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Do church abuse revelations signal a new transparency?

December 19, 2018

Gail Howard has had it with the Catholic Church.

Howard is co-leader of the Connecticut chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support and advocacy group. She said was unmoved by the recent news that the Archdiocese of Hartford is joining other Catholic organizations that will release a list of member clergy who have been “credibly accused” of abuse.

The Bridgeport Diocese released something similar in October, and dioceses and archdioceses across the country are publishing lists of their own. Experts tie this apparent explosion of transparency to the August release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report that revealed the names of more than 300 priests accused of child abuse in that state.

Howard admits these are positive steps for the church, but said they are insufficient and too late, particularly for those whose lives have been irreversibly damaged by abuse.

“I’m just done with the Catholic church,” she said.

Others are more accepting of the church’s recent gestures.

“I think this does indicate that the Archdiocese (of Hartford) has a real commitment to transparency,” said Michael W. Higgins, a distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University. “I think this is the right thing to do, and I think they’re doing it for the right reasons.”

A scandal explodes

For decades, the Catholic Church — both in Connecticut and nationwide — has come under fire for hiding abuse, largely by moving those accused from parish to parish. But the Pennsylvania grand jury report set off a chain reaction of revelations intended, at least from the church’s standpoint, to show accountability.

Dioceses and archdioceses in many states have unveiled lists of credibly accused clergy, and other actions have been taken, including the removal of Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, as a cardinal after an assault allegation against him was found to be credible.

Higgins said removing a cardinal is “an extremely rare occurrence.”

The Connecticut Catholic community got on board in October, when the Diocese of Bridgeport released a report showing that the diocese had paid $52.5 million to settle abuse claims since 1953. The diocese also published a list on its website of 26 of its priests credibly accused of sexual abuse.

Then last weekend, Hartford Archbishop Leonard P. Blair announced the decision to release the names of the credibly accused. The archdiocese also said it would contract for “a further independent review of all our clergy files to identify any additional names from the present, going back to (its founding) 1953.” The organization also announced plans to publish the amount of money paid out as a result of the abuse, and the source of those funds.

The state’s Catholic leadership has also had a shakeup. Michael C. Culhane has stepped down as executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference — the public policy office of the church in the state — and former state Republican party leader Christopher Healy has taken the job.

Healy’s background includes helping to run Connecticut campaigns for former GOP presidential candidates Bob Dole and John McCain. Healy also ran the congressional campaign of Lisa Wilson-Foley, who eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to hide payments to disgraced former Gov. John Rowland, who acted as her secret consultant.

But not all Catholic dioceses in the state have committed to this attempt at transparency. On Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that the Diocese of Norwich said “it has no information on whether or not it will release the names of priests accused of abuse.”

Not enough

Higgins cheered the church’s recent decisions. He said it’s hard to know what the outcome of these revelations will be, but that “there will be political consequences; there will be moral consequences and there will be legal consequences.”

Others aren’t so sure, including Cindy Robinson, a partner in the Bridgeport law firm Tremont, Sheldon, Robinson and Mahoney, which was part of the 2005 global mediation before U.S. Magistrate Judge William I. Garfinkel that involved 43 people making accusations against 14 priests within the Archdiocese of Hartford.

Robinson said that while the review planned by the archdiocese sounds good on paper, it will only be effective if “it is truly independent, and that will, in large part, depend on whether the reviewer has total access to all records, files and secret archives.”

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Hartford Archdiocese said it had “no further updates” beyond Blair’s statement.

Howard said what she would like to see is stronger investigation by state legal authorities.

“We need truth,” she said. “We need all the truth and we need it come from people responsible for investigating crime in Connecticut.”

However, when reached for comment, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane said his office was “not aware of having received any complaints at this time that have not been sufficiently investigated.”

“Any further information received would be reviewed and acted on as appropriate as governed by the applicable statute of limitations and other criminal laws,” Kane said.

In Connecticut, the criminal statute of limitations for felony sex crimes is five years, with the exception of class A felonies, such as sex crimes against minors, or crimes with DNA evidence. The civil statute of limitations is 30 years past reaching the age of majority, meaning that in most cases, someone who was abused as a child has until his or her 48th birthday to make a claim.

Both Howard and Robinson said it can take victims decades to come forward, and these limits mean that even when they do, they might not receive any justice.

“Those people (accusing the clergy) can take most of their lives to believe it wasn’t their fault,” Howard said.

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