Group Questions Use of Off-Duty Police in Sex Abuse Investigation
By Susan Olp
April 3, 2012
The Diocese of Great Falls-Billings should not use an off-duty police officer to investigate claims of sexual abuse by priests, a victims advocacy group said Tuesday.
Two members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, visited Billings to make a case against the practice. The pair spoke Tuesday morning in front of St. Patrick Co-Cathedral.
Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest associate director, and Steven Spaner, SNAP Australia coordinator, both from the St. Louis area, talked about the issue that came up in a civil suit recently filed against the diocese.
The civil suit, filed Feb. 8 in Great Falls, includes 10 plaintiffs. The only named plaintiff, Timothy Becker, alleged that the Rev. Ted Szudera abused him in 1978 and 1979 while Szudera was a priest in Livingston.
Jones and Spaner referred to a Feb. 9 article in the Great Falls Tribune that said Becker brought his allegation to the diocese in 2006, which referred it to an independent review board.
The board hired Bryan Lockerby, an officer with the Great Falls Police Department who in his spare time works as a private investigator, to look into the charges.
According to the Tribune, the board decided not to take action on Becker's allegations after Lockerby informed members that Becker's claims were unfounded.
Spaner said he sees a conflict of interest in a police officer who also works contracts as a private investigator for the diocese.
"There's a perception that this is a legitimate investigation by the police," he said. "And when you have victims that later find out that it was a church investigation, they're resistant and reluctant to come forward to law enforcement. We want this to be a civil investigation, not a church investigation."
Jones added that although the police officer is off duty, conducting this kind of investigation for a private party blurs a line.
"Even though this may be legal in Montana for church officials to hire an off-duty police officer, it's problematic in this situation, especially when it comes to the sex abuse of kids," she said.
Jones urged Attorney General Steve Bullock or Michael Cotter, U.S. attorney for the district of Montana, to investigate the practice "and determine whether it is legal or ethical."
Private attorney Greg Hatley of Great Falls, whose firm represents the Great Falls-Billings Diocese, said Lockerby does not represent himself as a police officer when he conducts an investigation for the diocese.
He fully discloses that his work for the diocese is strictly as a private investigator and that his services are "totally unrelated to his position as a police officer," Hatley said.
Lockerby has conducted six to 10 investigations since about 2003, Hatley said. Only one of those cases involved a person in Great Falls, while the rest were conducted in other areas of the diocese, he said.
In the case where it has been established that a credible accusation exists, in regard to recent child sexual abuse, the diocese is obligated to report the case to legal authorities, Hatley said. Whether the victim is a child or an adult, "the bishop deals with the victim in both instances to see what can be done to address whatever harm has resulted from that," he said.
In the case of Becker, the Rev. Jay Peterson, vicar general for the diocese and a member of the review board at the time, said he feels the board did its work correctly.
"Our independent review board took pains to make sure the investigation was done impartially by an outside party," Peterson said. "Given the circumstances of this particular investigation, I think it was impartial and fair."
Spaner said that SNAP's primary motivation is the protection and healing of victims of sexual abuse. The protection comes from the exposure of predators by victims, he said.
"If they are intimidated, or if they are somehow reporting to a false reporting agent, that leaves the victim exposed while the predator is still hiding," Spaner said. "And that means the predator can continue on with their ways."