Despite Church's Policy, Sex Abuse Reports Still a Temptation to Secrecy
The Catholic Church's Diocese of Venice Must Be Better at Handling Sexual Abuse Allegations Now
Bishop John J. Nevins Insists That Is Very Much So

By Tom Lyons
Herald Tribune [Sarasota FL]
January 18, 2003

He cites carefully constructed policies he has in place to encourage and properly handle reports from victims and others with knowledge of possible abuse. And he cites all he and the church have learned, and all the church's local investigations.

In the past two years, Nevins has named several priests and church employees in his jurisdiction who have been accused of sexual acts with juveniles or children. When his investigations were completed, the sanctions applied were all explained in some detail.

And Nevins and his spokeswoman have repeatedly pledged a commitment to openness. Any desire for secrecy or avoiding bad publicity will not be allowed to play a part, they say.

Yet it seems to me that secrecy remains a strong temptation and shows up at least in small but significant ways.

As you may have read this past week, Nevins ordered that Father Neil Flemming be removed from all duties as a priest after an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. But something about the bishop's careful worded announcement puzzled me.

It wasn't like what Nevins said about Father Edward McLoughlin in 2002, after an allegation of sexual acts with a 17-year-old boy employed part-time at his church.

Like Flemming, McLoughlin had denied the allegation. Though McLoughlin later admitted sexual contact with the victim, he said it happened a little later, just after the boy turned 18.

After Herald-Tribune reports and inquiries about the case, Nevins explicitly said he didn't believe McLoughlin.

"I concluded that Ed McLoughlin was not credible and had in fact engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor," Nevins wrote.

McLoughlin was "laicized," which means removed entirely from the priesthood, a move that requires action by the pope.

But the announcement about Flemming is less informative.

It said Nevins consulted with a review board and then "exercised his executive power of governance and removed Father Flemming from all ecclesiastical ministry. Father Flemming is prohibited from celebrating Mass publicly, administering the sacraments, wearing clerical garb and presenting himself publicly as a priest."

It also said that the allegation of sexual abuse of a minor dated back more than 30 years, and that Flemming still denies it.

A careful reading showed that Nevins didn't really say why Flemming was sanctioned. That is, the announcement didn't say Flemming's denial had been deemed not credible. It didn't say Nevins came to believe the allegation, as some no doubt assumed.

Nor did it say whether the "minor" was a young boy or girl or someone nearing adulthood, or if Flemming knew the victim through his role as a priest.

I wondered if Nevins purposely left room for Flemming's continued denial to seem acceptable while he continues to be supported financially by the church and retains the title of "Father."

Did Nevins want to avoid stating that his old friend and longtime colleague was guilty and lying about it?

Either way, I'm bothered by the failure to tell the approximate age, at least, of the alleged victim, or whether the allegation was of repeated offenses.

There are reasons the diocese should tell that much. One is that pedophiles -- those who sexually use pre-adolescent children -- are so likely to have multiple victims. If my kids had been in contact with Flemming in recent years, I'd want to know.

Since the diocese wants victims to come forward, it makes sense to do all it can to show it isn't really hoping to gloss over bad news by keeping it forgettably vague.

In the bad old days of cover-ups and denial elsewhere in the church, the trick has often been to claim the victim insisted on secrecy. Many victims have said it was really church leaders who insisted.

This time, Nevins' spokeswoman, Gail McGrath, told me that the age and gender and all other information is being withheld at the request of the person who made the allegation.

It is sure hard to imagine an unnamed victim needing his or her approximate age at that time kept secret. The age and gender of a victim of an incident that happened in an unspecified year and place more than three decades ago would not identify anyone.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Bishop Nevins hasn't totally overcome a common preference to go light on disturbing facts.

When I asked why it seemed the announcement talked of a a punishment without quite saying what conclusion led to it, McGrath confirmed that was intentional.

"There may not have been a determination of guilt or innocence," she said.

Too bad that when reading announcements from the diocese on such a matter, it is so necessary to read between the lines. I wonder if the non-determination was explained more clearly to the alleged victim.


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