|Law, Attitudes toward Sex-Abuse Claims Have Changed
Officials: Claims Would Be Treated Differently Today
By Michael P. Mayko
December 3, 2009
Revelations from long-sealed records chronicling the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport clergy sex-abuse scandal unleashed a new round of nightmares for Barbara Oleynick when they were released by court order Tuesday.
Not only was the Housatonic Community College adjunct professor sexually abused by a priest at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Bridgeport when she was 5 years old, but decades later she learned that her son had also been abused by a popular Fairfield priest.
Nearly a decade ago, Oleynick found herself driving to Holy Family Church in Fairfield, where she confronted the Rev. William Donovan and listened to him confess that his sin was, not sexual abuse, but alcoholism.
Although Donovan, who also had been a teacher at Fairfield College Preparatory School and chaplain of the Fairfield Police Department, went to prison for five months in 2002, the crime was not assaulting Oleynick's son. It was his admission to three drunken-driving arrests.
Donovan "resigned, but he still collects a pension," said Oleynick, an author, nurse and English teacher. "That's the greatest tragedy."
None of the 23 priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport accused of sexual misconduct in civil lawsuits was ever criminally charged or prosecuted for their offenses, mostly against children.
That wouldn't be the case today, according to legislators, police and former prosecutors.
"A lot has changed since then," said state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, a former state prosecutor and co-chairman of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee. "The respect people get because of their position in life, be they clergy, politicians, professional athletes even police, is not automatic anymore."
In the 1960s, '70s and even early '80s, said Lawlor, who also teaches criminal justice at the University of New Haven, it would be difficult to believe that someone supposedly close to God would commit an offense as egregious as sexually molesting a child. And, he added, it was even more difficult to persuade law enforcement or a prosecutor to take on such a case.
"Even if parents believed their child, they might have second thoughts about going to law enforcement," Lawlor said. "Police and prosecutors would be reluctant to take on such a case."
In cases of sexual molestation, children often repressed memories of the incident out of embarrassment and guilt.
But, Lawlor added, the crime victims movement and advocacy groups like Voice of the Faithful and Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests have helped bring about changes.
"Before them, criminal justice was about cops and robbers, not the victims," he said. "Now victims have rights, advocates and a voice. It's changed public opinion and public policy."
Among the policies changed by the legislature has been to increase the statute of limitations for sexual-abuse crimes against children from five years to the day before the victim turns 48.
Additionally, the legislature made it a requirement for people like clergy, teachers, doctors, nurses and others to report instances of sexual abuse to law enforcement agencies. To fail to do so is also a crime.
"Failure to report is a misdemeanor," Lawlor said. "Covering up the crime could result in a person being charged as an accomplice after the fact."
Fairfield Deputy Police Chief Gary MacNamara said if someone were to walk into his or any police department today to report a crime of sexual abuse "it would be taken very seriously."
He said that a person's "status, job, position or other facts" would not deter an investigation.
Instead, police would take a statement from the victim and any witnesses, speak to the accused and analyze any physical evidence.
"Criminal science has come a long way," MacNamara said. "There have been a lot of technological advances."
Alex Hernandez, who served as a district attorney in New York City and later as an assistant U.S. attorney supervising the Bridgeport office before going into private practice, commended the work of Cindy Robinson, a Bridgeport lawyer who took on the Bridgeport diocese and exposed widespread sexual abuse by its priests, the cover-up of those accusations and the quiet reassignment of abusive priests when complaints were made.
"People like Cindy have done a tremendous service to the community in exposing this," he said. "She should be applauded."
As for a claim of sexual abuse by clergy in today's environment, Hernandez said, "I am confident that the local police and, if necessary, the FBI would be all over it."
Joseph McAleer, a spokesman for the Diocese of Bridgeport, said the diocese now has "a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual abuse."
"All allegations of abuse are reported, according to state law, within 12 hours to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, which conducts a thorough investigation," he said. "Any priest who is found to be credibly accused is removed from the ministry."
He also said all victims are offered a meeting with the bishop or his representative and a full apology as well as any assistance to help them heal and to deal in the future with the issue.
The diocese's Safe Environments policy was not enacted until June 2003.
But John Marshall Lee, a member of Voice of the Faithful, faults the diocese for not giving a "platform" to the victims by holding an annual Mass or recognizing any gatherings where parishioners could hear the victims' story.
And Oleynick believes there should be widespread outrage over the disclosures in secret church documents released Tuesday that paint retired Cardinal Edward Egan, the former bishop of Bridgeport and, until this spring, leader of the Archdiocese of New York, as arrogant and uncaring about sexual-abuse complaints.
"Do you think it is coincidental that Egan retired this year?" Oleynick asked. "He was so full of ego that he would never resign. He knew this was coming. He knew this would be an incredible stain."
"Now victims have rights, advocates and a voice. It's changed public opinion and public policy." Michael Lawlor state representative, D-East Haven.
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