Diocese Tells Why Priest Was Identified

By Laura Ungar and Steven Church
News Journal [Wilmington DE]
April 13, 2002

Officials at the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington said they released the name of a priest anonymously accused of molestation because they mistakenly believed the news media would learn his identity from police.

The diocese issued a news release April 5 saying that an anonymous caller had accused the Rev. William E. Irwin of child abuse years ago. The diocese said it reported the accusation to the state Division of Family Services, and Irwin later went to police to discuss the phone call. Church officials sent the news release to about 10 organizations, including The News Journal.

"It's our understanding that they were public records and accessible to the media," diocese spokesman Robert G. Krebs said.

But state police, family services officials and Delaware prosecutors have said they do not release the names of anyone being investigated until charges have been filed.

Krebs said the church relieved Irwin, 63, of his duties based on its sexual abuse policy. The policy, adopted in 1985, calls for notifying authorities and relieving an alleged offender of ministerial duties.

"The diocese was trying to deal as openly as possible with the community," Krebs said. "It's unfortunate that some people might see the reports? and judge Father Irwin one way or the other. People are innocent until proven guilty."

Krebs said the diocese sought advice from its attorney before deciding to name Irwin, who was praised by several parishioners. James P. Collins Sr., the diocesan attorney, referred questions to Krebs, who said it was a group decision, but declined to provide further details.

State police said that they have no leads left to check in trying to determine whether Irwin abused a child as the anonymous caller told a church employee April 2. Police and church officials have declined to say what Irwin told them. Irwin could not be reached for comment.

Church officials in Philadelphia recently chose not to release the name of a priest accused of molestation. Archdiocese officials there declined to comment further.

The News Journal normally does not publish the names of criminal suspects unless the person has been formally charged with a crime. The newspaper chose to print Irwin's name only after the church issued the news release naming the priest and saying it had taken action against him.

Church officials also told reporters that a letter from Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli discussing the situation and naming Irwin would be read to parishioners. The letter was read at three parishes where Irwin has worked: St. Mary Magdalen in Brandywine Hundred, where Irwin most recently had been serving in residence, Holy Family in Newark, where Irwin formerly served as pastor, and St. Francis de Sales in Salisbury, Md., where Irwin previously served as pastor.

Church officials have refused to name priests they say have "substantiated allegations" of abuse against them in the past 50 years.

These officials also would not explain what "substantiated allegations" means.

State police say a detective talked with Irwin when he came to Troop 2 in New Castle three days after receiving the anonymous call. The detective then called Chief Deputy Attorney General Ferris Wharton for advice about the priest. Afterward police contacted the church employee who took the call.

State police spokesman Lt. Tim Winstead said detectives do not have enough information to justify opening an official investigation.

In any case, Winstead said, police would not have released Irwin's name.

Wharton has said he would not have released Irwin's name. Wharton would not discuss any specific allegation of abuse.

Several parishioners said they were shocked to hear of the allegation against Irwin, who had been performing limited duties at Mary Magdalen because he has Parkinson's disease.

Mary Grace Stanis, a lifelong parishioner at St. Mary Magdalen, said the diocese was correct in reporting the allegation to authorities.

"But until Father Irwin is found to be guilty of this, his name should not have been released," Stanis said. "For [Saltarelli] to accept this anonymous statement, I disagree with him."

Some parishioners spoke highly of Irwin.

"I worked with him for almost 10 years. I have nothing but respect for the man," said Tom Ignudo of Newark, a longtime parishioner at Holy Family.

But Ignudo said he was not surprised that the diocese released Irwin's name, given the charged atmosphere surrounding the issue of sexual abuse by priests. "I understand why they did it," Ignudo said.


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