Springfield Diocese plans continued reforms in handling of clergy sexual abuse claims

The Republican

January 3, 2021

By Anne-Gerard Flynn

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield will move forward in 2021 with a new bishop at the helm and building on reforms implemented under former Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski to better address how it handles allegations of clergy sexual abuse.

A task force report is expected in the coming months to recommend restructuring the diocesan review board that hears allegations of abuse and expand its ranks to include non-Catholics.

Reforms initiated under Rozanski came after national attention was paid to a Pennsylvania grand jury report in fall 2018 that cited a church cover up that protected more than 300 “predator priests,” as well as a scandal closer to home. A subsequent survivor-driven investigation found credible sexual abuse allegations against deceased Springfield Bishop Christopher J. Weldon.

In May — two months before the results of the year-long Weldon investigation were released — the diocese created an Independent Task Force on the Response to Sexual Abuse to make recommendations on how it could improve that response.

The task force, headed by retired Superior Court Judge Daniel Ford, expects to issue its recommendations this spring with input from survivor focus groups and others.

“There are a number of stakeholders in this process and one of the most important ones, if not the most important, are the survivors of sex abuse — the victims who were victimized by priests or by other employees of the diocese,” Ford said.

In addition, the diocese has entered into an agreement with Western Massachusetts district attorneys. The diocese agreed to notify their offices of any allegations involving a minor or vulnerable person before conducting its own internal investigation.

“The Church and the diocese have a responsibility to ensure that we are reporting allegations of crime to law enforcement. Once we conduct the intake, we refer it to law enforcement and are hands off,” said Jeffrey J. Trant, director of the diocesan Office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance. “The last thing we would ever want to do is unintentionally have an impact or interfere with a law enforcement investigation.”

Trant was hired in June 2019, around the time the allegations against Weldon became public. The claimant told the Berkshire Eagle he had appeared before the diocesan review board in June 2018 with those allegations, as well as similar claims against two other priests. Three months later, he received a letter from the board saying it found his testimony “compelling and credible” and that Rozanski would be advised.

However, the complainant questioned why Weldon’s name was never added to the diocesan website list of credibly accused clergy. The diocese responded by saying that it did not list clergy accused after their deaths, but also became immersed in controversy when it said that the claimant did not make allegations against Weldon to the board.

Allegations of a cover-up resulted in Rozanski meeting with the claimant, referring a report on the Weldon allegations to the Hampden District Attorney’s Office, and asking retired Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis to investigate the allegations.

Velis issued the results of his year-long investigation in June. He concluded in part that “the allegations of the Complainant of sexual molestation committed upon him by Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, both as a principal, and as a ‘coventurer’ that included anal rape, indecent assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress are unequivocally credible.”

He determined the complainant, who first met with diocesan officials in 2014, had been poorly served by lack of documentation, communication and commitment in addressing his allegations. The retired judge recommended a number of steps for better oversight, including the services of an Administrative Supervisor of Investigations to ensure procedure compliance.

Recently installed Springfield Bishop William D. Byrne said he appreciates “hearing from victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse and their advocates.”

He met remotely with victim-survivors prior his Dec. 21 ordination, where he praised their courage and honesty — though some reportedly had hoped for more specifics on diocesan reforms.

Byrne called the process “ongoing,” adding he is looking “forward to receiving the report from the task force and hearing their recommendations.” He said he expects the “updated list of credibly accused clergy, including the names of all diocesan and religious order clerics even those who were accused after they were deceased” to be completed in the coming months.

Trant’s work over the last 19 months has won praise from the victim-survivor community with one member saying Trant is “out there, actively meeting with survivors and not just listening, he is hearing them because we have begun to see change happening for the that first time in three administrations.”

He added, the new bishop “will have our support if we can see through his actions that his motives are serious.’

A central focus of the Velis report was the diocese’s reliance on a single investigator, and the importance of an investigator’s confidentiality and objectivity. It recommended sanctions for violations of those mandates.

Trant was instrumental in the diocese’s hiring of three investigators for sexual abuse claims and the assigning of two to each claim.

“At the end of the diocesan process, we had failed an individual because of the significant amount of time when that person first came forward, how we responded, when we responded and how we conducted fact finding and ultimately the ambiguity and lack of specificity around ultimate response to that individual was unacceptable,” Trant said.

He added, “We have a responsibility to report to civil authorities any reports of abuse whether it happened yesterday, 10 years ago or 50 years ago.”

Trant briefs the bishop on abuse allegations, a departure from past practices.

“When I was hired, one of the changes made was that I report directly to the bishop,” Trant said. “In the past, my predecessor had reported to the vicar general.”

Once the diocese is notified by the district attorney’s office that it can begin its process, the investigation is presented to the diocesan review board, Trant said.

The current practice has been for the chair of the review board to write a letter to the bishop of its findings and recommendations. Trant said he delivers it by hand to the bishop for his review.

This most recently has been Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester who served as apostolic administrator between Rozanski’s Aug. 25 installation as archbishop of St. Louis and the Dec. 21 installation of Byrne as bishop here.

“With respect to Bishop McManus, he would receive the recommendation and, in every instance, he accepted it and then directed me to write a letter on his behalf to the survivor or to their legal counsel informing them of his acceptance of the review board’s recommendation and offering his sincere apologies,” Trant said.

“So, we have instituted a process to make sure at every step of the way it is documented and that it is timely and they we are helping to close the loop because we have a responsibility to provide survivors who come forward with an answer,” Trant said.

Judge Ford, who was involved with Trant in meetings with Western Massachusetts district attorneys, said the diocesan task force is also focused on input from victims of clergy sexual abuse. It has contracted with an area organization to organize focus groups.

“We have entered into a contract with an organization in Northampton called Stop It Now! They are a professional independent group and we have contracted with them to organize a series of focus groups with people who identify as survivors of clergy sexual abuse in the Springfield Diocese,” Ford said. “They tell us the work will take three months to identify and recruit people to participate, to formulate the type of questions they want to ask and then to review them and do a report.”

Ford said the meetings will take place in a “safe, trauma-informed setting” and the groups are viewed by the task force as “the best way to allow these people who have been victimized to have a voice in what we eventually recommend.”

The task force has also been “engaged in rewriting the bylaws of the diocesan review board,” he said.

“There is going to be a recommendation that the review board be reconstituted in some way,” Ford said. “One of the things bylaws will call for, if approved by the bishops, is that there will be nine members on the board and that there be non-Catholics on the board. This I think will go a long way to boosting public confidence in the review board.”

The task force has also reviewing 500 responses to an online survey that asked Catholics for their thoughts on how the diocese has handled allegations of clergy abuse.

“We wanted to get some input from the people in the pews,” Ford said. “The people are the backbone of the Church and we wanted to find out what they think.”

The task force is also considering outreach to clergy and religious. “The priests, deacons, nuns are important stakeholders and we want to get input from them as well,” Ford said.

He anticipates completing the report three or four months into the new year.

“It will be out sometime in late winter or early spring and I will hand deliver it to the bishop and give him as much time as he needs to go through it and reasons for the recommendations,” Ford said. “It will incorporate everything we have done and what we think ought to be done.”

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