconduct involving priests to ensure they are handled properly by the diocese.

Criminal background checks of prospective employees and volunteers will begin immediately, Lori said. Some current employees, including seminarians and parochial school teachers, were required to undergo a background check before they were hired.

Lori said current diocesan employees who were exempted from the practice will be asked to voluntarily submit to checks. The bishop said he and his senior staff recently underwent background checks.

"Obviously, there will be a judgment call here and there, but certainly every volunteer on a long-term or permanent basis will be subject to the check," Lori said.

In September, the Diocese of Bridgeport will initiate training aimed at preventing sexual misconduct. Lori said the sessions will be administered by a private organization, but he said he did not know how much the diocese expects to spend.

The training is meant to "make both clergy and laity, employees and volunteers, more aware of the warning signs of abuse and reinforce the procedures to follow when an allegation is received," Lori wrote in a letter to be distributed today at parishes.

Lori said he is hopeful the initiatives will make area Catholics feel more secure.

"The diocese has had policies in place, and they've been strengthened as we've gone along," he said. "Now, we feel we've set a new standard by being comprehensive and thorough. These changes will raise awareness, which is the key to creating a safe environment."



 
 

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