Diocese may be finally confronting ugly past
In February 2019, the Diocese of Norwich released the names of 43 priests who had served in the diocese since its founding in 1953 and had “allegations of substance” made against them regarding the sexual abuse of minors.
Its intended purpose seemed to be an act of transparency, the church coming clean about an ugly past. After years of covering up about priestly misconduct, to the point of transferring known abusers to unknowing parishes where some would repeat their crimes, here was the local Catholic diocese letting the public know who these men were.
But, as we editorialized at the time, it appeared to be more a gesture than a forthright attempt to come to grips with what had happened and who shared responsibility for allowing it to happen.
There was no context, just a listing of names, dates of ordination, and whether the priests were removed from ministry. There was no information on the scope of their misbehavior, how their actions had been dealt with − or not − or where they were assigned and reassigned to serve.
In the days that followed the release of the names, information arose that showed some priests with abusive records did not appear on the list and, in at least one case, a priest was listed who seemingly should not have been.
If the diocese really wanted to clear the slate, if it wanted to frankly confront this stain on the church, it needed to do more, we wrote.
“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,” stated an April 2019 editorial.
Well, Bishop Cote has not done that, but something close to it.
In a letter to parishioners last Sunday, Cote revealed that about a year ago he authorized a full investigation.
Cote wrote that retired state Superior Court Judge Michael E. Riley is leading this “Clerical Sexual Abuse Accountability Investigation.” Riley is a member of the Internal Investigations and Alternative Dispute Resolution practice at Pullman & Comley, a Connecticut law firm.
The bishop promised the faithful that Riley’s investigative team had undertaken a “comprehensive analysis and review of claims of clerical sexual abuse of minors, the Diocese’s knowledge of such abuse and its response to allegations and information presented to it concerning the alleged clergy abuse.”
Further, he wrote, the private investigators have “complete and unrestricted access to all Diocesan files, records, and archives dating from the establishment of the Diocese in 1953 to the present along with the opportunity to interview Diocesan clergy and administrators with information relevant to the investigation.”
According to Bishop Cote, the investigation will be presented in a public report that will address the sexual abuse of minors by diocesan clergy as well as the response of leadership to that abuse. The report will provide “recommendations to the Bishop.”
Judgment on whether this report provides the promised unflinching assessment of what transpired over the decades to allow the massive scandal to happen must await its release. But as presented, the investigation appears to be the real deal.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Cote’s announcement about the ongoing investigation came just before the Pope Francis-ordered release of a 449-page report into the case of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who rose through the church hierarchy despite widespread knowledge of his sexually abusive and manipulative behavior. Such transparency is unprecedented, but Pope Francis is correct in citing it as necessary to move forward and fulfill the “commitment of the church to eradicate this evil.”
Safeguards now in place did not exist when most of this abuse took place. Training requirements now in place for clergy, laypersons and volunteers who work with children focus on recognizing warning signs of abuse. New rules call for suspicion of misconduct to be reported to police or child welfare agencies.
But that is not enough. The church, and the Norwich Diocese, must come to grips with what happened. A true confession. This investigation appears to be a good faith effort to do so.
Anyone who has information that can assist the investigation can make a report by calling toll-free: 844-311-2111 (English) or 800-216-1288 (Spanish), or by visiting www.lighthouse-services.com/norwichdiocese. Information will be kept confidential.
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, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser 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.