Church Files Lawsuit over Audit Delay
Diocese, State Disagree on How Inquiry Would Be Carried out
By Daniel Barrick and Annmarie Timmins
Concord Monitor [New Hampshire]
May 28, 2004
The Catholic Church surprised state prosecutors yesterday with a lawsuit that blames them for delaying a long-anticipated audit of the church's handling of sexual abuse allegations. The lawsuit came a day after a bishop accused the state of misleading the public about the role of church officials in hiding abuse.
By late last night, church and state officials were openly feuding about the church's commitment to expose and end clergy sex abuse.
"In certain corners of the diocese's hierarchy, this culture has failed to change," said Attorney General Peter Heed. "This highlights the need for a thorough, professional and complete audit."
The church's lawsuit accuses the attorney general's office of reneging on a settlement that church and state leaders signed in 2002 that required an annual audit of the church's new sexual abuse policy.
Specifically, the church alleges that the state has tried to expand the scope and cost of the audit by hiring an outside firm and expecting the church to pay the $200,000 cost.
The settlement never said who would pay for the audit, but it promised the state unrestricted access to church records and staff in its inspection. David Vicinanzo, the church's lawyer, wrote in the lawsuit that the state should pay for the audit that prosecutors had required. He accused prosecutors of shifting the cost to the church only after they realized they couldn't afford the far-reaching audit they wanted.
"A newly-minted interpretation . . . is unreasonable, unfair and unworthy of the state, which is ethically bound to keep its promises,"the lawsuit reads.
In the 2002 settlement, signed by Bishop John McCormack and then-attorney general Phil McLaughlin, the diocese avoided child endangerment charges by acknowledging that it had protected abusive priests for decades. At the time, state prosecutors said annual audits would be the public's best guarantee that the church had corrected its lax handling of sexual abuse complaints.
The first audit was to begin five months ago but has been held up as the two sides negotiated how it would be done and who would pay for it.
Heed said he learned last night for the first time that those negotiations had stalled when the church's lawsuit arrived by fax around 5 p.m. He questioned the church's timing of its lawsuit, since diocesan officials knew he was scheduled to speak to a group of lay Catholics about the audit at 7 p.m. yesterday.
Twice yesterday, Heed said, church officials called him to express concern that he was addressing the group, Voice of the Faithful, which has been critical of McCormack. Those officials did not mention the impending lawsuit in either call, Heed said.
He also noted that several reporters were sent copies of the lawsuit before he was.
Additionally, Heed had sent a letter to the diocese one day earlier, warning that he was considering taking the church to court if the two sides couldn't figure out how to conduct the audit.
"They want this audit to go forward," Heed said. "But they want it on their terms, of course. . . . The (audit) we want is too thorough, too extensive. It might tell the truth. It might find out something, for heaven's sakes."
Heed said his office would aggressively pursue a detailed and thorough audit.
At last night's meeting, state officials responded for the first time to accusations made Wednesday by Auxiliary Bishop Frank Christian that the state misrepresented its evidence in its child endangerment case against the church. Christian said the public did not know the whole story, and that church officials never had the opportunity to explain themselves.
Assistant Attorney General Will Delker said Christian refused to speak with investigators two years ago because they would not grant him immunity from prosecution.
"We truly, honestly thought that there would be change, that we would move in the right direction,"Delker said. "To hear those comments is truly heartbreaking."
Yesterday, The Rev. Edward Arsenault, an assistant to McCormack, said Christian did not speak for the church, and that church officials stood by the terms of the settlement they signed with the state. He said Christian was provoked into criticizing that settlement by Catholic activists who "ambushed"him at a parish meeting where he did not expect to discuss clergy sex abuse.
Assistant Attorney General James Rosenberg, who helped investigate the church, said last night that he still hoped the settlement reached by church and state officials could be salvaged.
"I still strongly believe in the strength of the agreement," Rosenberg said. "But I think there is concern on the behalf of the state that (church leaders) are not as accountable as they should be. We're concerned they haven't lived up to their side of the bargain."
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