Wednesday, May 29, 2002

33 priests accused of sex abuse

By GREGORY D. KESICH, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Thirty-three living priests who served in Maine's Roman Catholic Diocese have been accused of molesting children, prosecutors said Tuesday, a number that a church spokeswoman called "humiliating."

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who is leading the investigation of sexual abuse in the church, said personnel records show that none of the priests is now active. The records, handed over by the diocese, provided information about priests who have been forced out of the ministry, others who have retired, and still others who have left the priesthood for personal reasons.

The list offers the most complete picture to date of the size of the sexual-abuse crisis in the church in Maine, especially when combined with allegations made against men who are now dead or made by victims who cannot remember their abusers.

The numbers were confirmed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

"Yes, it is a large number," said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese. "We wish it was zero. This is tough information to swallow. This is a difficult day. It is humiliating."

Since January, three of Maine's parish priests have been removed from the active ministry following credible allegations that they had sex with minors. But before Tuesday, there had been no information quantifying the allegations against priests who no longer serve in parishes.

According to prosecutors:

Allegations have been made against 51 priests who no longer are active, including 18 who are dead.

Of the 33 living but inactive priests, 25 were part of the Diocese of Portland and under the supervision of Bishop Joseph Gerry and his predecessors. Eight were members of religious orders, such as the Jesuits or Christian Brothers.

There are 209 retired, inactive or former priests from the diocese. That means nearly one in eight has been accused of sexual misconduct with children.

The investigators completed their review of the files late Tuesday afternoon. The next step will be putting the information together and distributing it among the state's eight district attorneys, including Anderson, who will decide whether to file criminal charges. That process is expected to take a few weeks.

Anderson said the data provided by the church closely match reports that alleged victims have made directly to her office. After reviewing the files, she said there were few surprises. "There are no smoking guns there," she said.

Deciding whether to prosecute will be complicated, Anderson said, in part because most of the alleged conduct happened in the 1970s, outside the statute of limitations. Even after reviewing all of the information that has come to light so far, Anderson said she is not sure whether she will be able to bring a case in her jurisdiction.

A complicating factor is that priests typically serve a number of parishes in their careers, so a priest may face charges in more than one county

Investigators from the state Attorney General's Office will help prosecutors continue to gather information after the cases are referred, Anderson said.

Some Catholics around the state accepted the information with sadness, others with anger.

Patricia Shannon, a parishioner at St. Mary's Church in Bath, was struck by the number of complaints. But she pointed out that they are only allegations at this point, and may not be true.

"This brings people out of the woodwork to make some fast money," Shannon said.

Shannon voiced concern that the sexual-abuse scandal has obscured the good work done by so many Catholic priests, including the Rev. Richard Rice at St. Mary's, whom she called "one of the shining lights."

Edward Sargent, a parishioner of St. Joseph's in Ellsworth - the former parish of the Rev. Leo Michaud, who was removed from the ministry last month after an old allegation of sexual abuse surfaced - believes that the complaints cannot be ignored, as they apparently were by the diocese for many years.

"My thinking, personally, is that way back in the beginning, if someone was accused of a crime, and these are crimes, that should have been turned over to the proper authorities and dealt with," Sargent said. "It makes no difference that these are priests. A crime's a crime."

A leading critic of the Maine church called the numbers "extraordinary." Paul Kendrick, who has worked to organize a Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a national organization that calls for structural changes in the governance of the church, said he was saddened to learn the size of the problem here.

"The first thing I think of is how many victims are out there who have not come forward and who have been abused by these people. And also the number of families who have been damaged by this," he said.

The church hierarchy also bears some of the blame, Kendrick said. Because victims were often compelled to sign confidentiality agreements before the church would settle claims, the problem was kept a secret and allowed to grow, he said.

The Maine Chapter of Voice of the Faithful will hold its first meeting at 7 tonight at Portland's Riverton Elementary School. The group's goals are to support victims of abuse and to demand more of a role for lay people in running the church.

"I think it is the revulsion about this kind of secrecy that is calling the Catholic laity into action . . . and never let this happen again," Kendrick said. " We need accountability."

People who say they were abused by priests renewed their call for the church to release the names of all clergy members who have been accused of crimes, so that people can protect themselves and their children.

Anderson and Attorney General Steven Rowe said Maine law may prevent them from releasing the name of anyone who is not the subject of a criminal prosecution, but the church is under no such restriction.

In February, Bishop John McCormack, the leader of New Hampshire's Catholics, publicly released the names of all of that state's inactive priests who had been accused of sexually abusing children. Other bishops have taken similar steps.

"Isn't it scary that 33 pedophiles are living somewhere and people have no idea of who they are?" said Cynthia Desrosiers, the Maine coordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "If the church wanted to do the right thing, they would instantly release those names, so people could protect their children."

But Bernard said that is not going to happen. Releasing the documents to the prosecutors gives them all the information they need to protect the public, Bernard said. Because none of the charges has been proven, she said, the church must be fair to priests who could be innocent.

"From the beginning, we have been interested in two things," Bernard said. "We have been interested in making sure that children are safe and we have been interested in due process (for the priests). To put someone's name out in the public, possibly someone who is dead and can't defend himself, that's not due process."

Jeanne Palais Stephens, a parishioner of St. Patrick's in Portland and past president of the Maine Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, said she feels that the church is moving in the right direction.

"I'm just sorry it has taken all this sadness and grief for the church to take these steps," she said. "I'm very glad that the victims have come forward. I also agree with the course of action the bishop has taken."

Stephens thinks there is much more that needs to be done before church leaders can put an end to the crisis caused by a minority of priests who abused their authority, and the bishops who kept their abuse secret.

"I still think there has to be a show of great compassion for the victims," she said. "I'm sitting and waiting to see what more is done. I believe that the Catholic Church is a compassionate institution."

Staff Writer Mark Shanahan contributed to this story.

Staff Writer Gregory D. Kesich can be contacted at 791-6336 or at:

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