Diocese Still Settling Abuse Cases

By Jennifer Levitz
Providence Journal [Rhode Island]
July 18, 2005

New claims of abuse by priests are being quietly handled out of court, with payments of $10,000 to $50,000 being offered.

When the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence reached a $14.3-million settlement with some three dozen people in 2002, it appeared that the priest-abuse scandal was over in Rhode Island.

It's not.

Since that much-heralded resolution, which followed 10 years of fierce litigation, the diocese has quietly reached out-of-court settlements on another 50 sexual-abuse claims, for a total of $2 million, a diocesan official confirmed last week.

The diocese, in fact, has set up a formal process to hear new claims; validate them; and offer payments of $10,000 to $50,000, said Monsignor Paul D. Theroux, the bishop's chief of staff.

Those with legitimate claims can either accept $25,000 or enter arbitration. Those who choose arbitration -- and most do -- sit across from the monsignor and tell their accounts.

"It certainly, for me, is the most personally draining experience I've ever had in my life," said Monsignor Theroux, who is tall and gentle-spoken, and has been a priest for 28 years. "I've said to some priest friends, 'believe me, if we could just finish it, be all over, no one would be happier than I.' "

Yet, he said: "It's the most difficult thing I'll do in my priesthood, but it's the most significant thing, as well, in terms of a pastoral opportunity to reach out to people who've genuinely been hurt and try to bring some healing to them."

The stream of new claims suggests that abuse by priests in Rhode Island may have been more widespread than was indicated by the 2002 settlement, which included 37 plaintiffs and named 11 priests.

The diocese is now up to at least 90 people who allege they were abused; at least 13 more priests have surfaced. None of the accused priests are in ministry anymore, the monsignor said.

He would not confirm a list of the priests' names on Friday.

"I'm very uncomfortable with some of the names," he said. "There are a couple of situations where I have absolutely no doubt that what they described, happened to them, but I don't think they have the right name of the [priest]."

Carl P. DeLuca, one of the lawyers handling the clergy-abuse cases, said: "That may be true. Some of these people were kids."

"We're talking about events that took place, in some instances, 30 years ago or more," said Timothy C. Conlon, another lawyer handling the cases.

It is unlikely there will be any criminal charges.

Rhode Island prosecutors have typically taken the view - described as unfortunate by some - that clergy sexual abuse that occurred before 1981 can no longer be prosecuted, DeLuca said, because at the time, there existed a statute of limitations on such cases.

But not all new reports date back many years.

Four lawsuits have been filed against the diocese, two of which involve priests removed from ministry since 2002.

The new lawsuits include Christopher Young vs. the Rev. John Petrocelli. The diocese put Father Petrocelli on a leave of absence two years ago, from his assignment at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital, in North Providence, Monsignor Theroux said. He is living at an undisclosed location.

Plaintiff Donald Leighton has named the Rev. Daniel M. Azzarone Jr. in a lawsuit. The diocese placed Father Azzarone, a former assistant pastor at St. Mary Church, in Cranston, on leave of absence three years ago, Monsignor Theroux said.

In a separate criminal case, Father Azzarone is scheduled to go on trial in Providence on Sept. 6, on allegations that he sexually abused two teenage boys, said his lawyer, Robert B. Mann. The priest pleaded not guilty in April 2002. He is out on bail, and living at an undisclosed location.

The other two cases involve men who are no longer priests.

Plaintiff Mark Banville has named Roland Lepire, who Monsignor Theroux said voluntarily requested that the Vatican remove him from the priesthood last year.

The fourth case is John Sullivan vs. James Silva. Silva, who was convicted of sexual abuse in 1991, and was named in six of the lawsuits that were settled in 2002, also requested that the Vatican remove him from the priesthood last year, Monsignor Theroux said.

The diocese expects to mediate the lawsuits out of court, the monsignor said.

The diocese sold off some of its property, including the bishop's summer home, in Westerly, to help pay for the $14.3-million settlement in 2002.

Church officials are now negotiating with three insurers in an attempt to recover money on the settlements, including the new ones from arbitration, Monsignor Theroux said.

The 2002 settlement came after bitter litigation that tore the most Catholic state in the nation.

Afterward, the Diocese of Providence was aware that other sexual-abuse claims were lingering -- unsettled -- and decided to take a pastoral approach to address those people's complaints, Monsignor Theroux said.

Thus began the diocese's current program, in which those with complaints deemed legitimate can accept a $25,000 payment or go to arbitration.

Most of the cases involve people who could not easily sue the diocese -- because so much time has passed -- or who do not want to sue, say spokesmen for the diocese and the plaintiffs.

"Some people just want to make peace with the church," said DeLuca, who represents people who report abuse.

Monsignor Theroux said that the diocese can usually confirm the basic credibility of a case. "From my experience," he said. "I've been quite convinced of 98 percent of them."

"The degree of pain is overwhelming," the monsignor said. "You begin to realize that we may have settled with 90 victims, but when you multiply all the family members or all the people affected, you really start to realize the ripple effect, and how many people have been severely hurt by these offenses."

The diocese's pastoral response differs from its response in years past, when people who reported abuse might be insulted or brushed off, the plaintiffs' lawyers said.

"One of our clients said it best, when she said it helped to hear someone who was of greater authority than the priest who molested her say they were sorry, and that it wasn't her fault," DeLuca said.

Not everyone agrees that the diocese's motives are pure.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, based in Chicago, is critical of such out-of-court settlement programs, which he called a growing trend nationwide.

He says he thinks the dioceses are adopting the gentler approach in order to forestall legislative reform and challenges to statute-of-limitations laws. Also, he says, the church officials want to prevent new lawsuits, which could force the church hierarchy to turn over its files or disclose what it knew about abusive priests.

"The last thing any bishop wants is to be deposed and, under oath, have to reveal how much he knew and how little he did about abusive priests," Clohessy said. "So gradually, around the country, these kinds of processes are being initiated by bishops."

Monsignor Theroux said he would agree that the diocese's pastoral approach is driven, "largely, [by] a desire to avoid litigation."

But, he said, "that's to, first of all, bring it back to where I think it should be -- a pastoral human response to people who've been hurt."

The Providence diocese nearly had to turn over its files in 2002.

In the midst of the national clergy-abuse scandal, and the call for reform, Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Robert D. Krause dramatically shifted a decade of Rhode Island court rulings favorable to the Catholic church and ordered the diocese to hand over its records.

The diocese settled out of court, and thus did not have to comply.

Monsignor Theroux said on Friday that the diocese's records would probably show that, in some cases, the diocese knew about an abusive priest, sent the priest for evaluation, and was then told by the therapist that the priest was safe to return to ministry.

"It was a bad decision," he said, "to put the person back in ministry."

One glaring example, cited in court documents, of continued chances:

The director of the women's club at St. St. Matthew Church, in Cranston, a parishioner from St. Joseph Church, in Burrillville, and a Navy chaplain from St. Lucy Church, in Middletown, each said in affidavits that they had warned Bishop Louis E. Gelineau about James Silva in the 1970s.

The chaplain recalled Bishop Gelineau's response to his report that Silva had tried to molest a youngster: "Oh, no -- not again."

The diocese transferred Silva 12 times in 15 years.

"He was sent for therapy," Monsignor Theroux said.

DeLuca said of the argument that the diocese had relied on therapists' evaluations: "That's the Cardinal Law excuse," in reference to the former archbishop of Boston.

He asserts that the diocese would ask unqualified people whether a priest should return to ministry.

The lawyer says he still believes the diocese's personnel files would show that the church had covered up abuse, to protect the diocese. But, he said: "I judge the church more by what they're doing now than [by] what they did 30 years ago."

DeLuca pointed out that, on Friday, the diocese met with a Cranston man who on Tuesday pleaded guilty to making a slew of crank calls to the diocese and to local Catholic churches.

The offender, Christopher O'Connor, says he was molested by a priest as a boy, DeLuca said, and "is very embarrassed about his actions."

After meeting with the diocese, DeLuca said: "He was blown away. He couldn't believe how much they were offering to do for him."


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