Maine Diocese Hid Abuse

By John Richardson
Portland Press Herald Writer
February 25, 2004

AUGUSTA - A review of allegations of sexual abuse by more than 60 Catholic priests and church employees going back 75 years showed that Maine church officials placed children at risk by keeping the charges secret and reassigning some of the accused priests, Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe said Tuesday.

In one case, according to Rowe, a priest accused of molesting a child was reassigned to another Maine parish and was later accused of abusing at least 10 more young girls. He would not name the priest or the parishes.

Rowe's report, released after a two-year statewide investigation, also said that no Maine priest, employee or church official faces criminal charges in the cases because the allegations are too old for prosecution under Maine's statute of limitations. Investigators found no accusations of sexual abuse occurring after 1996, he said.

The report also confirms that children in the church are better protected today because of recent changes in law and church policy. The Diocese of Portland now reports all abuse allegations to law enforcement agencies as required by a 1997 law, and it removes priests from ministry whenever there are credible allegations of abuse against them.

"Child abuse is one of the most despicable acts imaginable," Rowe said. "I want to acknowledge the pain and suffering of these victims. I also want to acknowledge their great courage."

Victims of sexual abuse by priests and advocates of church reform said they appreciated the efforts put into the investigation, despite disappointment that none of the accused priests will be held accountable in criminal court. Now, they said, it is up to church leaders to talk more openly to parishioners about who the priests are and when and where the abuse took place. Rowe said state law prevented him from identifying people who are not charged with a crime.

"This is a criminal investigation. The church needs to do a moral investigation," said Cyndi Desrosiers, who was abused by a priest when she was a girl and now serves as an advocate for Maine victims.

Rowe's office and Maine's eight district attorneys began the investigation in February 2002. The clergy sex abuse scandal was spreading from the Archdiocese of Boston around the country at that time, and the Portland Diocese volunteered to open its files to investigators in Maine.

Investigators used those files and allegations made directly to law enforcement agencies to search for cases that might lead to criminal charges. The inability of young victims to publicly accuse their parish priests typically means only old allegations come forward, even though there may be more recent cases of abuse, authorities said.

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson said letters she has received from victims often begin by saying, "I have never in my life told a soul what I am about to tell you."

Investigators also used victim statements to identify men who, while no longer serving as active priests, are considered a possible threat today to children in their communities. In several such cases, state officials even notified local law enforcement where the men live, and will do it again if the men move, Rowe said.

While not resulting in any criminal action, the report makes clear that Maine has not been immune from priests who used their positions of authority to abuse children, or from the failure of church leaders to protect children from abusers.

Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for Portland Bishop Joseph Gerry, said the church has learned much about the problem and voluntarily opened its files in order to allow a thorough investigation. Bernard said the crisis clearly touched Maine, but not on the scale it did in Boston or some other parts of the country.

"There's only the one case of reassignment where we know there was more abuse," she said, referring to the case singled out in Rowe's report.

Like most of the accused men referred to in the report, that priest was not named because he was never charged with a crime.

In the one case, according to the report, the parents of a 6-year-old girl reported to church officials that their priest sexually abused her in 1958. Church officials did not report the charge to police but did reassign the priest, telling him he could have no contact with his old parish, the victim and other girls. After the priest died in 1990, 10 women came forward and said he sexually abused them in the 1960s and early 1970s when they were all between the ages of 8 and 13.

Survivors of abuse said such cases clearly show Catholics and others how harmful the scandal has been.

"If there ever were any doubts that church officials (in Maine) put the church's reputation and assets ahead of the protection of children, this report should shatter those doubts," said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Although investigators identified just one case of a Maine priest abusing additional children after having been transferred, the report says at least six other accused priests were reassigned to parishes. The priests often received counseling and were told to restrict contact with children, though their new parishioners were generally not warned.

"We realize today that that could have put children at risk and we apologize to anyone who could have been put at risk," Bernard said. "There are no priests serving in the diocese today with any credible complaints of child sexual abuse."

Rowe said Tuesday that investigators reviewed allegations against 63 men in all. Five are priests who have faced criminal charges. The report refers to 20 living and 15 deceased priests from the diocese; seven church or school employees; and six living and five deceased priests or brothers who are part of separate religious orders. Rowe said the state also received allegations from 17 victims against priests or other clergy members who could not be identified and may be among those already counted.

The report is broader than an accounting of the problem in Maine that was mailed to Catholics earlier this month by Bishop Gerry. Gerry's letter, which referred to only the past 52 years and included only priests, said 41 Maine priests have been accused of sexual abuse since 1950.

The statistics are part of a national survey that the nation's bishops are expected to release Friday.

Staff Writer John Richardson an be contacted at 791-6324


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