Originally published in The Long Island Catholic February 12, 2003
Having received the report of the Suffolk County Grand Jury this week, I wish to write to everyone in this Church of Rockville Centre to give you an update on the persons and the issues surrounding the terrible scandal of the sexual abuse of minors by priests. You have a right to know and I have a responsibility to report to you how our diocese has been handling these tragic events.
Shortly after I came here, I reviewed the outstanding cases that were known to diocesan officials at the time of my arrival. One of those priests was in jail. A second was awaiting sentencing. Two others were in “limited ministry” which meant that they were under supervision and, in that circumstance, were allowed to perform certain pastoral work so long as that did not involve minors. After reading their files, I met personally with each of those two priests, discussed his situation and made a decision, which I communicated to each one at the time, that if he could not work with minors, he could not be involved in any regular pastoral ministry. That remains the case today.
When the scandal in Boston erupted in the media in January 2002, I took counsel with my advisors and instituted a review of all the files of the priests of the diocese. Any file in which there was an accusation of abuse of a minor, I read personally. Each such priest was called in, interviewed and, if there was any credibility to the story or if the priest admitted it, he too was removed from any pastoral ministry. The media, about whom there can be various opinions, actually was a help in at least one case in which the diocese had no information until the media reported allegations which, once verified, were immediately acted upon.
At that point it became clear to me that our diocesan procedures, which worked well for 10 years, needed some revision. After consultation I made those revisions which were announced at a press conference held at Telecare on April 24. These included a new Pastoral Intervention Team of a priest, a sister social worker therapist and the former Nassau County Police Commissioner. These three as a team handle the allegations, responding to the victim, dealing with the priest, seeing to it that the legal authorities are promptly informed. They prepare the material that will go as well to the new Review Board, which is composed of 10 persons, Catholic and non-Catholic, psychologists, social workers, law enforcement authorities, parents and a priest. They review every situation and advise me before I make any disposition about the future of a priest. Finally I institutionalized the change I made earlier that a priest who cannot work with minors cannot work in pastoral ministry.
Much has been said about mandatory reporting. The state legislature failed to pass a bill mandating clergy as reporters to legal authorities about information they might have. I am told that bill was blocked in Albany because of Planned Parenthood’s fear that it might somehow affect their abortion services for teenagers. Regardless of whether or not there is a law and long before Albany discussed a bill, I voluntarily announced that this Diocese would report all cases to the legal authorities. We have and we will.
All these changes were made long before the Bishops’ Meeting in Dallas last June. At that meeting we bishops committed ourselves to the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and passed a set of “Norms” of particular laws which were sent to the Holy See for approval. These Norms have been revised and the revised Norms were passed by the Bishops at our meeting last November. In December we received the approval of the Holy See which made these Norms law for the Church in the United States. The Diocese of Rockville Centre has reported to the Bishops’ Office for Protection of Children and Minors that we are fully in conformity with both the Charter and with the Norms.
This does not mean that our work in this area is done. Far from it. As Church leaders, we carry a tremendous burden of shared guilt and remorse over what has happened. While I believe my colleagues and I have acted properly in every case we have handled in this Diocese since September 2001, the Church’s failure to deal with this properly in the past will remain with us a long time. It has had a deep effect on our relationships with our brother priests, the lay faithful and the wider community. I can only repeat what I have tried to say throughout the last year that I am deeply sorry for this failure, I ask forgiveness from every person affected by this horrific scandal and I pledge to do all I can to deal openly, honestly and responsibly in all these matters for the good of children and young people, the good of our faithful and exemplary priests and for the good of all the people of God here on Long Island.
Let me share with you what this includes. First every victim receives and will continue to receive whatever therapy is needed for his or her good. Second the priests are given whatever therapy would seem indicated. However, I will not re-admit such priests to pastoral ministry; I cannot and will not take that risk because we are dealing with our most precious asset, our children.
The procedures, including psychological testing, that we employ at the seminary prior to admittance have been reviewed and the Rector has seen to it that we use every known instrument to determine any proclivity to such behavior. Such persons are not admitted to the seminary. Every seminarian, after admittance, goes through at least five years of preparation during which they are under very close professional assessment and evaluation prior to ordination.
We priests ourselves have all participated in “boundaries workshops” conducted by a nationally known professional who helped us examine our own behavior patterns and discussed with us how we can continue to be committed effective priests without infringing on the boundaries of others. We have adopted a professional Code of Conduct and everyone who works for the Church or who volunteers in our Church will be asked to adhere to it. Our schools have long had safe environment programs. I have asked that we expand these programs to our parishes and agencies.
All this is still a work in progress. We are learning through experience and we are seeking to improve as we move forward. For example, the Diocese never had a clear plan of how to reach out to parishes who are affected by this tragic wrong. Often priests and parishioners have felt abandoned by me and by the diocese. I regret that and apologize for it. For the future we will have in place a system of informing the parish appropriately, of having the Vicar visit the parish to work with the parish staff and explain to parishioners what has happened. With him will be counselors as needed.
While our efforts are aimed primarily at responding to the victims and seeing to it that our youngsters are not at risk, I know you share with me and my brother priests a concern for the proper handling of those priests who have been removed from pastoral ministry. They, like everyone, will always be treated with the dignity to which every human being is entitled. Whatever may be the judicial process they may face in civil court, they are apprised of their rights in church law and I will follow the process set up by the Church to see to it that, in removing them from ministry, they are accorded all their rights in Church law.
Church law calls on me to institute a church tribunal process. It also allows me by administrative decision to impose certain restrictions on guilty priests over a period of time. These are all spelled out in the Norms. With my colleagues, I have established what is needed to do that. I am actively working with brother bishops in other dioceses of New York and elsewhere to collaborate in this process in order to ensure fairness and equity to everyone involved.
What will happen to these priests? Those who have served this Diocese and are eligible for retirement have been retired. They do not serve in pastoral ministry. Their needs are covered by our Pension Plan. Some were eligible for disability. They too do not serve in pastoral ministry but their needs are covered by the Disability Plan.
There are several others who are either in the process of requesting removal from the obligation of clerical life (laicization) or are involved in a church judicial process. If any are found innocent, I will then make a decision with them about their future. If not, they will be urged to pursue laicization and the Diocese will help them transition into life as a lay person.
Many ask about costs and the source for moneys spent in these situations. Over 15 years ago, dioceses in the United States faced some extraordinary uninsured expenses. Principally this came from the necessity of removing asbestos from our public buildings. Bishop John McGann set up a fund to cover uninsured emergency situations, principally the asbestos problem but including expenses around the sexual abuse of minors by priests which then seemed a small and rare problem. The parishes were asked to contribute to that fund annually for eight years. They did and the fund was invested. That fund has proven to be more than adequate to cover the costs involved in these cases.
The Diocese informed the Grand Jury in Suffolk County that, over the past 12 years, the total amount of money drawn from that fund to cover therapy for victims, therapy for priests and settlements of cases prior to my coming here has amounted to $2.35 million dollars. Barring some unforeseen tragedy, that fund should be able to cover therapy and related costs into the foreseeable future.
In many places there have been discussions and misunderstanding about settlements. Settlements out of court are often the best way to help complainants because it responds to the victim’s need without subjecting the victim to undesired publicity. Because there has been so much misunderstanding of settlements, I informed the priests some months ago that I would not enter into settlements unless so instructed by the court and that I would never enter into any confidentiality agreement. While such agreements are routine in courts, they have been misinterpreted by some as “hush money” or worse. To avoid such misunderstanding, I am following the procedure just mentioned.
You all should know that the Diocese has cooperated fully with the Suffolk County Grand Jury process, providing them with thousands of pages of documents and urging all the priests and lay personnel of the Diocese who were called to the Grand Jury to cooperate fully with the authorities. If that report offers anything concrete to improve our procedures, I will make those changes that the report legitimately might demand.
While this has been lengthy I have wanted to give you as much information as I have so that you might be able to join with me in a continued commitment to our children and youth, knowing that we are being vigilant and seeking to be open, honest and responsible. The work is not over. There is much that remains to be done. We are, however, doing all that we know how to do in order to act rightly and thus reassure the people of the fundamental soundness of the Church on Long Island.
This Church is not perfect. This bishop is far from perfect. Yet we continue to attend to these issues conscious of the fact that we will learn as we go along but determined to do the best we can for the sake of us all, especially the children and young people. I welcome your suggestions on this and on any other issues of importance for our life as the Catholic Church on Long Island. I have invited Kathleen McChesney, the executive director of the USCCB Office for Child and Youth Protection to come to this diocese to review our procedures and share with me and you her findings.
These months have been difficult for all of us. The laity are understandably upset and angry. The priests of this diocese feel betrayed and many feel isolated and abandoned. Your anger and upset have been made more difficult by certain perceptions about me.
I came to you in September 2001 filled with such a desire to serve you. Yet my own character seems to some, perhaps many of you, at variance from what you have known after the quarter century of the pastoral style and leadership of Bishop John McGann, one of your own. I am sure that for some of you I seem an import from Boston which makes me suspect automatically. I have been accused directly and by innuendo of having been guilty of acting inappropriately in handling clergy sexual issues in Boston. Difficult as it is for me to have to defend myself, I must tell you that there is no evidence of that and, in fact, the opposite is the truth. Continued accusations and rumors to that effect are harming the life of this local Church.
In fact, since my arrival here I have tried to work tirelessly for the good of the Diocese. Yet my efforts to date have not removed opinions about my character. I know my many defects. Greed and sumptuous lifestyle are not among them. For that reason, I have spent much time over the past several months visiting with the priests in small groups, speaking honestly to them, listening to their concerns and doing my best to respond to them. I appreciate the trust and support they have given me and I have constantly and consistently invested the same kind of trust and support in them.
I seek to do the same with the religious and the lay faithful, all of whom have access to me through the normal channels of the Church. While I do not apologize for decisions I have made which were done solely for the good of the unity of the Church, I do apologize if these decisions seem to some to be arbitrary or have caused anger, upset or hurt. For that I am truly sorry and seek to do whatever I can, within my responsibilities as bishop, to correct and make amends.
As your bishop I want our years together to be years of fraternal communion and mutual respect and, one hopes, affection. The basis of this must be what the church has always proclaimed: faith in Jesus Christ, adherence to the teachings of the Church and, above all, a renewed Christian life of conversion, reconciliation and holiness.
I am deeply grateful to the priests who have been so open and honest with me. I will continue to try to be a better bishop and thus merit your support. All of us priests serve only with the great help of our colleagues and collaborators in the Church. I am asking especially the religious, women and men, to be equally open and honest with me so that we can find the ways to pray and live our life of service to the People of God.
Finally I am inviting you, the good People of this Diocese, to join me in embracing and supporting one another in mutual care and communion for the good of the Church and for the witness of the Church in this most blessed of God’s places, Long Island.