AG Isn't Charging Accused Priests

By Gregory D. Kesich
Portland Press Herald [Maine]
July 31, 2003

Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe said his office is nearing the end of a 15-month investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy and will issue a final report in a few weeks.

Rowe said there would be no criminal charges filed against any clergy member who had been accused of abuse. But he would not rule out identifying individuals who, in the prosecutor's opinion, pose a threat to children in their communities.

"Protecting the public is the first priority of this office and we take that responsibility very seriously," Rowe said. "We will disclose information we believe is appropriate."

Rowe's comments are among the first he has made on the subject since his office began looking into allegations against Roman Catholic clergy members last year. Unlike prosecutors around the nation who have been openly campaigning for the release of more information about the national crisis, Rowe and his staff have taken a more cautious approach in public. In one instance, they have even fought to keep information secret.

Rowe's office is contesting a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the Blethen Maine Newspapers that seeks to make public the names of accused priests who are now dead.

Rowe, who originally argued that releasing the names could disrupt an ongoing criminal investigation, also said the accused priests have a right to privacy, even after death, and releasing their names would be a violation of law.

But Rowe warned against seeing his position on the lawsuit as an indication of what shape the final investigation report will take. "Wait and read the report," he said. "There is still a lot of work we have to do."

Rowe's office, along with the state's eight elected district attorneys, have been investigating charges of abuse within the Catholic Church in Maine since May 2002, when church officials voluntarily turned over allegations recorded in personnel files that date back 75 years. Those records named 51 clergy members, including 33 who are still living. No allegation was against an active priest in the diocese.

Investigators from the AG's office also talked to people who made allegations that were not reported to the church, and those interviews will be reflected in the report, Rowe said.

Rowe said that state law limits what details of a criminal investigation a prosecutor can release.

In 1982, however, then-Attorney General James Tierney released a report detailing his investigation into allegations of physical and sexual abuse by staff members of the Baxter School for the Deaf. Even though the investigation led to no criminal charges, Tierney named the staff members and detailed the charges he would have brought if they were not too old to prosecute.

Tierney, now a Columbia University law professor and consultant to state prosecutors, said the fact that Baxter was a state institution motivated him to identify the alleged abusers even though he could not charge them. He said he believed that the allegations were credible, and the problems were wide-spread enough to warrant a public release.

"At the end of the day, the AG is going to do what he thinks is right," Tierney said. "You make a judgment call."

Rowe has met with priest abuse victims and their supporters, and has their confidence, said Cyndi Desrosiers, who won a lawsuit against an abusive priest in Massachusetts and led a victim support group in Maine.

"I have a lot of faith in the AG's office. They have really done a diligent job and been very thorough, and treated survivors very well," Desrosiers said. "I think sexual abuse has been a priority for Steve Rowe and I hope he will truly use his power for the good of the state of Maine."

Desrosiers said the disclosure of names is important to victims for several reasons: People who commit sex crimes against children tend to repeat the offense until they are stopped, she said. Also, when an abuser is exposed, more victims come forward with new allegations.

And, she said, revealing the names of abusers also brings relief to their victims, who often suffer silently with shame. "It's important for survivors to know they are not alone," she said.

A complete report is needed for people who want to prevent a future abuse crisis, said Paul Kendrick, a member of Voice of the Faithful, a church reform group that seeks a bigger decision-making role for Catholic lay people.

"We are all trying to fix the problem, but we don't know what the problem is," Kendrick said. "We don't know how many victims there are, we don't know where the abuse occurred and we don't know if bishops moved people around after receiving the allegations."

Those questions could not be answered, Kendrick said, without identifying the abusive priests and the communities in which they served.


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