April 26, 2019
By Michelle Boorstein and Marisa Iati
The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore this week made a major revision to its list of priests deemed credibly accused of abusing minors – upping the number by 22%, to 126, by adding for the first time some who were accused after their deaths.
The increase highlights the wide range of standards that dioceses are using to compile the lists and has raised new questions about the U.S. church’s response to the clergy abuse crisis.
The church has been promoting the release of accused priest lists – which have grown from 35 in 2018 to more than 120 as of this month, according to BishopAccountability.org – as evidence of a cultural move toward transparency. But even as they represent a significant shift from the aftermath of the 2002 crisis, they are coming under fire from some survivors and advocates for their inconsistent criteria, which in many cases lead to lists that omit names for unclear reasons or fall short on information about priests that are named.
Advocates point to cases such as that of George Stallings, a former priest who wasn’t on the list Washington’s archdiocese put out in the fall, despite it paying $125,000 in 2009 to a man who said Stallings and a seminarian sexually abused him as a teen. Or that of the Rev. Terry Specht, the longtime director of Child Protection and Safety in Arlington, Virginia, whose name wasn’t on Arlington’s February list, despite that officials permanently removed his right to act as a priest after he was accused of teen abuse.
Many dioceses don’t include on their lists priests who are believed to have abused in their jurisdictions but are technically affiliated with religious orders (such as the Jesuits or Franciscans) or with another diocese. Some dioceses exclude people who are dead or who have only one accuser. Lists often include sparse information about priests’ work history or details of the allegations or evidence.
“All of the forces that were at work in keeping this under wraps, those forces haven’t gone away; it’s just that there are now countervailing forces,” such as the media, said Terry McKiernan, president of Bishop Accountability, a leading site that tracks abuse in the U.S. church. “By really reducing the news to a list of names whose stories we really don’t know, they take a really negative story and turn it into a positive one.”
The lists now being released by many of the country’s 178 dioceses were mandated by courts or by settlements with victims, or were initiated by a “new generation of bishops who understand the importance of putting victims first,” said Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI agent who in 2002 established and then led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ child protection office and now consults dioceses on topics including misconduct.
“Previous generations were so concerned about scandal and protecting the name of the church they’d never consider” putting out such lists, she said. McChesney believes the lists will be improved over time. They “are a good starting point,” she said.
Generally, when lists are announced, victims’ praise is faint at best and advocates are fast to point out the holes. Some survivors are fed up that it took so many years for their release and that the lists, even now, are skimpy. Many victims have been and remain silent.
To many victims, the lists are a public affirmation that they told the truth and, in many cases, are not alone in being abused by a specific priest. That’s why some feel angry when lists are incomplete or hard to access on diocesan websites.
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