Providing a list of accused priests was not sufficient

It has been nearly two months since the Catholic Diocese of Norwich released its list of priests that it said had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct involving minors. If the purpose of releasing the list was intended to provide transparency and start to move past the scandal that has long dogged the church, it was an abject failure.

The problem is that Bishop Michael Cote wants to define the parameters of transparency, unadvised and unquestioned by any independent entity. He has lifted the veil, but only so far. The result is that rather than reassuring parishioners and the public, the attempt at coming clean has only generated more questions and, to a degree, created greater distrust about the church’s real intentions.

Was the intent to truly come to grips with what happened or to make a gesture and move on? The evidence suggests the latter was the greater motivation. It didn’t work.

The release of 43 names provided little context. There were names, dates of ordination, whether the individuals were removed from ministry, if they had died, and whether they were a member of the diocese at the time of the credible abuse allegations.

But there was no listing of the parishes these men had served in at the time of their abusive actions or information on the scope of their behavior or the number of potential victims. Most disappointingly, there was no acknowledgement of how their cases were handled by former bishops and the diocese.

The bishops were the enablers of this becoming a massive scandal. It is a reality many still appear unwilling to confront. How often were these priests reassigned, often after supposedly being “cured” by counseling of their propensity for deviancy, only to find new child victims in parishes left unaware of their past misconduct? Why were police or child welfare agencies not contacted? Or were they?

As for what was released, the diocese fumbled and stumbled forward. Within days the diocese added three names of priests, men who served the Diocese of Norwich but had credible allegations lodged against them elsewhere.

Most troubling, the diocese removed the name of a former priest from the list, admitting there were no allegations of sexual abuse of a minor in the individual’s record, but making no apology. The priest, now deceased, had however ministered to the homosexual community in a manner that was in opposition to church teaching and orders. He was dismissed from the priesthood in 1994. Why was he listed? There was no explanation.

Evidence has continued to surface that there were other priests who faced credible claims of sexual abuse of children, but never made the list. At the time the diocese released the names, it stated $7.7 million had been paid out to victims, but did not state which priests were tied to settlements. Personal injury attorneys, who have represented plaintiffs suing the church for permitting the abusive conduct, said the settlement number appeared low. Soon after, the diocese announced another $900,000 settlement.

If Bishop Cote wants to throw open the windows of the diocese, he would ask for volunteers to come forward from the laity and provide them access to the files in the church’s possession. Grant such a panel the independence to provide a credible accounting of what happened and who was responsible.

It is fair to note the Catholic Church has changed in this country and diocese. The most egregious behavior is largely in the past, though not exclusively. Training requirements now in place for clergy, laypersons and volunteers who work with children focus on recognizing the signs of abuse and new rules call for suspicion of misconduct to be reported to police or child welfare advocates.

That is not enough. Legislation under consideration in the General Assembly would give those who were minor victims of sexual assault, but who are now prohibited by the statute of limitations from filing a lawsuit, an opportunity to do so regardless of age. It deserves approval. Under current law, some are unable to file lawsuits because they did not do so by age 48.

In the meantime, the church could establish a victims’ compensation fund, providing counseling and support for those who have credible cases but who, for whatever reasons, are unlikely or uninterested in finding restitution through the legal system.

Coming to grips with the legacy of abuse and cover-ups, combined with genuine efforts at reconciliation with past victims, would be a start down the long path to restoring credibility.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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