But Judging Credibility in Abuse Cases Is a Tough Call
March 17, 2002
Bishop Anthony Bosco of Greensburg recalls shaking hands with parishioners after Mass years ago when a woman began shouting that one of his priests had abused her children.
Bosco asked her to call the diocesan official who handles such complaints. An inquiry revealed that the woman had no children, Bosco said.
That was the sort of allegation that diocesan officials deem "not credible." But determining credibility can be much more difficult than that, bishops say. An accuser whose initial manner seems bizarre may be a true victim. The most agonizing cases pit a consistent story from a rational parishioner against a firm denial from a priest with an unimpeachable record.
Credibility was at issue when the dioceses of Greensburg and Pittsburgh recently reviewed the files of all living priests for old allegations.
The Greensburg search yielded vague allegations in the files of six priests that might have indicated sexual abuse of minors as long as 40 years ago. Two of the allegations have been deemed unfounded, two retired priests have been told they may no longer exercise public ministry and two priests remain under investigation, diocesan officials have said.
After the Pittsburgh review, Bishop Donald W. Wuerl announced that he had removed several priests from ministry because of credible but unsubstantiated accusations made against them in the past.
In announcing his decision, Wuerl said he was "raising the bar" of protection for parishioners. Previously, if a credible accusation was made against a priest but there was no other evidence of wrongdoing, the priest remained in ministry. Now, he would be removed. If an investigation clears any of the men, they can return to ministry, Wuerl said.
Wuerl's new standard is consistent with what some other bishops have done in the weeks since a long-festering molestation case in the Archdiocese of Boston made national headlines.
"I think many bishops are concerned that they don't know enough about cases and situations that they once took for granted as having been handled properly," said Jason Berry, a Louisiana journalist who has been documenting child molestation by priests since 1985.
'It tars you for life'
William Kraft, a local psychologist who has treated victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse and who helped draft the Pittsburgh diocese's policy on sexual misconduct, said Wuerl's new standard "is probably wise."
The risk, Kraft said, "is that some innocent priest may pay a price that is too high."
Diocesan priests said they weren't too worried about the new policy. The Rev. Cornelius McCaulley, pastor of St. Stephen parish in Hazelwood, said Wuerl was already considered so strict about misconduct with minors that "I hadn't thought of it as being too much of a change."
The Rev. Joseph Kleppner, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini in Aliquippa, said the priests he knew were most bothered by the restrictions that concerns about molestation had placed on them for years.
"When I was ordained 30 years ago, on a winter morning, if a kid's mother couldn't come pick him up after serving Mass, it was no problem to put the kid in my car and take him home. Not today," Kleppner said.
He was glad that Wuerl had not released the names of the priests who were removed for unsubstantiated allegations.
"I don't care what your profession is -- doctor, teacher, priest or scout master -- once that accusation is made, you are guilty. It tars you for life," Kleppner said.
During his 15-year tenure in Greensburg, Bosco said, noncredible accusations have been at least as common as credible ones.
Bosco said he did make an out-of-court settlement in one case that he did not consider credible. The accusation was based on memories that the accuser claimed to have recovered years later. Although he believed the diocese would win in court, he followed legal advice to settle because it would cost less than a trial, he said. That priest remained in ministry.
Bosco said he also settled a case that he considered credible, and the priest was permanently removed from ministry.
Wuerl has made settlements in three cases, in all of which he believed the priests were guilty, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese. All were cases that were highly publicized, he said.
"This was not an effort to make a settlement secretly in order to keep it from becoming public," he said.
In all of the settlements, however, both parties agreed not to reveal the amount of the settlement, and some had additional restrictions on what could be publicly divulged about the facts of the case, Lengwin said.
Going to the police
The written policy in the Diocese of Pittsburgh is to encourage anyone who makes a complaint to take it to the civil authorities. The diocese says it will report any allegation that is made by a minor. If the allegation is made by an adult, the diocese reserves the right to report it to the authorities, but may opt to respect the wish of the victim or victim's family not to have it made public through the legal system.
Lengwin said there was one case in which the diocese went to the police over the objections of the family. He would not identify the case, but the only one on record in which the diocese made the first report to the police was that of Edward Huff, a former priest who in 1995 pleaded guilty to attempted indecent assault and corruption of minors.
Kraft, who helped draft the Pittsburgh policy, said he had argued unsuccessfully to require accusers to file complaints with the police. He believed it would help protect priests from false allegations.
"It's also good for the victims," he said.
Berry, who has long called for the church to be more open about abuse cases, said it was not necessarily wrong for a settlement to be made quietly if the priest was also removed from ministry.
"There is a difference between legitim ate secrecy and immoral secrecy," he said. "There are many victims who ... do not want to be identified, who simply want financial redress to put their lives back together. I don't blame those people."
Berry believes that one glaring false allegation in 1993 had a chilling effect on what were then growing efforts to end the cover-up of sexual abuse in Catholic dioceses. When former seminarian Steven Cook filed a $10 million molestation lawsuit against the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was then archbishop of Chicago, the national media gave the story tremendous publicity.
Cook then recanted and apologized to Bernardin. He said his accusations were due to "unreliable" memories recovered under hypnosis, and that he had been influenced by some ultraconservative Catholics who wanted to rid the church of Bernardin.
After the major media were stung so badly, "the survivor movement was halted in its tracks. It became very difficult for a number of years for people who were struggling to get the church to change to get the attention of the media. And I think the bishops took the position that the storm was over," Berry said.
Discerning the truth
One obstacle to judging credibility is that there are rarely obvious signs that a priest is sexually attracted to minors, Bosco said. He worked in the same office for years with the Rev. Robert Wolk, who later became notorious for his abuse of two altar boys, but had no inkling of Wolk's proclivity, Bosco said. Wolk would talk about the family whose charges eventually sent him to prison for 10 years, but he spoke of the whole family, not just the children.
Wuerl recalled a case that he did not initially consider credible, but which was later substantiated. In 1988, when a former seminarian said the Rev. Anthony Cipolla had molested him throughout his teen-age years, Wuerl said openly that the accuser had a history of making false allegations against other seminarians.
But the accuser's attorney unearthed a 1978 detective's report from a case that the mother later dropped in which a 9-year-old boy gave a detailed account of Cipolla molesting him. Although Cipolla had denied the molestation, he had told police that the naked 9-year-old had been alone with him in his bedroom for a medical examination.
In 1993, when the Vatican's highest court ordered Wuerl to return Cipolla to ministry, Wuerl refused to do so. Eventually, the Vatican confirmed Wuerl's order banning Cipolla from ministry. Cipolla was never criminally prosecuted and maintains his innocence.
"The hardest thing to do is to make a decision where it is one person's word against another, with nothing to corroborate it," Wuerl said. "In [the Cipolla] case, where there might have been some question about the credibility of one person, the credibility of other people, when they began to speak, was a little more substantiated. And then there was some corroborating and supporting material."
Kraft, who has conducted workshops on sexual abuse in other dioceses, said he considered Pittsburgh's policy one of the better ones. Although he works primarily with victims, he has counseled former priests after they completed institutional treatment for sexual attraction to minors.
Wuerl has been more adamant about not returning offenders to ministry than he himself might have been in some cases, Kraft said.
Since 1988, it has been Wuerl's stated practice not to allow any priest who has molested a minor to return to ministry, even if he is believed to have successfully completed treatment. Although his written policy could allow such a priest to have a highly supervised nonparish ministry if everyone else in that ministry agreed to it, that option has not been used.
"Wuerl was clearly ahead of the curve," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who is an expert on the U.S. hierarchy.
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