Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis a lingering cloud in Providence
By Tom Mooney
September 15, 2018
|Bishop Thomas J. Tobin celebrates a Mass on Friday at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, in Providence. He called Friday a day of penance to recognize “the sins and failures of all priests and bishops related to the sexual abuse of minors.”|
Photo by Steve Szydlowski
|Rhoda Northrup, of Cranston, and other protesters, hold signs outside of the cathedral calling on Bishop Thomas J. Tobin to resign. |
Photo by Steve Szydlowski
|Kevin O’Brien, a retired state police major who is now director of compliance for the Diocese of Providence, oversees all cases of reported sexual abuse by clergy. In a recent opinion piece in The Journal, he wrote, “For the past quarter-century, this office has vigorously, tenaciously and transparently conducted investigations, background checks and training to protect all within our care.” Two lawyers who have handled many lawsuits against the diocese say that was not at all the case just over a decade ago.|
Photo by Steve Szydlowski
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin called for a special Mass on Friday at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul and for a day of penance to recognize “the sins and failures of all priests and bishops related to the sexual abuse of minors.” There to greet him outside the cathedral were Rhoda Northrup, 77, of Cranston, and three other sign-holding women who want him to resign.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Tremors from the escalating clergy sex-abuse crisis now shaking the Catholic Church’s Vatican hierarchy were evident Friday in a Providence cathedral, in a diocese where leaders confronted a wave of sex-abuse cases almost 20 years ago and yearn to move beyond what they say is the past.
Yet as more allegations emerge elsewhere — the pope ignoring warnings about a prominent cardinal; a Pennsylvania grand jury report that 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 children over decades — escaping Rhode Island’s own dark history is proving difficult, local church officials concede.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin called for a special Mass on Friday at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul and for a day of penance to recognize “the sins and failures of all priests and bishops related to the sexual abuse of minors.”
There to greet him outside the cathedral were Rhoda Northrup, 77, of Cranston, and three other sign-holding women who want him to resign.
Between 1992 and 1996, Bishop Tobin served as auxiliary bishop of Pittsburgh, one of six dioceses covered in the Pennsylvania grand jury report. Bishop Tobin wasn’t mentioned in the findings — or even questioned by investigators, he said last month — because his duties were outside the scope of clergy misconduct.
His response drew the ire of some, like Northrup: “So, because of that, he feels he had no moral responsibility? That’s wrong.”
The bishop, she said is “part of what’s going on” — the church still not coming clean. “I think he has names of priests who may be responsible for this.... It hasn’t been resolved.”
Kevin M. O’Brien, a retired major of the Rhode Island State Police who in 2015 became the lead investigator of abuse allegations within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, stood to the side of the altar during Friday’s Mass, providing security, if needed.
Last month, as the diocese’s director of compliance, he wrote an opinion piece that ran in The Providence Journal to say, “In sum Rhode Island is not Pennsylvania.”
O’Brien wrote that the diocese had years ago implemented new policies to protect children, including stringent screening of potential seminarians and forwarding all sex-abuse allegations, regardless of credibility, to law enforcement.
“These efforts are not widely understood by the public because they receive scant attention,” he said.
O’Brien went so far in defense of the diocese’s past actions as to say: “For the past quarter-century, this office has vigorously, tenaciously and transparently conducted investigations, background checks and training to protect all within our care.”
His characterization amounts to revisionist history, lawyers Carl P. DeLuca and Timothy J. Conlon said in interviews with The Journal.
More than a decade ago (and prior to Bishop Tobin’s arrival in 2005), both men were entrenched in litigious warfare with the diocese, suing on the behalf of dozens of clergy abuse survivors to force church officials to open their files on pedophile priests.
“There was no transparency,” said DeLuca. “They were hiding stuff. They were covering stuff up. I remember a priest who took a lie detector test and failed. They covered it up. They were every bit as guilty as any other diocese out there.”
Said Conlon, “I do believe that the diocese as an entity did step up its game with training and policies over the last couple of decades. Unfortunately it’s not true that the office of compliance is without some blame in terms of handling what they call investigations. They were assisting in protecting the priests rather than doing anything meaningful about them.”
In 2002 the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence settled three dozen sexual-abuse cases for $14 million, The Journal reported in 2007.
The church fought to shield its files on 83 priests who had been accused over the years, but Rhode Island courts ruled against the diocese and ordered some of those files opened to plaintiffs’ lawyers, though under a court seal.
In the spring of 2007, details of how diocese officials allegedly concealed some priests’ sexual assaults began to enter the public domain as exhibits or in motions in a handful of unsolved cases.
DeLuca and Conlon say they haven’t handled any new clergy abuse cases in years. Changes within the church, along with societal outrage and awareness, is likely responsible for fewer allegations arising.
In an interview, O’Brien said that for years now the diocese has publicly announced any credible allegation made against a priest and removed him promptly from ministry.
But O’Brien will go just so far about answering other related questions.
Asked recently how many sex-abuse claims the diocese is currently dealing with — either in court or in paying restitution, such as survivor’s therapy — he would not say.
Nor would he say how many other cases the diocese has settled since 2002, and at what cost.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss that,” he said.
Asked to comment on DeLuca’s and Conlon’s characterization that his office was less than transparent years ago, prior to his arrival, O’Brien said: “I can’t comment on the past.”