The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Accused priests pose dilemma for church and public

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 10/15/2002

Until Paul W. Hurley was indicted on two counts of child rape in August, few of his neighbors on Old Fields Road in Sandwich knew that he is a priest, much less a priest on health leave facing allegations of sex abuse.

Nor were police in the Cape Cod town aware of Hurley until Boston police told them he was under investigation for allegedly paying a teenager for sex in the 1980s.

But Hurley, at least, was subject to prosecution.

Scores of priests in the Boston Archdiocese, and hundreds more nationwide, have been quietly forced out of ministry by church officials who feared they might pose a threat to parish children. Yet most of them, their crimes too old to prosecute, now live anonymously and unsupervised in communities where, according to experts, they may be at risk of reoffending.

Without a conviction, those priests are entitled to a presumption of innocence. But their quiet presence in our midst raises two nettlesome questions: What is the church's obligation to monitor the behavior of these priests -- men still in its employ and still pledged to obey their superiors? And does the public have a right to know the identity and whereabouts of priests who have been banished from ministry but are unlikely ever to face criminal charges?

Last week, after prodding from state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, a commission appointed by Cardinal Bernard F. Law committed the Archdiocese of Boston to oversight of priests who have been taken out of service for molesting children.

The commission report offered no details of how the archdiocese would accomplish that. A spokesman for Law, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said last week that the archdiocese is committed to implementing the recommendation, but added that providing such oversight will be a major task.

As for publicly identifying offending priests who are now living in various communities, Coyne said archdiocesan officials have been actively discussing whether to take that step.

Meanwhile, disclosure has been made the rule in some other jurisdictions. One prosecutor in southeastern Massachusetts and the archbishop of Baltimore have publicized the names of priests who have faced credible allegations that they molested children -- though not without complaints that such public notice violates the rights of men who have not been accused of crimes.

"There's a public awareness issue," said Bristol District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr., who recently released the names of 20 priests accused of sexual misconduct in the Fall River Diocese, even though the allegations were too old to prosecute.

"I appreciate all the substantive law of constitutional rights and due process, but when you step back from all the legalities, our job is to protect the public from perverts and rapists," said Walsh, who won praise from victim advocates but was lashed by civil libertarians for his decision. "Many of these men are ... walking around sanctimoniously as retired priests. We want to let people know, `Wait a minute, be careful here. Don't let your kids around him."'

Walsh's view is apparently shared by Cardinal William H. Keeler, with his recent decision to release the names of 57 priests and members of religious orders accused of molesting minors in the Baltimore Archdiocese over 70 years. Keeler did so even though none of the men is now in ministry.

In a letter to 180,000 Catholic households, Keeler indicated that concern over possible danger posed by cast-out priests played a role in his decision to release the names. "At times, we have let our fears of scandal override the need for the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse," Keeler wrote.

Church officials have "a moral obligation and possibly even a civil, legal obligation" to inform the public when an abusive priest is living freely in the community, said former New Hampshire prosecutor Robert Gainor. He handled the case of former priest Robert M. Burns, who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two children in the 1990s. The New Hampshire crimes occurred after Burns was removed from a Charlestown parish in 1991 for allegedly molesting minors.

Not providing public notification, Gainor added, is "as negligent as just transferring a priest to another parish."

It was that same concern that helped prompt the country's religious orders, which contain a third of the nation's 46,000 priests, to vote in August against sending abusive priests and brothers out into society, although they said molesters would be barred from ministries that involve contact with children.

Keeping an abuser within the "family" of the clergy, the orders said, protects the public more than the American bishops' inflexible zero-tolerance policy, which casts abusers into the secular world where they could abuse again, even though they remain priests and subject to their bishops' control.

But when Law's commission released its formal proposals for protecting children a week ago, it included a section, recommended last July by Reilly, that the church take steps to watch over offending priests to make sure they do not pose a continuing threat to children.

Such monitoring is essential, an aide to Reilly said.

"It is our view that the level of oversight and monitoring of clergy removed for sexual abuse by the archdiocese has been entirely inadequate to protect children from possible abuse," Alice E. Moore, head of the attorney general's Public Protection Bureau, said in a letter to commission chairwoman Maureen Bateman.

A.W. Richard Sipe, a therapist and former priest who has written several books about clergy sex abuse, agreed that the onus must remain on the church. "It is throwing a problem that it has created and sustained onto the general population ... These priests need supervision, and the supervisory responsibility is the church's."

Yet church officials acknowledge they have few resources to ensure that exiled priests do not reoffend, as some, such as defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, allegedly have.

Under public pressure, the state Legislature approved a law earlier this year that requires clergy to report suspected cases of sexual abuse to the Department of Social Services, closing a loophole that had exempted church employees from the state's mandatory reporting law. But the statute does not require retroactive reporting.

And because most abusive priests have not faced criminal charges, they do not have to register with the state's Sex Offender Registry, which is mandatory for anyone living or working in Massachusetts who has a sex offense conviction.

As a result, the church's past failure to report alleged abusers leaves present-day law enforcement officials to wrestle with the consequences. Police officials and prosecutors, struggling to balance community concerns with the rights of priests whose alleged crimes are too old to be brought to court, say their hands are tied.

"When you're talking about someone who doesn't have a conviction, given our system of justice there's very little you can do other than educate people in the community about the vulnerability of their children," added Detective James F. McLaughlin of Keene, N.H., who specializes in child sexual abuse and has arrested about a dozen priests for sexual abuse since the late 1980s.

Furthermore, there is widespread sentiment among law enforcement officials that publicizing unproven accusations violates the civil liberties of the accused -- whether the suspected offender is a priest or lay person.

"We'd probably be civilly liable if we went out and told neighbors they have a possible pedophile in their community," said Sandwich Police Chief Michael Miller, whose department helped Boston police investigate Hurley, who has pleaded not guilty. "So there isn't much we can do unless we have an active investigation that gets a conviction."

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, shrugged off such liability concerns.

"Hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits have been filed because bishops have been conservative and cautious and erred on the side of protecting the rights of priests," said Clohessy, who has proposed that bishops compile a public database of known abusers, similar to sex offender registries, for the benefit of the public and prospective employers.

"I think Catholics in the pews would applaud any bishop who went beyond the bare minimum and did the morally correct thing, even if it means taking a legal risk," he said.

Archdiocesan records show that some church officials have acknowledged a moral duty to keep tabs on known abusers who could potentially strike again.

In the early 1990s, the Rev. George J. Rosenkranz was living on his own in Florida, even as Boston church officials were notified of multiple abuse allegations against him dating to the 1960s, and despite two arrests in the 1980s for alleged lewd conduct, according to archdiocese records released last month.

Only when a lawyer for one of Rosenkranz's alleged victims contacted the archdiocese did church officials order him to report to a "supervised residence" in Massachusetts.

"This is done for the good of the priest to provide him with the kind of support that he needs and for the good of the community, for which the church must maintain always a sense of responsibility," the Rev. William F. Murphy, then a top aide to Law, wrote in a July 11, 1997, letter to Rosenkranz.

But in the same letter, Rosenkranz, who could not be reached by the Globe for comment, was told he would not have to report to a supervised residence if he chose to be permanently removed from the priesthood.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/15/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

For complete coverage of the priest abuse scandal, go to