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  Records Leave Some Questions Unanswered
Documents Provide Little Information about the Church's Oversight of the Rev. Lawrence Sabatino

By John Richardson
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
June 5, 2005

Records released by the Maine Attorney General's Office provide some insight into the oversight of the Rev. Lawrence Sabatino, but also leave some questions unanswered.

The first known report of sexual abuse by Lawrence Sabatino was made to the Portland Diocese in September 1958. The parents of a 6-year-old girl reported that Sabatino had brought her home crying, that she said "that bone" hurt her belly, and that a doctor found vaginal bruising and evidence of abuse.

They first reported the abuse to a police officer in Lewiston, according to the family, but were told they would have to talk to Bishop Daniel Feeney instead. That would not happen today, said Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin.

"Society's whole approach to these types of crimes was totally different 50 years ago, and then you add to it the church's and the priests' standing in the community, and it complicates it even more," she said.

After meeting with the bishop, the parents believed Sabatino would be removed from parish work and kept away from children, according to the family.

Bishop Feeney called Sabatino in for a meeting and confronted him.

According to Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese, records of that meeting indicate that the priest admitted driving the girl in his car and pressing his face to hers, but said he did not recall anything like the girl described about pressing a bone into her belly and did not admit to any sexual abuse.

That same day, Bishop Feeney put a copy of a letter into Sabatino's file. A transcription of the letter was given to state investigators in 2003. It says:

"This letter, as I promised, confirms the oral advice and warning I gave you privately in my office, Thursday, Sept. 18, 1958.

"As a result of complaints against you . . . I forbid you under penalty of suspension to be incurred 'ipso facto,' to visit the (family's) home, or to seek the companionship of (the girl) 'to play games.' I also extend the penalty of suspension for any kind of visit within the limits of St. Patrick's parish, Lewiston. . . .

"I repeat my warning that you are to abandon all familiarity under the name of 'playing games' (with) girls of all ages, young and mature."

After that meeting, Sabatino was quickly transferred to St. Peter's in Portland as assistant pastor.

There is no record in the church's files about anybody else being notified. The attorney for the diocese wrote to investigators that "we assume that at least the pastor (of St. Peter's) was notified as there are complaints in the file from Sabatino about how he was treated by the pastor and that the pastor didn't trust him."

St. Peter's pastor when Sabatino arrived was Monsignor Teresio DiMingo. He remained Sabatino's supervisor until 1967, when the Rev. Joseph Romani became pastor.

The diocese has said it received no more reports of abuse by Sabatino until after his death in 1990 and that no Portland-area victims came forward until 1993. Some of the victims said, however, that they later found out Sabatino's conduct was always the subject of widespread rumors, at least.

"I told a family member (about having been abused) and she said, 'Oh, not you, too,' " said Ann Siteman, who grew up in Portland. "The whole community knew."

The state's investigation, and the records provided by the attorney general, do not completely settle the issue of who knew and when.

Investigators did not directly examine church files on Sabatino and other dead priests, but instead relied on the summaries and interpretations of church officials who reviewed the records. Feeney, DiMingo and Romani have all died.

In 2003, for example, a church attorney wrote to investigators that there was "an ambiguous memo in the file in 1971 referring to 'incidents.' In all fairness," the attorney continued, "that term could refer to incidents of inappropriate touching although it appears from the context more likely to refer to incidents where Sabatino had been in the presence of young girls; the memo is cryptic but appears to be addressing the question of whether his presence with them occurred outside the line of duty and was therefore cause for concern."

The Attorney General's Office did not ask to see that memo or other documents because the people involved had died and the events were too old to lead to any criminal prosecution, Robbin said.

Bernard, the church spokeswoman, said last week the diocese opened its files to investigators but would not provide access to the memo or any other documents from Sabatino's church file to a reporter because they contain confidential personnel and psychological information or internal communications between Sabatino and the bishop.

Bernard said it's unclear to church officials why Sabatino was allowed access to children and apparently helped run a Sodality group for young girls. The church's records indicate he was watched closely at St. Peter's because Sabatino complained about the pastor being harsh, Bernard said. But, over time and with personnel changes, the oversight may have slipped, she said.

"When he was first moved, the information was passed along very well to the pastor involved at St. Peter's," she said. "After the pastor left, the communication broke down."

The circumstances can never happen again, she said. Since 2002, the policy of the diocese says priests who are the subject of a credible accusation of sexual abuse must be removed from active ministry.

 
 

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