I-team: Letters Raise Questions about Alleged Sex Abuse in Diocese
By Katie Davis
November 18, 2013
Three Roman Catholic priests were forced out of Rhode Island parishes in the last year and a half.
All of them were credibly accused of sexually abusing children.
In each case, a letter detailing allegations of sexual abuse was sent to Rhode Island State Police by the Diocese of Providence.
The diocese began the practice around 2003, although there's no legal mandate requiring the letters.
So the NBC 10 I-Team wondered, how many other letters are out there? And what do the documents say?
To find out, the I-Team began a series of public records requests over a six-month period, asking state police to search its files.
The I-Team found 88 pages detailing sexual abuse by Rhode Island priests, going back more than 30 years. A total of 45 letters were sent to state police between 2003 and 2013.
The documents were heavily redacted by state police.
The names of priests were blacked out, even those people who are already dead. Dates and locations were blacked out. The names of the churches were blacked out too.
However, what remained in the letters were allegations from victims, including children, forced to have oral sex with priests. Others said they were repeatedly raped.
Some of the victims said no one would believe them if they reported the assaults.
"The letters themselves only tell us the tip of the iceberg. And it's an ugly iceberg," said Helen McGonigle.
McGonigle grew up in East Greenwich where she said she was sexually abused over a four-year period at Our Lady of Mercy by a priest visiting Rhode Island from Ireland.
The priest was the Rev. Brendan Smyth.
Smyth died in prison in Ireland in 1997 after being convicted on more than 140 counts of child molestation.
But from 1965 to 1969, he spent part of each year in East Greenwich, working directly with children in Rhode Island as a priest, coach and scout leader.
"In my parish I know of at least a dozen victims of Father Brendan Smyth," McGonigle said.
McGonigle said she reported her abuse to the church in 2006, just after her sister, who she says was also abused by Smyth, committed suicide.
McGonigle said she was interviewed by two diocesan officials for more than an hour. But when she read the letters uncovered by NBC 10, she found no record of her case being reported to state police.
McGonigle said she was frustrated and angry.
"I can't understand the logic in how they've selectively reported certain accused priests," she said.
NBC 10 asked Bishop Thomas Tobin for an interview to explain the letter writing policy, but a representative said Tobin wasn't available.
"The letters were heavily redacted. Effort was made so that you couldn't even understand what year it took place, or what parish it took place in or what town," said Anne Barrett Doyle.
Barrett Doyle heads Bishop Accountability, a watchdog group that collects and publishes documents about priest sexual abuse. She worries some of the priests described in the letters could still be working in Rhode Island churches.
"Even if the statute of limitations has expired on some of these alleged crimes, the diocese is under a moral imperative to remove priests suspected of misconduct from the ministry," Barrett Doyle said.
The diocese said in a statement it has been and continues to be very aggressive in responding to allegations of sexual abuse of minors, while respecting the rights of all involved parties.
McGonigle filed a lawsuit against the diocese in 2008 joined by her childhood neighbor Jeffrey Thomas.
Their case is working its way through the court system as they fight the state's three-year statute of limitations and seek financial damages.
"It's not about money. It's about exposing the truth, which is vitally important to me and really should be important to the diocese," McGonigle said.
State police told NBC 10 that none of the priests in the 45 letters was prosecuted, in some cases because they were dead or because the statute of limitations ran out or because there wasn't enough evidence.
State police declined to release further details.
On Tuesday, the NBC 10 I-Team will take a look at the details in the letters and the allegations from victims.