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Dioceses, Facing Great Scrutiny, Look Anew at Sex Abuse Cases

by Dean E. Murphy and Daniel J. Wakin in the New York Times

Five major Roman Catholic dioceses in the New York metropolitan area, responding to growing attention nationwide to cases of pedophilia, have begun reassessing their approaches to sexual abuse charges.

The self-evaluations have already led to a variety of changes, some symbolic and some substantive. However, they stop short of the more aggressive steps taken in other dioceses, where disclosures about sex abuse cases have resulted in bishops handing over priests’ names to prosecutors or even making them public.

One diocese recently posted its policy on sexual abuse on the Internet and required its clergymen to pledge anew to abide by it. Another diocese issued a public appeal to victims of child sexual abuse to come forward and identify the perpetrators. Two dioceses have decided to reach outside church circles and form advisory boards on how to deal with sexual misconduct.

The Archdiocese of New York meanwhile, has decided for the first time to report new incidents of child sexual abuse directly to law enforcement authorities, if the victims of the abuse concur. There is no requirement to do so under New York State law, and diocesan officials said the new policy on reporting did not apply to old cases.

In Connecticut, the Diocese of Bridgeport is conducting an exhaustive review of personnel files of clergymen back to the founding of the dioceses 49 years ago, including the 285 priests now working there. Diocesan officials want to find out if there are any past allegations that have gone unheeded, and whether the priests involved may not have been adequately disciplined or treated.

The stepped-up activities among Catholic dioceses in the New York area come as bishops across the country face growing pressure to reassure their parishioners and shed light on their child sexual abuse policies, which vary in content, openness and willingness to turn over information to law enforcement agencies. Church officials in some other cities have been publicly disclosing the numbers of priests accused of abuse in the past and suspending them.

The moves to toughen some policies and loudly proclaim existing ones follow disclosures in court documents in Boston that a priest known to be sexually abusive had been reassigned to new pastoral duties, where he abused children again. The Boston priest, John Geoghan, has since been defrocked and was convicted of molestation.

On Long Island, the Diocese of Rockville Centre just completed a review of the files of more than 300 clergy members. Bishop William Murphy said yesterday that he would not release the names of the priests, or the number, who have had allegations made against them, although he said he was convinced no priest currently working in the dioceses had been credibly accused of abuse.

But when asked whether the diocese would report future incidents to law enforcement officials, the bishop said, “I will look at every one, and I commit myself to act appropriately.” This appears to be a departure from the past policy of encouraging only victims to report the abuse.

In New Jersey, the Archdiocese of Newark is reviewing its policy on sexual abuse that was originally adopted by the five dioceses in the state in 1985. In the meantime, the archdiocese is checking files of priests known to have been accused of child abuse to determine if the cases were properly handled. Officials would not say how many priests were involved. Under New Jersey law, church officials are obligated to inform law enforcement of reports of sexual abuse of a minor.

At the Diocese of Brooklyn, officials are contemplating a review of files similar to those in Bridgeport and Rockville Centre, there has been no formal decision. “The fact that something has not been issued at this point doesn’t mean here’s unawareness of the situation or that attention is not being paid to it.,” said a spokesman, Frank DeRosa.

Officials in Newark, Bridgeport and Rockville Centre said that they had no reason to suspect their reviews would uncover past cases that had been mishandled, but that they were undertaking the reviews as a precaution. Over the years, locally and across the country, there have been numerous civil court settlements reached between the church and victims of abuse by clergymen.

“We are not doing this expecting to find someone,” Joseph McAleer, a spokesman for the Diocese of Bridgeport said. “It is being done because we are conscientious and thorough and we have a new bishop committed to reviewing everything in which he is now in charge of .... “

At the Archdiocese of New York, a general review of files, partly with an eye to sexual abuse cases, was performed several years ago, a spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, said. He said he did not think a new review was planned because all recent known cases of abuse had been recently visited. But he said he did not know how many priests were involved in such cases in recent decades, and he made clear their names would not be turned over to law enforcement officials.

In making his announcement yesterday in Long Island, Bishop Murphy issued the broadest public settlement about the issue of child sexual abuse among the New York area bishops. Later in the day, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport also issued a comprehensive statement, which was posted on the diocese’s Web site along with its sexual misconduct policy.

“At this point, I can say that, to the best of my knowledge, there are no priests or deacons of the Diocese of Bridgeport in active ministry who pose any threat of committing sexual misconduct with a minor,” Bishop Lori said. Connecticut law also requires church officials to report allegations of sexual abuse of a minor to the authorities.

Bishop Murphy’s remarks were published yesterday on the front page of the diocesan newspaper, The Long Island Catholic. He said he wanted to clarify the diocese’s actions “for the good of all” and said the diocese’s policy on child sex abuse was now under review by an outside group of experts. He also appealed to victims of abuse to contact his office.

Bishop Murphy and Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn were named as defendants in lawsuits brought by people in Boston who say there were abused by Mr. Geoghan. Both bishops had been auxiliary bishops in the Diocese of Boston.

“Insofar as the documentation in our files is complete, I can attest that there is now no one serving in pastoral ministry in this diocese against whom a substantial and credible allegation of sexual misconduct involving a minor has been made,” Bishop Murphy said. He said the diocese would share information about its former priests with other dioceses.

But the bishop, reflecting a reticence shared by neighboring dioceses, said he would not release the names of accused priests or the number of them. He said doing so would not help protect children and could harm the church’s reputation.

“I do not wish to allow the media to turn the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors into a forum to call the life of the church and the church’s teachings into question as they have done in other places,” he said.