Bishop Cote answers questions about renewed sexual abuse crisis in the church
Editor's note: This version corrects the time period in which Daniel P. Reilly served as bishop of Norwich.
The Most Rev. Michael R. Cote, bishop of the Diocese of Norwich, says he is not able to turn over records of the sexual abuse of children by diocesan priests to the New London state’s attorney’s office and does not have authority to seek action against former Bishop Daniel P. Reilly for transferring priests to new parishes after they allegedly abused children.
Cote, who has led the region’s Catholics since 2003, acknowledged the abuse of children by his fellow priests makes him angry and pledged to not only meet with victims but keep those in his diocese informed of all developments on the subject after he meets with other U.S. bishops later this fall in Baltimore.
“I think communication is very important. If the people stay in the dark with this, it doesn’t help them heal or help the victims heal,” he said. “We need to talk this out and do so in a frank manner.”
Cote made the remarks in an interview with The Day in his Chancery office in Norwich 10 days ago. The Day requested an interview with the bishop after the newspaper had published an opinion piece he wrote in the aftermath of a Pennsylvania grand jury report that found that 300 priests in that state sexually abused more than 1,000 identifiable children over 70 years.
Since the release of the report, Cote said he has received letters from two victims who the diocese had paid settlements to in the past.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if other people surface but, on the other hand, I don’t think there will be a wave of people,” he said.
He explained that’s because the diocese has had a hotline to report such abuse and it is checked each weekday morning. He said the callers are told the diocese is here to help them and they are offered counseling.
When a complaint does come in, Cote said it is given to the diocesan investigator, who has a police background. The investigator interviews the complainant, does an investigation and then turns the results over to a review board. Cote said four to five complaints are in the early stages of investigation and three to five lawsuits are in litigation.
Cote said diocesan policy calls for the investigator to promptly forward a copy of the incident report to state or local police and defer a further diocesan investigation until police are satisfied that it will not interfere with their own investigation.
As for meeting with victims and hearing their stories, Cote said he’s done it several times but he likes to do it when the victims are ready.
“The first thing I tell them is we’re here to help them,” he said. “Some are reasonable, they’ve figured it out and they’ve put it in place. Others are very, very pained. You listen and you try to comfort them as much as you can.”
He said some have shared the graphic details of their assaults with him and how it ruined their lives.
“Usually they don’t leave feeling completely satisfied but they don’t necessarily leave angry. It's a healing part of my ministry,” he said.
Cote said he feels terrible for the victims and disappointed in his fellow priests who violated their vocation.
“On the other hand, I also have a responsibility to forgive that perpetrator,” he said.
Cote said that as a bishop, when he has received an allegation about a priest, he has removed them from “active ministry” until the probe is complete.
“I tell them, 'I'm taking you out for the time being. If it amounts to nothing, I will put you back. If not, you will be removed.' I act quickly. I don’t want it to be said I took this lightly. I think most bishops do this,” he said.
Cote said that as the bishop of Norwich, he has removed four priests from active ministry. He declined to name them but said the allegations also were reported to police and the state Department of Children and Families.
When priests are removed from active ministry, Cote said they are taken out of a parish and cannot live in a rectory or have access to children. He said some may go live with family or at a separate house at a seminary, depending on what is available.
Cote also said he has never transferred a priest accused of sexual assault to another parish.
“I would get them out quickly and into counseling,” he said.
In his opinion piece that was published in The Day on Aug. 27 and sent to all parishes in the diocese, Cote wrote: “We condemn the abhorrent behavior of those who betrayed the trust of the Church and unthinkably violated the innocence of God’s children."
“To be clear, the condemnation extends to any Church administrator, fellow bishop or official who failed to act decisively at the time to remove offenders from ministry and report them to authorities. There are those close to the history of this scourge who would propose that Church administrators at the time were under-informed, misinformed and unprepared to manage the crisis at a time much less knowledgeable on the subject than today. To those who would offer such a proposal, I borrow the words of a fellow Christian, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew that in a crisis of suffering, 'the time is always right to do the right thing.' Those who were responsible within the Church to swiftly remove the offenders from ministry and did otherwise are to be held responsible no matter how many years or decades ago they sinned by not acting — by not doing the right thing. We bishops included.”
Asked if he would be willing to turn over diocesan records concerning sexual assault complaints against priests, Cote said he would not.
“I can’t by law make a record available unless the person whose file that it is signs off and gives me permission to do it,” he said. “I’ve always been told I cannot. By law, state statutes say we cannot.”
Ten years ago, an investigation by The Day revealed that Reilly, who is now retired and was last known to be living in Boston, transferred priests accused of sexual abuse to parishes where they allegedly assaulted more children in three states including Connecticut. At the time, Reilly, who was bishop from 1975 to 1994, refused to be interviewed for the story.
Asked if he would seek to take action against Reilly based on his stance that those, including bishops, who were responsible for swiftly removing offenders and did not should be held responsible no matter how much time has passed, Cote said he does not know that Reilly transferred accused priests.
“To my knowledge, that did not happen,” he said.
When told of The Day’s more than six-month-long investigation, which involved sworn depositions, court documents and interviews with alleged victims, Cote said he does not have the authority over a brother bishop to remove him. That power rests with the pope.
“To say I can go to Boston and accuse him, that’s very difficult to do because we don’t have that authority over one another,” he said.
Following the interview, diocesan spokesman Michael Strammiello, who retired Sept. 14, said Cote would raise the issue of how to report a fellow bishop, when he meets with the other bishops this fall.
While Cote could write a letter to the Pope about Reilly, he has not done so.
“The system today is not good enough. Not efficient enough. But they’ll find a way to break through,” Strammiello said. “They have to get it right and they will.”
Asked about how much in settlements the diocese has paid out over the years to victims, Cote said he did not know the total. Over the past dozen years, The Day has reported settlements that total more than $7 million but there may be other cases that were not publicized.
“I never get involved in that piece of it,” Cote said about the settlements, adding that he lets diocesan attorneys and trusted lay experts handle the cases. “My real responsibility as bishop is to make sure I have policies and procedures in place to protect children and that they are strictly adhered to."
Cote said that if anything good will come out of the crisis, it is that it may result in a “further purification of the church.”
“If that is what’s going to result from this, that’s good,” he said. “We have to get back some of the basics, the sacraments of church, belief in Christ and center there. That’s where I’d like this to lead us and our people,” he said.
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