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  Diocese Details Abuse
Report Says 32 Priests Accused of Sexual Misconduct since 1954

By Sean Gonsalves
Cape Cod Times
February 21, 2004

FALL RIVER - Thirty-two priests who served in the Fall River Diocese since 1954 have been accused of molesting minors, according to a clergy sex-abuse report released yesterday.

The 216 claims made against those priests cost the church $16 million to settle.

The report was issued by the Fall River Diocese, which includes 101 churches in Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod and the islands, as part of a nationwide review of abuse claims.

"The tragedy of clergy sexual abuse of minors has touched every diocese in the nation and affected in some way every Catholic," Fall River Diocese Bishop George W. Coleman said in a prepared statement yesterday. "To those who have suffered abuse at the hands of anyone ministering in the name of the Fall River Diocese, and to their families, I extend as bishop my most sincere apologies."

Coleman said there has been a "growing awareness" within the church of the profound suffering caused by child sex abuse. The anguish, he said, is "compounded when the act is perpetrated by a priest."

Coleman's report, titled "A Time To Heal," includes statistics compiled by the diocese that will be part of a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops survey compiled by the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York City.

The full report will be released Feb. 27.

Meanwhile, dozens of dioceses across the nation have published their own reports.

"It is my hope that we will have a more complete understanding of how the diocese has been affected by this troubling matter and the steps it has taken to address it," Coleman wrote.

Rev. Porter case

Of the 216 claims, 131 were made against the Rev. James Porter, a Fall River priest who was convicted of multiple counts of child molestation in the early 1990s.

The Porter case also accounts for most of the $16 million in settlements - $13 million was paid to his victims - and led then-Bishop Sean O'Malley to establish procedures aimed at preventing other priest from committing similar offenses.

Credited with a forthright approach to the Porter case, O'Malley now heads the Archdiocese of Boston, which has been plagued by the sex abuse scandal.

While insurance covered $6.5 million of the settlement costs, the claims drained about $9.4 million from an $11 million account created from the sale of non-parish properties, investment income and other funds. The diocese did not use funds from the Catholic Charities Appeal Fund.

In the half-century the survey reviewed, there have been 1,353 priests serving in parishes and other capacities throughout the region. The 32 who had sex-abuse claims lodged against them represent 2.3 percent of those serving in Fall River since 1954.

Comparing the Fall River Diocese to two other New England dioceses of similar size, the Diocese of Worcester reported 112 claims against 45 priests and paid $2.5 million in settlements related to sex abuse allegations.

The Bridgeport, Conn., Diocese reported 107 claims made against 32 priests and paid $37.7 million in settlements.

According to clergy sex-abuse researcher Terry McKiernan, who operates the Web site Bishopaccountability.org and was one of the co-founders of Voice of the Faithful, the Fall River results are about average when comparing them with the results in similar-sized New England dioceses.

Unanswered questions

Though McKiernan said the report includes lots of important information, he said he believes it leaves some important questions unanswered.

"Even if you accept all the numbers, the 2.3 percent is more than double the percentage that Vatican officials and other church leaders have been saying," McKiernan said.

McKiernan, a lifelong Catholic, also noted the high number of religious order priests included in the report. He said this is significant because religious order priests typically don't stay in one diocese for more than several years, and they report to their religious order superior, not to the local bishop.

Diocesan priests, on the other hand, generally serve their entire priesthood in the same diocese.

"It would be interesting to see how many claims there's been against the diocesan priests alone," McKiernan said. That would give local Catholics a better understanding of how the diocese has handled allegations of abuse against long-term parish priests, he explained.

McKiernan said he was also struck by the increase in the number of accused priests. Before the report, he said, local advocates for sex-abuse victims thought there were 25 accused priests.

"Who are the other seven? Where are they? Some of them are dead but some are still alive. Where are they in the community?"

In the fall, it was discovered that a priest who had been accused of sexual misconduct had gone on to become a substitute teacher at Falmouth High School. Gilbert Simoes was suspended from the Fall River Diocese in 1986. In 1989, he start substitute teaching and continued that work for nearly 10 years.

Fall River officials maintain they had no idea Simoes was teaching high school students during his tenure at the school.

A thorough report

As for the settlement money, McKiernan said he thought it was strange that more than half the Fall River Diocese settlement money came out of diocesan funds and was not paid by insurance companies.

"The percentage of payouts that came out of diocesan funds seems high. The numbers from other dioceses that I've seen, most of the settlement money is paid by insurance companies, as high as 95 percent," he said.

In Lafayette, La., where the clergy sex-abuse scandal first came to national attention in the mid-1980s, insurance paid $25 million of the diocese's settlement claims. A little less than $1 million came from diocesan funds.

But Sandwich resident Patricia Stebbins, an active member of Corpus Christi Parish in Sandwich, said she was pleased with what she described as a thorough and open report.

"My initial impression was that the (diocese) charter is based on the things set in place by Bishop (Sean) O'Malley 10 years ago, which has been working quite well. I was glad to see that reflected in the report," she said yesterday, referring to the abridged policy directives concerning abuse allegations re-printed in the report.

"I think it shows an honest desire, from the heart and soul of the church, to correct a tragic wrong, and to make sure that it never happens again. Everything from screening seminary candidates to being mindful of every child in every parish is the aim of the document," Stebbins said.

"I really think the policies in place now is something that is going to work," she added.

The report yesterday was published in the diocese's newspaper, the Anchor, and is available on the Web site fallriverdiocese.org.

 
 

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