Diocese of Scranton Mum on Sex Abuse Policy, Cases

By Roja Heydarpour
The Times-Tribune
July 13, 2008

As it reeled from shocking revelations in 2002 of widespread sexual abuse by priests, the Catholic Church crafted a program to accommodate victims and inject a new spirit of openness and honesty.

Six years later, however, the Diocese of Scranton refuses to share details of how the program is working and declines to explain some apparent inconsistencies.

The national program was created after a newspaper investigation revealed that priests in the Archdiocese of Boston had sexually abused hundreds of victims and were protected by church officials. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met in June 2002 and drafted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, emphasizing transparency and accountability.

One of the charter's requirements is that "Dioceses/Eparchies are to be open and transparent in communicating with the public about sexual abuse of minors by clergy within the confines of respect for the privacy and the reputation of the individuals involved."

After an initial meeting in which officials described the basic structure of the program to a Times-Tribune reporter, however, the Diocese of Scranton refused for several months to further discuss it. The diocese eventually provided additional background material, but still declines to answer specific questions about issues, including:

The charter states that diocesan officials are to refer all reports of abuse to the appropriate district attorney's office. The diocesan abuse counselor told the newspaper she had met with 23 people in a three-year period. A Times-Tribune survey of district attorneys in the 11 counties of the diocese turned up only 10 total cases referred in the past six years. The diocese refused to clarify the apparent discrepancy, or provide information on the outcomes of cases that were reported.

One of the longest-sitting members of the diocesan independent review board, which advises the bishop on allegations of sexual abuse, was removed from her position shortly after discussing the program with The Times-Tribune. The diocese refused to discuss her departure.

National auditors hired by the church have found the Diocese of Scranton compliant with the charter since its inception, but auditors rely solely on information provided by local dioceses and don't have direct access to records. While the diocese referred the newspaper to audit reports posted online, officials would not discuss the audits.

In an e-mail response to a list of questions, diocesan spokesman William Genello declined to discuss specific cases referred to the program.

"With respect to the questions you submitted about old cases, details of settlements, etc., these matters have been handled properly and the diocese has fulfilled all of its obligations under the civil law and the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. This includes the requirements for public disclosure," he wrote.

Victims' advocates say the Diocese of Scranton's refusal to discuss specifics of the program is common nationwide, and evidence of its inadequacy.

"It is in essence a toothless tiger," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "(The charter) is a weak, vague and sporadically followed document designed largely for public relations."

The Scranton family of a man who was sexually abused by a priest when he was 13 characterized their experience with the program as disappointing and disillusioning. The Times-Tribune does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

"They were protecting themselves, not the victim," said the mother of the victim about her meetings with diocesan officials.

She now believes that the bureaucracy and incremental help they fight to receive from the diocese through its program is part of a larger strategy to insulate itself from scandal and protect its image.

"The church is hoping that people will just throw up their hands and give up. But I just can't. I will fight this until the day I die."

Record of referrals murky

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People states that each of the nation's 195 dioceses are to hire a victim-assistance coordinator to counsel victims who allege sexual abuse by clergy or any other church personnel or volunteers.

In 2003, the Diocese of Scranton hired Joan L. Holmes, who has two master's degrees, one in counseling, from Marywood University. Mrs. Holmes said she met with 23 people between 2004 and 2007. The Times-Tribune was able to identify only 10 reports of abuse the diocese referred to district attorneys since 2002, one of them this year.

Diocesan officials declined to clarify the context in which the 23 people visited Mrs. Holmes.

In the case of the Scranton family, Chancellor James B. Earley, who heads the diocesan program, referred the son's case to Lackawanna County Assistant District Attorney Gene Talerico, according to a letter obtained by The Times-Tribune.

Mr. Talerico confirmed that referral was among four reports he recalls his office receiving from the diocese since 2002.

Two others were about the Revs. Carlos Urrutigoity and Eric Ensey, said Mr. Talerico. The district attorney's office started a criminal investigation in January 2002 — before the charter was passed. But by October, it decided that the statute of limitations periods had expired for filing a criminal case against the two priests

The alleged victims filed a civil suit in March 2002. In 2005, the diocese and its co-defendants settled the civil suit for $380,000.

Another report, Mr. Talerico said, regarded the former priest Albert M. Liberatore Jr. His crimes took place in both Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. Mr. Liberatore pleaded guilty in 2005 to indecent assault and corruption of minors, among other charges. He was laicized by the Vatican and received five years probation in the criminal case, and the diocese reached a settlement with the victim in a civil suit for $3 million.

There have been two reports in Luzerne County — not including Mr. Liberatore, whose trial was held in Luzerne County — said District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll. One case was in 2008.

There have been three allegations of sexual abuse reported to the Wyoming County district attorney's office. No charges resulted, however, said District Attorney George Skumanick. The accused priest was dead in one case, the victim refused to cooperate in another and the accused priest was out of the country in the third.

One case has been referred in Susquehanna County, said District Attorney Jason Legg. That referral came this year, but the victim did not want to press charges, he said.

The number of cases reported by the district attorneys may be incomplete, because most offices said they do not catalogue case files by how they were referred. But several district attorneys said they could definitively say how many reports they received from the diocese. The Monroe County district attorney did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Board member dismissed

The Diocese of Scranton started a clergy sex abuse reporting program of its own in 1993, installing an independent review board composed mostly of lay people to advise the bishop. The board was reshuffled when the national mandate was issued, but it still served virtually the same function.

The board consists of at least five members, the majority of whom must be lay people not employed by the diocese. One member must be a pastor. Members serve five-year terms.

The diocesan board has recently been reshuffled, however, and the diocese would not say who the sitting members are.

Before they stopped talking to the newspaper, Mrs. Holmes and Mr. Genello described the process: Once a victim comes forward, he or she meets with Mrs. Holmes for an open-ended number of sessions.

Church officials say the purpose of the sessions is spiritual counseling and to nofify victims of available assistance. Critics say it is a fact-finding session intended to help church officials more than the victims.

"Often, they try to blame God, and I try to steer them away from that," Mrs. Holmes said. "I have to listen to the anger and the hurt."

Once a report is made, the diocese launches its own investigation and the findings are sent to the review board.

Critics question the value of the church investigating allegations against one of its own.

"Obviously, no institution can police themselves, and the church has done a horrific job," said Barbara Blaine, president of SNAP. "The church officials are not equipped to investigate crimes."

Until March, Margaret Hogan was one of only two members to sit on the review board since its founding in 1993. She is a professor of philosophy at the University of Portland in Oregon and executive director of the school's Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture.

Mrs. Hogan, who splits her time between Portland and Pittston, believes that the church as an institution is trying to correct the wrongs of its bad priests through this program.

She attested to the true independence of the board, claiming its members were mostly highly educated contributors to society, including judges and lawyers.

"Who can be more independent than me?" she asked, arguing that she is a married woman who works as a professor out of desire, not financial necessity.

Several weeks after discussing the program with the newspaper, Mrs. Hogan received a letter from the Most Rev. Bishop Martino informing her that her services would no longer be needed.

"He just said it was time to put new people on the board," she said.

Audits limited

U.S. dioceses undergo an annual audit by the National Review Board, a body created in 2002 to implement the charter.

The Diocese of Scranton has been found in compliance every year, but Times-Tribune requests for copies of the local audits were denied by the diocese and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A public, national annual report by the auditors recognized that the audits are limited because they are based solely on information provided by church officials, and that auditors "did not have access to personnel files or other confidential materials."

Of the nation's 195 dioceses/eparchies, five declined to participate in the audit. Just 12 dioceses were cited for violating any provisions of the charter in the 2007 audit.

Ultimately, the charter relies on the good faith actions of those charged with its implementation, from audits to independent review boards and law enforcement.

"There has to be a level of trust," said Mrs. Hogan.

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