Saturday, June 22, 2002

Abuse claims distributed to prosecutors

By DAVID HENCH, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

The investigation into molestation complaints against Roman Catholic priests will move forward under the direction of district attorneys in all eight of Maine's prosecutorial districts.

The state Attorney General's Office and other investigators said Friday that they have completed their review of church records and distributed case files to local prosecutors, who will decide whether to bring charges.

Prosecutors in each district where the alleged offenses occurred will determine whether further investigation is warranted and whether there are any cases that can be brought to trial. Crimes have been alleged in all eight districts, though the statute of limitations could prevent charges from being brought.

Staff with the Attorney General's Office and Cumberland County District Attorney's Office pored over church personnel records after the public disclosure earlier this year that church leaders across the country reassigned priests accused of sexual misconduct and did not forward the accusations to authorities.

The scandal first erupted in Boston when it was learned that one priest was accused of molesting as many as 100 children. Since then, hundreds of past sexual misconduct cases have surfaced, victims have come forward to describe the abuse and the church has been called to account for its behavior.

The process of reconciliation in Maine led to a "listening session" on Thursday, where Bishop Joseph Gerry, leader of the church's Portland Diocese, met with alleged victims of abuse by priests. On Friday, Gerry described the session through a spokeswoman as painful and intense.

"He said it was difficult," said Sue Bernard. "He tried to listen quietly without trying to clarify. This was a listening session and he was there to offer his care and support."

The 10 alleged abuse victims who attended the two-hour meeting had mixed reactions. Some were pleased with the bishop's response, and others were disappointed that he did not make a more pointed apology for specific actions taken by priests and by the diocese.

"While the bishop is willing to say 'I'm so sorry for your pain, what you went through, the court case that was really invasive to you and painful,' the one thing he can't say is 'I'm sorry for the sex abuse' " in a specific case when the facts of the case have yet to be determined, Bernard said.

The diocese has not decided whether to hold more listening sessions, or whether the bishop will hold individual meetings with abuse victims.

"There's no question that the outreach to victims is going to continue in one manner or another," Bernard said. "Certainly the bishop is committed to talking to any victim and meeting with any victim who is out there, whether in a group setting or individual settings."

The diocese no longer allows priests accused of abuse to continue parish work and has opened its files to investigators looking into past allegations. The diocese will continue to cooperate with the eight district attorneys in Maine as they conduct their evaluations of the allegations in the files, Bernard said.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, who on Friday announced the dissemination of church cases to individual prosecutors, said investigators with the Attorney General's Office will be available to help coordinate further investigations by the district attorneys.

The case files presented to the district attorneys include copies of church documents, as well as information gleaned from recent interviews.

The abuse allegations involve 33 priests, none of whom are now active. The information also includes 18 priests who are dead. That information also is being made available to the appropriate prosecutors in case it may prove pertinent to a prosecutable case, Robbin said.

In February, Bishop Gerry announced that two priests in active ministry in Aroostook County had received treatment after admitting to sexually abusing young parishioners. They were subsequently removed from their duties.

A third priest was later removed from his parish in Ellsworth after another alleged victim stepped forward.

The diocese initially said it had no plans to release the names of priests accused of abuse if they were no longer active in their ministries. After Stephanie Anderson, Cumberland County district attorney, criticized that approach, the diocese offered her access to all church records involving abuse allegations.

The Attorney General's Office joined the inquiry primarily because it could supply investigators to help review church records and interview alleged victims.

On March 10, the church handed over its first file of information, a 50-page report summarizing sex abuse claims going back 75 years. The attorney general's investigators completed their review of files in the diocese on May 28.

Robbin would not characterize the strength or timeliness of specific cases. However, Anderson has said most of the alleged conduct happened in the 1970s, and she was unsure whether she would be able to bring a case in her county.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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