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N.H. diocese admits likely violations

Signs agreement with AG's office

By Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 12/11/2002

Bishop John McCormack, second from left, listens as the Rev. Edward Arsenault, chancellor of the Diocese of New Hampshire, answers questions about the church's agreement with the state attorney general. (AP Photo)

Statement by Bishop Gregory

The Roman Catholic Diocese of New Hampshire yesterday became the first diocese in the country to admit it may have violated criminal law by failing to protect children from sexually abusive priests.

Facing the likelihood that the diocese would be indicted Friday on multiple counts of violating New Hampshire's child endangerment statute, Bishop John B. McCormack signed a legal agreement with the state acknowledging that the attorney general's office had accumulated sufficient evidence to secure convictions.

''The church in New Hampshire fully acknowledges and accepts responsibility for failures in our system that contributed to the endangerment of children,'' McCormack said in a statement. ''We commit ourselves in a public and binding way to address every weakness in our structure.''

In the agreement he signed yesterday, McCormack acknowledged that the state has ''evidence likely to sustain a conviction of a charge ... against the diocese.''

The agreement was reached after months of difficult and, at times, hostile negotiations between attorneys for the diocese and state prosecutors.

Under the agreement, the diocese pledged to report all suspicions and accusations of abuse to the state and submit to an annual compliance audit by the attorney general's office. In addition, the diocese agreed to the release of thousands of pages of church documents, including some personnel records, gathered in the investigation.

McCormack, who had been a top aide to Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, has headed the New Hampshire diocese since 1998.

Attorney General Philip T. McLaughlin said he decided to focus his office's 10-month investigation on the diocese rather than individual church leaders after determining that the wrongs stemmed from an ''institutional attitude'' on the part of the church and not individuals.

No other diocese has reached a settlement under threat of imminent criminal indictment. Grand juries across the country have indicted priests during a sexual abuse scandal that first exploded nearly a year ago in Boston.

But, McLaughlin said, the failings by New Hampshire church leaders paralleled those in other dioceses.

''From what I've read about what went on elsewhere, there is nothing to separate how these cases were handled in New Hampshire than anyplace else in the country,'' McLaughlin said in a telephone interview, suggesting that other state attorneys general could pursue similar avenues.

Violations of New Hampshire's child endangerment law carry fines of up to $20,000 per offense for institutional offenders.

While his investigation had not found any ''smoking gun'' documents that would explain why the Manchester diocese - like others - had allowed abusing priests to remain in service, McLaughlin said he believed the diocese's decision to settle resulted from a desire to avoid scandal and not because the investigation had uncovered clear evidence that diocesan leaders had allowed abusive priests to remain in ministry.

''It's part of canon law,'' McLaughlin said. ''Scandal brings bad publicity, which undermines the position of the church in the community.''

In a statement following the settlement's announcement, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, denied that other dioceses may have intentionally protected abusive priests. Instead, Gregory said, such priests were allowed to remain in service because of the mistaken belief that sexual abuse of children could be treated with therapy.

''The errors of specific persons, at specific times and places, which may have endangered children, cannot be attributed to the `church' as a whole without overlooking the lives of integrity and good works of ministers of the church in our country throughout history,'' Gregory said.

Although Gregory did not address the admission by the Manchester diocese, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops, said it was the first time a diocese or archdiocese in the United States had acknowledged possible criminal wrongdoing in its supervision of priests.

David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a victims' advocacy group, praised McLaughlin for pursuing the investigation and securing the agreement. ''It's an important symbol to the public and certainly to the victims to see a diocese acknowledging that it broke the law,'' Clohessy said.

A similar prosecution is not possible in Massachusetts, however, because until this year, the state lacked a criminal child endangerment statute covering clergy.

Previously, the clergy was exempted from a group - including teachers, foster parents, and others who work with children - that must report suspicions of child abuse to the Department of Social Services if the alleged victim is under 18, or to district attorneys if the victim is 18 or over.

McLaughlin's investigation found that the Manchester diocese, by allowing priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct to remain in service - some for decades - it made other children vulnerable to abuse.

According to Assistant Attorney General N. William Delker, head of McLaughlin's criminal division, prosecutors were prepared, if the diocese had not settled, to present documents and witnesses to the grand jury showing that as many as six priests had abused about 30 children since the 1970s. These, he said, were priests who church officials knew posed a sexual threat to minors.

The investigation found that the Manchester diocese had received sexual misconduct complaints involving at least 40 priests since the 1960s, McLaughlin said. In a few cases, the diocese had removed the priests from active service. But the vast majority of priests had been given some psychological evaluation and transferred to other parishes. In about 10 cases, Delker said, state investigators found that the priests had gone on to abuse other children in their new parishes.

''Our plan was to present those cases that had the witnesses with the best memories to the grand jury,'' Delker said.

McLaughlin, who leaves office next week after five years as attorney general, said he was pleased to close the case. ''The agreement closes the door on an era of secrecy in the handling of allegations of sexual abuse lodged against priests, and it opens a new door to diocesan accountability and greater protection for children.''

Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/11/2002.
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