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  Advocates for Fairfield County Sex Abuse Victims Question Numbers

Westport Now [Bridgeport CT]
Downloaded February 19, 2004

Advocates for sexual abuse victims say the number of abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport including Westport -- is likely substantially higher than church officials reported over the weekend because records were destroyed by a former bishop.

As part of a national survey, church officials announced Sunday that the Bridgeport diocese has received allegations of sexual abuse against 32 priests since 1953. At least seven of them served in Westport.

The 32 priests, representing 2.5 percent of the total number of priests who were in the diocese in the same time period, were the subjects of 109 allegations from 107 people, according to the report.

"I believe the number is clearly too low," said Jason Tremont, an attorney who has represented abuse victims in two settlements with the church, according to an AP report.

Tremont's firm compiled the list that showed at least seven of the priests involved in the allegations had served in Westport from 1964 to 1990. (See WestportNow Oct. 16 and 22, 2003).

"It's bad enough over 100 people were molested by priests in this diocese. But unfortunately, I believe the numbers are significantly higher."

Former Bridgeport Bishop Walter Curtis, who served for 27 years and retired in 1988, kept a secret archive and admitted destroying records, Tremont said.

The diocese did not report abuse allegations to authorities or record complaints in some instances, he said.

Curtis was the predecessor of New York Cardinal Edward Egan, who was Bridgeport bishop from 1988 to 2000. Egan was accused by Tremont's firm of allowing known sex abusers to remain active priests.

"I can only imagine the actual number of victims abused by priests in the Bridgeport diocese and how many of the complaints were ignored or records of complaints simply destroyed," Tremont said, according to the AP.

Anne Barrett Doyle, who serves on the national voting council of the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful, also said church files were destroyed when Curtis was bishop, the report said.

"We should assume the number is much lower than the real number of abusive priests who have served in the Bridgeport diocese," Doyle said. "I'm concerned about the credibility of the numbers."

The Roman Catholic church will make an unprecedented, nationwide accounting of abuse claims and costs later this month. Some bishops already have started releasing local figures. As part of the survey, dioceses are reporting the data to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The diocese acknowledged that Curtis testified as part of the litigation that he destroyed files, but church officials said they have no knowledge of the contents. They said the diocese is committed to being open and honest and responding swiftly to allegations.

"The Diocese of Bridgeport stands 100 percent behind the statistics it reported to John Jay College of Criminal Justice," Joseph McAleer, spokesman for the diocese, said in a statement.

"All records were examined as part of the study. These records are extensive and date back to 1953."

Doyle and Tremont said the reported number of allegations shows the severity of the crisis. Tremont credited Bridgeport Bishop William Lori with improving the diocese's handling of abuse cases and making a good faith effort for the survey.

"He can't include data that doesn't exist any more," Tremont said.

Doyle objected to a self-reported survey.

"The bishops are responsible for the crisis," Doyle said. "We shouldn't be asking the people responsible for the crisis to also assess the scope of the crisis."

Bridgeport's data showed that the majority of the abuse was alleged to have happened between 1960 and 1980.

Of the 32 priests accused of abuse, officials said they have released the names of 23. Of the remaining nine, seven have died and two were visiting from other dioceses, officials said.

"No priest in active ministry today in Fairfield County poses as threat of any kind to a child or young person," Lori said in a statement Sunday.

Lori should disclose the whereabouts of the priests no longer in active ministry, Doyle said.

"Bishop Lori is responsible for making sure no child is molested by any of those priests he knows about," Doyle said. "They are really let loose in society once the church gets rid of them."

McAleer rejected that assertion, saying the diocese keeps in close contact with the inactive priests to ensure they do not attempt to resume public ministry.

Church officials are also required to release details about financial settlements to resolve abuse claims. Bridgeport officials said they have paid $37.7 million in settlements.

That includes a $21 million settlement announced in October with 40 people who said they were molested by priests.

Officials said in October that all prior settlements totaled about $16.7 million, accounting for the $37.7 million total.