Two diocesan priests accused of sexually abusing minors decades ago have been removed from public ministry over the past few months after the allegations against them were deemed credible.
But how does the Diocese of Rochester go about making such determinations?
That question is especially timely as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia responds to charges that a number of priests continued serving there even after credible allegations of child sexual abuse were brought against them. The controversy has focused greater scrutiny on how diocesan officials and review boards evaluate allegations of abuse.
In the Diocese of Rochester, abuse allegations initially are routed to Barbara Pedeville, the diocesan victims-assistance coordinator. She meets with complainants to hear their allegations and learn when and where the abuse allegedly took place. She encourages complainants to contact the civil authorities, lets them know that Bishop Matthew H. Clark is willing to meet with them, and urges them to contact her with any questions or concerns.
"I keep the dialogue and conversation open with them," she said.
Pedeville said she asks how the church can assist with healing, such as by making a referral to a therapist. She also advises complainants that a private investigator hired by the diocese will be calling to obtain a formal statement of the allegations. After that, Pedeville turns the information she has gathered over to Father Daniel Condon, diocesan chancellor.
Father Condon said he supplies the information provided by the complainant to law enforcement, which assumes primary responsibility for investigating current allegations. Yet most of the cases reported to the diocese are so old that they are past the criminal and civil statutes of limitations under which law enforcement will investigate and under which victims can file civil suits.
It is common for victims to take many years to speak up about abuse, according to a local child advocate and attorney.
"People have to get the courage to come forward," explained Margaret Joynt, a retired attorney who has worked as a law guardian in Family Court and Supreme Court.
Joynt is one of the members of the diocesan Review Board, which was established in 1993 to advise Bishop Clark on allegations of abuse. She and several other current members joined the Review Board in 2002 when it was expanded and additionally charged with overseeing abuse investigations.
Prior to 2002, each U.S. diocese set its own policies and procedures for dealing with allegations of abuse. But in 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which among other provisions requires each U.S. diocese to establish a review board to advise the bishop in his assessment of the credibility of allegations of sexual abuse of minors and to aid in his determination of an accused cleric’s suitability for continued ministry. The boards also may review diocesan policies and procedures for dealing with the sexual abuse of minors.
The Review Board for the Diocese of Rochester meets about every two months to assess complaints. It consists of: Joynt, retired Gates Police Chief Tom Roche, therapist Jeff Munson, Dr. John McIntyre, attorney Robert A. Napier, Ogden Police Chief Douglas Nordquist, Father Alexander Bradshaw and Father Condon. Former Monroe County Sheriff Andrew P. Meloni, former Assistant District Attorney A. J. Burke, former FBI agent Bill Dillon, and counselors Elaine Yudashkin and Timothy Sheehan previously have served on the board.
Pedeville and attorney Philip G. Spellane serve as staff to the board.
The board reviews reports from a retired state police investigator, who is hired by the diocese to investigate. The investigator takes signed statements from the complainants and seeks out other people to corroborate details. Although eye witnesses may be lacking in older cases, Roche said investigators can compare statements with known facts, including dates and locations to uncover any inconsistencies.
"Rarely ever is it a he said/she said," Roche said. "In every investigation, there are facts that can be verified."
The diocese also reaches out to the accused to compile facts in the person’s defense.
"A priest or deacon who is accused of sexual abuse of a minor is to be accorded the presumption of innocence during the investigation of the allegation and all appropriate steps are to be taken to protect his reputation," states the U.S. bishop’s charter. "He is to be encouraged to retain the assistance of civil and canonical counsel. If the allegation is not proven, every step possible is to be taken to restore his good name, should it be harmed."
A cleric accused of abuse may choose to meet with Bishop Clark or to have an advocate discuss the allegations and present his side of the story, Joynt said. The accused also may choose to remain silent about the allegations.
Despite these steps, Joynt said she often has heard people say they believe the process isn’t fair to the accused.
"Oftentimes the priest (or other accused person) has been very good at what he does and very kind to people, so it’s hard for people to believe that this happened," she said. "I am there not only as an advocate for the children, but to see that justice is given for the accused, too."
To implement the charter’s call for dioceses to maintain openness and transparency in public communications related to sexual abuse, it is diocesan policy to make a public announcement if the Review Board determines an allegation to be credible.
"If there’s a victim, there’s a potential of other victims," Father Condon said. "We might get other complaints against the same person (following such an announcement), and you’d investigate those with the thoroughness that you investigated the first."
The chancellor noted that most of the complaints the diocese receives these days are against people who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse in the past and already have been removed from active ministry.
The church penalty for proven or acknowledged allegations ranges from, at minimum, the loss of the ability to exercise public ministry all the way to involuntary laicization, the process by which a priest is returned to the lay state. Maximum penalties are handed down by the diocese in conjunction with the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has jurisdiction over such serious violations of church law as sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric, violation of the seal of the confessional, absolution of an accomplice or desecration of the Eucharist, Father Condon said.
In most cases in which allegations have been found credible, the clergy have been removed from public ministry and live lives of prayer and penance, Father Condon said. He added that the diocese allows such priests to keep their pensions.
"They were not highly compensated, and if you take away their pension and make them penniless, they end up a burden to the state," he said.
Since the height of the national abuse scandal in 2002, the diocese has removed 25 priests from public ministry, according to Doug Mandelaro, diocesan director of communications.
"The big complaint we hear is that this happened so long ago, why did this person come forward now?" Father Condon said. "We do have values of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and wholeness. (But these values are) not just for the one who offended, but … also for the one who has been harmed."
Roche, meanwhile, noted that even if an incident of abuse is isolated, it shouldn’t be dismissed.
"If it was your son or daughter, what would you want done?" he asked rhetorically.
Statements from abuse victims provide the Review Board with moving testimony of how the alleged abuse has affected their lives, noted Father Bradshaw, the priest representative on the review Board, who also has worked as an attorney. He said reading the testimony is both difficult and disturbing.
"I feel saddened, and deeply shocked and very dismayed, and I have great compassion for the victims and what they’ve endured and the pain that it continues to cause," Father Bradshaw said.
Pedeville noted that abuse victims often say they are coming forward to prevent abuse from happening to others. That’s also the goal of the diocese’s Safe Environment and Safe and Sacred education programs for employees and volunteers, which train people to recognize and report abuse. Some people who have taken the diocesan programs have subsequently contacted authorities about suspected abuse in homes and other settings, Pedeville said.
Openness about abuse is the goal, Joynt noted.
"The best way to prevent everything is that our parents feel very free to talk to their children about (sexual abuse), and children feel free to talk to their parents about it, which was unheard of 20 years ago," she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Victims of abuse always are encouraged to report to the civil authorities. To report a case of possible sexual abuse and to receive help and guidance from the Diocese of Rochester, victims are encouraged to contact Barbara Pedeville, the diocesan victims-assistance coordinator, at 585-328-3228, ext. 1215 (toll free 1-800-388- 7177, ext. 1215), or by e-mail to email@example.com.