Church Criticized for Secrecy

By John Richardson
Portland Press Herald [Maine]
September 19, 2003

A flurry of recent news reports about misconduct and alleged sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Maine is proof that the Portland Diocese is still responding too slowly and too secretly to the problem, according to victim advocates who had pushed for disclosure.

Church officials and some parishioners disagree, and say some recent reports show that those advocates and the press have stepped over the line and said too much. In the past two weeks, the Portland Diocese has disclosed new allegations of sexual misconduct with children by two additional Maine priests.

The Rev. John Harris, who is on a voluntary leave of absence from his parish in Rangeley, could face expulsion based on an investigation into reports that he was seen nude swimming and boating with boys at a private youth camp in the early 1980s. And the Rev. Thomas Lee was asked to step down from his parish in Lyman during an investigation into an allegation that he sexually abused a minor about 20 years ago.

The new allegations came to light about 18 months after the child sexual abuse scandal erupted in Boston and spread around the country along with reports of priests who had been moved to new parishes after being accused of molesting kids.

In Maine, the scandal led to the removal of three parish priests in early 2002 because of allegations of past sexual abuse. The problem gradually fell out of the front-page headlines in Maine over the past year. But some Catholics, members of the national reform group Voice of the Faithful, kept working behind the scenes, meeting with victims and victims' families, monitoring the church's handling of the cases and calling for more openness about past allegations and accused priests.

"We have to err on the side of protecting children," said Michael Sweatt, spokesman and co-founder of the Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful.

Advocates for victims and for church reform say the diocese might not be investigating Harris and Lee now if not for intervention from group members, who urged for nearly a year that Harris be investigated and met with the family of Lee's accuser in the weeks before the church's announcement.

Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the Portland Diocese, said the church is working aggressively to investigate allegations and safeguard children.

"We care about the victim and supporting the victim. And at the same time, we want to support anyone who is accused until it is proved otherwise. There are rights to be protected on both sides," she said. "We're taking the steps we think are right based on the information we're getting as well as taking direction from the" new national policy.

In Harris' case, she said, the allegations took more than a year to investigate because they came from an alleged witness rather than any victims or campers who were involved.

Voice of the Faithful members did not know about the reports of Harris at the camp, but had been pressing the diocese to investigate Harris because he was the creator of St. Sebastian's Angels, a defunct Web site for gay clergy that included pornography, sexually explicit discussions and some references to boys. Harris had already been investigated and punished for creating the website in 2000, and the diocese uncovered no evidence at the time of misconduct with minors, Bernard said.

In Lee's case, Bernard said, the diocese did receive an allegation of sexual abuse last year but could never get a statement from the victim. Church officials reopened the investigation of Lee after other parishioners came forward with additional reports, and then asked him to step down after receiving a formal statement from the original victim, she said.

It was members of Voice of the Faithful who supported the victim's family and helped get the formal allegations against Lee to the church investigator.

"Victims and their families are very uncomfortable about going to the diocese," Sweatt said. He said members act as a supportive third party that helps accusers come forward and also is willing to hold the church publicly accountable. "Now there's a witness. It's not just the victim and the diocese."

While Bernard maintained that Voice of the Faithful has not influenced the church's decisions, she also criticized its members' role in generating another round of recent news reports about priestly misconduct.

Paul Kendrick, the other co-founder of the Maine group, circulated the name of the Rev. Normand Richard on Sept. 9 as having particpated in the same defunct Web site managed by Harris. Media outlets around the state reported the name, saying Kendrick and Sweatt were calling on the bishop to remove Richard from his Old Town parish.

"The case of Norm Richard and wanting to expose his sin and sinfulness seems to have crossed into another realm, because this had nothing to do with child abuse and there was no victim based on his behavior," Bernard said.

The story also brought anger from Richard's parishioners, who were upset after learning about his involvement in the Web site through the media and said his past mistakes should be forgiven, not publicized.

Kendrick and Sweatt maintain that Richard's involvement in the Web site makes the priest unfit and a potential risk to kids.

And, he said, it is only because the church continues to withhold information that members of the group are pushing for more openness.

"We could clean up the entire problem and then move on," Sweatt said. "The diocese has chosen to keep secrets."


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