Guest Commentary: Attorney General Cites New Sexual Abuse Allegations

By Carolyn Disco
April 16, 2009

[link to the documents]

Over the last six years, the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office received allegations of sexual abuse against 26 priests not previously named. The final 900 pages of those documents were released recently, and are posted on at

The files are worth reading for an understanding of the breadth of issues law enforcement faces.

The surprise for Merrimack residents is that the Rev. Denis Downey, the founding pastor at Our Lady of Mercy from 1954-68, has three allegations from 9- to 16-year-olds, and the Rev. Rocco Memolo, who served here from 1983-86, has one from a prior parish for multiple serious offenses. Additional allegations against the Rev. Alfred Jannetta, Philip Petit and Ed Richard, also founding pastor at St. John Neumann, were cited in the new documents.

Sexual abuse is a sobering, tragic reality in all religions and society, but thank God it is finally in the open.

One might ask what value is there in revealing names and documents? Does it make any difference, since so many are experiencing scandal fatigue, including me?

Working in this area for seven years now, I believe the value is in the healing the truth brings to survivors themselves. It is also a gift to all parents that our children are indisputably safer today because of the courage of those who came forward. It is the corrosive secrecy that allowed 12,000 minors to be abused in the last half-century or so. Most researchers agree only about 20 percent of victims actually report abuse. The dangers of silence are self-evident.

Tragically, victims had the guilt and shame that belonged to the perpetrator thrust upon them, with devastating effect. The documents reveal instances where reports were not made for 48, 45, 25 years, meaning statutes of limitation bar access to justice where the priest is still alive. Officials determined repeatedly that prosecutions were time-barred. Whether the priest is alive or dead, the question lingers, how many additional victims might still be locked in shame and secrecy, if such numbers of allegations continue?

The added burden of the laity's deference toward priests kept many silent, and allowed abusers to warn accurately, "No one will believe you." Confession was a tool of coercion with the abuser either threatening to reveal confidences to parents, or a confessor using the seal to swear a victim to secrecy.

Having that painful history believed, and to speak openly to a compassionate listener brings profound healing. Too often parishioners rush to the defense of a beloved priest, failing to understand what Bishop John Kinney, former head of a national committee on sex abuse, reminded Catholics: "We learned that even those priests who seem to their congregations, their fellow priests, and their superiors among the most dedicated and pastorally sensitive can be abusers. Their pathology enables them to develop highly effective strategies to conceal their desires and behaviors."

I believe we owe survivors an immense debt of gratitude, but they have not heard that message clearly. Charges of money-grubbing gain currency, but I know several who took settlements for lesser offenses because they could not admit they had been raped. Having to write out in detail all that happened and tell it in person to a group of church personnel and lawyers, strangers all, is a hugely stressful experience. Yet filing a lawsuit for just compensation can be the first taste of personal power, moving away from victimhood.

The good news is the greater awareness of the problem, and the screening and training programs initiated. The danger is to think it's all history. Vigilance is the byword, and the willingness to speak up to protect children. We are all mandated reporters under New Hampshire law, so let us reach out to survivors, and make sure their number decreases.

Carolyn Disco of Merrimack is survivor support chairman for New Hampshire Voice of the Faithful.


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