Church Letter Upsets Some Victims

By Gregory D. Kesich
Portland Press Herald [Portland ME]
November 22, 2003

Maine Catholic church officials are advising people who were sexually abused by priests that they can make their feelings known about the possibility that information regarding their molestation will be made public.

That has upset some abuse victims and supporters who say secrecy is at the core of the church's abuse scandal.

Sister Rita-Mae Bissonette, co-chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, in a form letter informed victims "upset about the possibility of having their names released" that they could contact the diocese or Attorney General Steven Rowe concerning the court-ordered release of files revealing the names of now-deceased priests and the people who accused them. Rowe appealed the court order on Nov. 12.

Saying she was "outraged by what I perceive to be a callous disregard for the rights of victims/survivors" in the court order, Bissonette suggested the victims either contact the diocese or the attorney general to express their feelings "about this betrayal of your confidence."

"We at the diocese assured you that it was not our intention to make your accusation known to the public," Bissonette wrote.

The letter has drawn an angry response from some abuse survivors and their supporters. They see it as an attempt to hide behind victims' confidentiality to prevent the release of information that would be embarrassing to the church.

"In my mind, the church is the abuser here, and for the diocese to contact the victims is totally inappropriate," said Paul Kendrick, co-founder of the Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a church reform group. "For the same institution that covered up these crimes to ask for help keeping these secrets sounds almost like witness tampering."

The diocese says the letter was purely informational and intended to keep the victims abreast of developments in a case that could affect them.

"I don't think this was a pressure letter," said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese. "It just said that if you want to have something to say, here's who to say it to. We want to make sure that everyone knows what's going on."

The assistant attorney general who filed the appeal said the effort was irrelevant to Rowe's decision. "We didn't need to hear from any victims to know we had objections . . ." said Leanne Robbin. "We heard from some, but we had already decided to appeal."

The order resulted from a lawsuit filed under Maine's Freedom of Access law by the Blethen Maine Newspapers, owners of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

In May 2002, the diocese voluntarily turned over records of abuse allegations to the attorney general, who announced that they would be part of a criminal investigation. The newspaper requested the release of files involving dead priests, since they could no longer be prosecuted. The newspaper also offered to accept the files with the names of victims and witnesses blacked out, but Rowe refused.

Last month, Superior Court Justice Kirk Studstrup issued a ruling that ordered Rowe to release the documents. In what has become the most controversial part of the ruling, Studstrup said that the names of victims and witnesses should not be edited out from the files before their release.

"Any privacy rights the alleged victims, witnesses and alleged abusers originally had has been eroded by time, life and the manner in which the information came to the attorney general," Studstrup wrote.

Victims and their supporters - including Kendrick - objected to that portion of the decision, and encouraged Rowe to appeal. But some said they were offended by Bissonette's letter.

Cyndi Desrosiers of Augusta, who was abused by a Massachusetts priest when she was a girl, said the diocese has little credibility among victims.

"I don't think there is a single survivor who puts any trust in the Portland diocese," she said. "They don't treat victims well."

But Bernard said the diocese has a responsibility to the alleged victims who requested anonymity, and to the dead priests who can't defend themselves.

"We are very concerned about the victims and witnesses and the ability, or lack of ability, of someone to defend themselves once they are dead," she said.

A hearing on the appeal has not yet been scheduled before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Staff Writer Gregory D. Kesich can be contacted at 791-6336 or at:


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