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Spotlight Report

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Activists seek independent panel on clergy sexual abuse

Bishops' reports are questioned

By Ron DePasquale, Globe Correspondent, 3/1/2004

A coalition of activist groups called on Governor Mitt Romney yesterday to create an independent panel to examine the extent of clergy sexual abuse in Massachusetts.

About 150 protesters rallied in front of the State House, carting posters of bishops from around the nation and denouncing the numbers of accused priests provided by bishops in reports released last week as too low.

"The numbers are low because they were compiled by bishops for whom secret-keeping is part of their job description," said Anne Barrett Doyle of Concerned Catholics and Survivors, a church reform group.

The Boston Archdiocese on Friday reported 162, or 7 percent, of archdiocesan priests have been accused of abusing 815 minors since 1950. An additional 57 unaffiliated priests and deacons stationed in Boston were accused of abusing 150 minors during the same period.

The Springfield Diocese, which former Bishop Thomas L. Dupre ran until retiring two weeks ago amid sexual abuse allegations against him, reported 22 accused priests.

"I'm not sure if that figure is accurate, since I really don't know if Bishop Dupre counted himself," said Phil Saviano, founder of the victims group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, of New England. "Is he still credible?"

Dupre is a patient at St. Luke Institute, a Maryland medical facility that treats priests with emotional, behavioral, and psychological problems. His lawyer has said there would be no comment on the allegations against Dupre while prosecutors investigate.

Several speakers yesterday challenged the veracity of the report's numbers, both in Massachusetts and across the country. A study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice put the national percentage of abusive priests at 4 percent, and the number of abused minors at 10,667.

Also yesterday, Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett of the National Review Board, a lay watchdog panel formed by church bishops, appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and called for bishops who protected abusive priests instead of children to step down.

"There are bishops who have totally failed as pastors and as shepherds of their flock," Bennett said. A second report issued Friday, done by the review board itself, blamed bishops for being too lenient with abusive priests and insensitive to victims.

While Romney was credited for saying in July that "people need to go to jail for what happened here," Saviano called on the governor to do more. "If Governor Romney can establish a commission to investigate the murder of one priest in prison," Saviano said, referring to the panel that examined the death of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, "why can't he investigate the rape of hundreds of children in churches all over the state?" A spokeswoman for Romney, Shawn Feddeman, said the governor was "happy to look at their request," adding that Romney has "worked hard to strengthen laws in Massachusetts to protect children from dangerous sexual predators."

The rally began at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where the names of 247 accused priests were read as a bass drum was struck once for each name. The protesters then walked through the South End to the State House.

Jim Markee, a 54-year-old fund-raising consultant from the South End, said he was glad to see the march and hoped some bishops would wind up in prison.

"It's time for accountability," he said.

At the State House rally, speakers called for tougher laws that would require former priests proven to have committed sexual abuse to be registered as child molesters. Statutes of limitations for many accused priests have expired, leading prosecutors to say there is little they can do to prosecute them.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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