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  A Milestone in Catholic Abuse Crisis
Cincinnati Archdiocese Pleads No Contest to Failing to Report Clergy

By Susan Hogan
Dallas Morning News
November 21, 2003

The Cincinnati Archdiocese pleaded no contest Thursday to charges of failing to report clergy who sexually abused minors, in yet another groundbreaking case against the Catholic Church. While individual clergy elsewhere have been charged with criminal activity, this is the first case in which a diocese as an entity has been held criminally responsible for its conduct related to sexual abuse. "This is the first conviction of its kind in any jurisdiction within the United States, and it sends a clear and unequivocal message," said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen. Under the agreement, the archdiocese will pay a $ 10,000 fine and establish a $ 3 million fund to compensate sexual abuse victims. The deal ends a criminal investigation that could have resulted in convictions and prison terms for high-ranking archdiocese officials. By pleading no contest to five misdemeanor charges, the archdiocese did not admit any wrongdoing - but it agreed not to fight the charges. The plea was a setback to American bishops, still struggling to overcome the damage that has led to the removal of at least 325 priests and bishops accused of abuse. Polls show that since the scandal erupted nearly two years ago, Catholics say their trust in the bishops has been severely eroded. Church historian Martin Marty called the plea a "defining moment" in American religious history. "What happened in Cincinnati stands a chance of being one of the symbolic acts by which American church historians will judge the Catholic Church," said Dr. Marty, a retired professor at the University of Chicago. "It's a terribly sad, yet pivotal moment." Survivors of sexual abuse said they were disappointed with the plea deal. "The prosecutor clearly means well and has worked hard but has given up an opportunity to do what prosecutors do best: Hold individual wrongdoers accountable for their wrongdoing," said David Clohessy of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Church officials made the plea agreement to foster healing that would have been delayed by engaging in prolonged court battles, said John Bookser Feister, who sits on the archdiocese's communications commission. "We have an ambitious prosecutor who got his picture in The New York Times about this," he said. "It has become a great political opportunity for him. But the people are mostly anxious. They're wondering, 'What are we supposed to believe?'" Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk was in the courtroom as the five counts of failure to report felony sex crimes were read aloud. Asked by the judge if he understood the implications of the plea agreement, the archbishop replied, "Yes sir, I do." After the hearing, the archbishop apologized to abuse victims. "Today in the name of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati I am taking full responsibility for certain acts that occurred some time ago," he said. "Instances of child abuse that should have been reported to civil authorities were apparently not reported." Mr. Allen, the prosecutor, said: "The depth of the public's anger and frustration with the leadership of the Catholic Church rivals that expressed to me about any cases since I have been prosecutor." Reaction among the half-million Catholics in the archdiocese was mixed. Some called for the archbishop's resignation, others said it was time to put the matter behind them. "Your basic person in the church is just disturbed, finding it a little difficult to have peace of heart with what is going on," said Sister Janet Schneider of St. Bartholomew's Church in Cincinnati. "They're unsure of rightness and wrongness in situations." Last year the archbishop admitted that five priests in ministry had been accused of abuse. He later suspended the priests, but refused to turn over key documents to prosecutors, saying that doing so would violate the priests' legal rights. In August, a priest from the Cincinnati Archdiocese said he quit his post as the Vatican's No. 2 diplomat in India over allegations that he'd sexually abused a girl in his archdiocese. The Vatican had promoted the priest, Monsignor Daniel Pater, through its international diplomatic corps in the 1990s, despite repeated warnings about the abuse. "I worked in Rome, and I remember telling them this man shouldn't be working for you," said Monsignor Lawrence Breslin of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in the Cincinnati area. He said it was the first known case of the Vatican harboring an abuser. "The priests here are devastated," he said after Thursday's hearing. "There's a lot of anger. ... It's a huge blow to the church." Earlier this year, former Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien entered into an agreement with the Maricopa County district attorney. The bishop admitted shielding predator priests though there were no criminal charges lodged against him as there were in the Cincinnati Archdiocese. "Without a doubt, it was in the best interest of the Catholic community and the public at large," said Barnett Lotstein, a special assistant county attorney in Phoenix. "The diocese agreed to pay substantial monies to victims and allow our office to get involved in training priests on matters of sexual abuse. It was a far-reaching agreement." Bishop O'Brien resigned in June after being arrested in connection with a fatal hit-and-run accident. His downfall was the most visible since Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in disgrace last December. Mr. Clohessy of SNAP said some bishops still aren't cooperating with legal authorities as they have publicly pledged. He also said prosecutors give bishops preferential treatment by cutting deals with them. "It's uncharted territory to prosecute bishops," he said. "No prosecutor feels any political risk in filing charges against abusive priests. But bishops have tremendous financial and legal resources, and they're willing to fight long and hard." The Los Angeles County district attorney's office said its investigation of the archdiocese there has been stalled by church officials' legal maneuvering. After turning over thousands of pages of records on abusive priests, the archdiocese succeed in getting the records sealed. "It's stuck in court and litigation," said Jane Robison, the district attorney's press secretary. "Their delaying tactics so far are successful. But we're not going away, and we're not dropping it." Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony was widely criticized this year by Frank Keating, the former chairman of the national lay review board created to monitor compliance with the U.S. bishops' sexual abuse charter. When Mr. Keating, a former prosecutor and Oklahoma governor, resigned in June, he said some bishops were acting like the Mafia to "deny, to obfuscate, to explain away" information. Catholic lay and victim groups say full disclosure is necessary to understand the magnitude of the abuse and to bring about justice for victims. U.S. bishops pledged openness and transparency when they adopted their sexual abuse charter in Dallas last year. In January, the bishops will receive the findings of an audit intended to determine how well the nation's 195 dioceses are complying with the charter. The audit is being conducted by the church's Office of Child and Youth Protection.

 
 

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