As U.S. dioceses release lists of credibly accused, the question remains: Is it enough?
At least 111 Catholic dioceses and 11 religious institutes in the United States have released lists of clergy, religious and lay employees who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors and adults.
Many of those entities have published their lists since a grand jury convened by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office released an explosive report last August that detailed the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 minors by 301 priests over a 70-year period in the six Pennsylvania dioceses investigated.
In recent weeks, dozens of names of accused priests have been posted online by dioceses in Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Georgia and California, among others. Several other bishops across the country have said they plan to release their own lists soon.
In total, more than 2,500 diocesan and religious order priests have now been identified as having credible sex abuse allegations made against them, according to Terence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, a website that tracks clergy sex abuse cases in the United States.
Addressing history first
“I think it’s clear to the bishops by now that it’s not enough to be improving current procedures. There is all this history that has to be dealt with, and they see that if they don’t get those names out there, it’s going to come back to haunt them,” McKiernan said.
McKiernan told Our Sunday Visitor that it also appears that some bishops are releasing the names of credibly accused priests in response to the attorneys general in their states who have convened their own grand juries and investigations since the Pennsylvania grand jury report. More than a dozen states are now investigating clergy sex abuse in their Catholic dioceses.
“If releasing the names can affect the investigations, soften them or discourage them, then I think the bishops, for the most part, would be happy about that,” McKiernan said.
In prepared statements released in conjunction with their lists, several bishops have said they wanted to acknowledge the pain and suffering of clergy sex abuse victims, encourage other potential victims to come forward and notify the public in case any of the credibly accused priests were still alive and living in the community.
“There are sex offender registries out there. They’re there to warn you so that you don’t hire them as a babysitter and you’re aware that the person has a crime against children in their past,” said Erin Neil, the director of the Safe Environment program in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Neil told OSV that the Bridgeport diocese posted its list of credibly accused priests in 2014 as an outreach to victims and as a public safety measure, as many of the allegations were made years after Connecticut’s statute of limitations expired, meaning that those priests were never convicted and listed on sex-offender registries.
“So if somebody were to Google-search a name, they would at least be able to identify that this person has been credibly accused of a sex crime or a crime against a child,” Neil said.
Making of a review board
Deacon Jim Winder, the vice chancellor of the Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told OSV that his diocese released its list last year in response to the state attorney general’s decision last fall to issue subpoenas for personnel files from the Catholic dioceses in New Mexico.
“It was the right thing to do. We knew we needed to do something about it,” Deacon Winder said. “But it took an impetus to get it done.”
Last November, the Diocese of Las Cruces released a list of 28 former clergy members who had been credibly accused of sex abuse. The priests who were still alive had all been taken out of active ministry. Some of them had been removed from the clerical state, or laicized.
Deacon Winder said the diocese since has added another 14 names to the list as officials reviewed the files of accused priests from other dioceses who came into Las Cruces for short periods of time several decades ago.
“We did a complete file review,” Deacon Winder said.
Catholic dioceses in the United States rely on sex-abuse review boards to determine which allegations are credible. Diocesan officials said the boards make their determinations after being given the available evidence, and that the bishops overwhelmingly approve their recommendations.
The review boards are advisory, so a bishop is free to disagree with or ignore them. Church officials said the boards are comprised mostly of laypeople with relevant backgrounds in psychology, social work and law enforcement.
“They are members of the community. Some of them are Catholics, some are not,” Neil said. “The majority of the board must always be people who are not employees of the diocese.”
“I think we have a pretty independent-minded review board,” Deacon Winder said. “They will certainly speak out, and our bishop has been very open to hearing them.”
Steps toward transparency
However, advocates for clergy sex abuse survivors and attorneys who represent victims are skeptical that the Catholic Church in the United States, based on its track record over several decades, can really police itself.
“Is it good that these names are starting to come out? Yes, absolutely. But can we rely on these as being truthful and accurate, being that they come from the very institution that orchestrated the cover-up? Of course not,” Mike Reck, an attorney with Jeff Anderson & Associates, a Minnesota law firm that has represented scores of clergy sex abuse survivors, told OSV.
According to local media reports across the country, there have been many recent complaints from survivors that their abusers were not named on the lists of credibly accused priests. In some cases, dioceses have had to amend their lists. The most notable recent example is Buffalo, where last year a former diocesan employee leaked documents indicating that the diocese had knowingly omitted dozens of names from its list.
“Dioceses cannot self-police. History has taught us that, yet the dioceses are making decisions as to whose name belongs on the lists,” Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented hundreds of clergy sex abuse victims, told OSV.
The lists also vary in terms of what information the dioceses include.
Some lists will only have a priest’s name and current status, while others may include his date of birth, the year he was ordained, history of parish assignments and the nature of the allegation made against him.
“That’s why, while we support Church officials releasing these lists on their own, we always prefer independent investigations by law enforcement in order to see full transparency and truth revealed,” said Zach Hiner, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
While adding that she would like to see independent agencies have access to diocesan records of sex abuse cases, Patricia Gomez, a trustee of Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group formed in the aftermath of the 2002 sex abuse crisis, told OSV that the fact that more dioceses are releasing lists is “a great step toward transparency, with caveats of course.”
Said Gomez: “I think it goes a long way in moving us lay folks away from this sense of mistrust that we have in how bishops and Church personnel have been handling this. It is an indication to me, at least, that they’re showing a willingness to be more transparent and open.”
Brian Fraga is an OSV contributing editor.