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  Church Catching up to Child-Abuse Views
The Catholic Church Treated Priests' Misdeeds As a 'Family' Problem for Far Too Long, Critics Say

By Tess Nacelewicz
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
February 24, 2002

As a boy more than 40 years ago, Larry Gray felt powerless to tell anyone that his parish priest in Portland was sexually abusing him.

"I knew they wouldn't believe me," said Gray, now 53. "They would think I was bad and dirty and nasty for even thinking about such a thing. It was so far beyond reality, you might as well tell someone space aliens had landed in Monument Square."

Now the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has gone public with what was once considered unimaginable.

Just two weeks ago, it revealed the names of two priests actively serving in Maine who abused minors in the 1970s. And last week - under public pressure - the diocese agreed to turn over to prosecutors any files it has on inactive priests accused of child sexual abuse.

The fact that the Catholic Church in Maine has disclosed that some priests molested children demonstrates the dramatic changes that have taken place over the past few decades in how society views and responds to child sexual abuse.

But the way the church in Maine and other states has handled - some would say mishandled - the accusations and admissions of its priests has led to criticism that it has been too slow in joining the societal effort to take child sexual abuse out of the shadows and deal with it.

"In a way, (the church) needs to catch up with the rest of society," said Connie Ostis, an assistant professor of child welfare at the University of Southern Maine.

The Catholic Church regularly settled allegations of abuse with agreements that required alleged victims to remain silent. The church also allowed priests - and in Maine still allows the two priests who have admitted abusing minors - to return to parish ministry after counseling.

Ostis said that while other segments of society have struggled over the past few decades to confront the issue of child sexual abuse openly, "the Catholic Church has sort of held itself out of that and tried to deal with it within the family of the church."

But attempts to handle such problems in families generally don't work, said Ostis, formerly the supervisor of a child sexual abuse treatment center in Portland.

"Keeping it in the family is a part of the whole cycle (of abuse)," she said. "There's no telling, so there's no accountability and no consequences."

Family and church were closely intertwined when Gray was growing up in St. Dominic's parish in Portland's West End during the 1950s and 1960s.

"In our parish, we had a family priest like other people had a family doctor," said Gray, now a chiropractor who lives in Scarborough. "This was the man you trusted."

The man who became "family" to Gray was the Rev. James Vallely, who died in 1997 at the age of 75.

At the time, whatever happened in a family was considered sacrosanct - right or wrong.

"Overwhelmingly, the subculture was of secrecy within the family. You simply didn't tell the family secrets, no matter how bad they were," said Lucky Hollander, vice president of advocacy and prevention services for Youth Alternatives, a child welfare agency that serves southern Maine.

She said the cultural norm of keeping family problems hidden was one of the key reasons why sexual and physical abuse of children could flourish largely unchecked.

Gray - today the married father of four children - grew up in what was then termed a "broken" home.

His parents divorced, and his mother had to work all day. He was hungry for attention.

"I was a latchkey kid long before the phrase was coined," Gray said.

He became an altar boy at age 9, and sometime over the next four years, he said, he began receiving special notice from Vallely.

Gray said Vallely used to invite him down to a camp he had on a lake, but they spent time mostly in the boat shed. "He knew I needed love and attention," Gray said. "He gave a little love and attention and took back one hundredfold."

Gray said the abuse consisted of kissing and fondling. He's not sure exactly when it began, but says it happened repeatedly. "Every time it happens it tears away a little more of you," Gray said.

He said Vallely told him not to tell anyone, because it was "our little secret."

But the priest needn't have worried. Gray said he was afraid to speak up. He said he has since learned that sexual abuse victims feel a lot of shame and confusion. That intensified because Vallely was a priest.

"It couldn't be the fault of the priest abusing me. He's God's right-hand man, so it must be my fault," Gray said.

"This was a man I went to confession to. I was telling him my sins. How ironic."

Gray said the abuse ended when he was 13 and left the altar service. With the exception of his wife, he never told a soul about what happened until some three decades and countless therapy sessions later.

A drastic change in societal attitudes toward child sexual abuse during that time also helped make it possible for him and two other men who also accused Vallely of sexually abusing them as boys to speak out publicly in 1993.

"There had to be a whole cultural change that allowed this to happen," Gray said.

The factors that led to the change in the intervening years are many and complex.

They include social developments such as the women's movement, which helped heighten society's awareness of rape and sexual abuse, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

And Hollander said that fundamental to the social change was the erosion of the attitude that "it's none of your business what I do in my family."

"We just learned that children have rights apart from their parents. We learned that children have the right to be protected," Hollander said.

She said that by the late 1970s and early 1980s all the states had passed laws that mandated professionals such as teachers, doctors and nurses to immediately report cases of suspected child abuse to authorities. Maine's mandatory reporting law took effect in 1979.

Other categories of professionals were gradually added over the years, but clergy remained exempt in Maine until 1997. Many states still do not require clergy to report such abuse.

Clergy in Maine were not mandated to report to the authorities in 1993, when Gray and the two other men accused Vallely of sexually abusing them when he was a priest at St. Dominic's in the 1950s and 1960s.

The priest - who by then was retired and living in Florida, but still filling in at churches there - faced no criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired. The Legislature in the 1990s passed laws to remove the statute of limitations for sexually abusing a minor, but those did not apply in Vallely's case.

Still, Susan Bernard, a spokeswoman for the Portland diocese, said last week that the diocese in 1993 "took the allegation (against Vallely) seriously." She said the diocese that year had already instituted a policy of swift investigation of allegations of abuse and suspension of the priest until wrongdoing could be determined.

But Gray said the diocese was slow to respond until he went public in the media with his story. And he said he never got the formal public apology from the priest and the diocese that he wanted.

Bernard said Vallely denied the accusations, but that the church required him to undergo counseling. And she said that "even though he was retired, still the church wanted to make sure he was restricted from any further ministry."

Today, however, the church in Maine is facing criticism because it allowed two other priests who also were accused of abuse in the early 1990s to return to parish ministry after counseling.

Just two weeks ago, on Feb. 10, the Rev. Michael Doucette of St. Agatha and the Rev. John Audibert of Madawaska confessed to their parishioners that they had sexually abused minors in the 1970s.

Doucette abused a teen-age boy for several years when he was at St. Andre's in Biddeford. The Audibert case also involved a teen-age boy and took place in Caribou.

Audibert's case had been known since 1993 because his victim then publicly accused him. Doucette's victim came forward in 1991, but the priest and the church had never publicly disclosed the abuse until now.

Both priests received residential treatment at a center run by a religious order and then were reassigned to other parishes.

Doucette and Audibert went public as the result of a new policy the Portland diocese announced two weeks ago: that it will reveal the identities of priests actively serving in Maine who are accused of abusing minors. The diocese said Doucette and Audibert are the only two in the state fitting that category.

Maine's new policy followed a recent sexual abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese, in which it was revealed that church officials reassigned priests accused of sexual misconduct with children without telling parishioners. Some angry Catholics have called for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law.

The Boston scandal has had a ripple effect throughout the Catholic Church in New England. The bishop of New Hampshire this month gave prosecutors the names of 14 priests accused of sexual misconduct with children, at the same time removing one still actively serving in a parish. Bishop John McCormack said the church was wrong to allow some of those men to return to duty, and pledged priests would no longer get a second chance.

In Maine, the Portland diocese - headed by Bishop Joseph Gerry, who has not commented publicly on the scandal - said Doucette and Audibert were allowed to continue in active ministry because a review committee after their treatment determined that there were no other victims and thus no pattern of pedophiliac behavior.

But Hollander, of Youth Alternatives, said that in allowing the priests to remain in situations where they might come in contact with children, the church is breaking from common practice that other institutions follow regarding sex offenders.

"It doesn't matter who you are, once you are an admitted or convicted sex offender, you can't work with children," she said. "It's just a very common standard."

Initially, the Portland diocese had said it would only disclose allegations of child sexual abuse against active priests and not against priests no longer working in parishes.

But Gray, who said he will always carry scars from his abuse, and other community members protested. They said the church was still protecting abusers at the expense of victims.

And Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson said that inactive priests with access to children could pose a public safety threat. Last week, the diocese reversed itself and agreed to give her its files on inactive priests accused of sexual misconduct.

Also last week, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying the church "will continue to take all the steps necessary to protect our youth from this kind of abuse."

Bishop Wilton Gregory further said that "while we still have much for which we need to be forgiven - and much to learn - I am very heartened by the professionals who . . . encourage us in this work because they tell us there is not another institution in the United States that is doing more to understand and address the horror of sexual abuse of minors."

Among the church's efforts has been developing a program called Virtus that is designed to be implemented at individual churches nationwide to help prevent such abuse. The program, which the Portland diocese plans to put in place this summer, includes educating both children and adults so they can recognize and report inappropriate behavior.

Finkelhor, who heads the University of New Hampshire center researching crimes against children, is an adviser to the Virtus project. But he said the church also can learn from the recent events.

"One of the big lessons from this case is that trying to deal privately with these episodes is a big mistake for any institution," Finkelhor said. "Other institutions have figured that out, but this has been a hard one for the Catholic Church."

 
 

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