Attorney General says church abuse scandal likely involved more than 1,000 victims

Associated Press/July 23, 2003
By Denise Lavoie

Over six decades, likely more than 1,000 people were molested by Roman Catholic priests and church workers while leaders in the Boston archdiocese engaged in a ''massive, inexcusable failure'' to do anything about it, the Massachusetts attorney general said in a report Wednesday that outlines the results of a lengthy criminal investigation.

Whether considering the number of victims or the number of accused priests, ''the magnitude of the archdiocese's history of clergy sexual abuse of children is staggering,'' Attorney General Tom Reilly said in his report.

''The mistreatment of children was so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable,'' he said.

The report ends a 16-month investigation by Reilly's office as well as a grand jury that was convened last summer to consider charging church leaders.

Although it provides a comprehensive look at what church leaders knew, when they knew it and how they covered it up, Reilly said he was hamstrung by state laws that were too weak to allow criminal charges to be filed against the hierarchy.

''The choice was very clear, between protecting children and protecting the church. They made the wrong choice,'' Reilly said. ''In effect, they sacrificed children for many, many years.''

Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned last December, ''bears the ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure,'' Reilly said in the 76-page report. The cardinal, he said, was aware of the abuse even before he arrived in Boston as archbishop in 1984, and he and his inner circle were actively informed about complaints against numerous priests.

''But by no means does he bear sole responsibility. With rare exception, none of his senior managers advised him to take any of the steps that might have ended the systemic abuse of children,'' Reilly said.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the archdiocese has already taken ''substantial steps'' to prevent child abuse by priests.

''The Archdiocese of Boston reiterates its commitment that the Archdiocese will treat sexual abuse of a child as a criminal matter, that it will end any culture of secrecy in the handling of such matters ... and that the Archdiocese is committed to work at every level to ensure the safety of children,'' Coyne said.

Law's successor, archbishop-elect Sean Patrick O'Malley, is to be installed next week and has pledged to heal the fractured archdiocese.

The archdiocese itself documented 789 allegations of sexual abuse made against 237 priests and 13 other church workers from 1940 to 2000. When evidence from other sources was included, the number of victims rose to at least 1,000, Reilly said.

The sheer number of abuse allegations documented by investigators in Boston appears unprecedented, even amid a scandal that has touched dioceses in virtually every state and has prompted about 1,000 people to come forward with new allegations nationwide in the last year.

About a dozen state grand juries nationwide and many more prosecutors have reviewed molestation claims against dioceses dating back decades, but none has come close to uncovering the scope of abuse that was found to have occurred in Boston, the nation's fourth-largest diocese.

The investigation in Massachusetts did not uncover any evidence of recent or ongoing sexual abuse of children. But Reilly said it was too soon to say if abuses have stopped and cast doubt that recent changes in state law were enough to prevent future abuses.

Public outrage over the scandal prompted the state to enact a law making reckless endangerment of children a crime. Under the law, someone who fails to take steps to alleviate a substantial risk of injury or sexual abuse of a child can face criminal charges.

The scandal reached a feverish pitch last fall when hundreds of lawsuits filed against the archdiocese led to a flood of personnel files being released offering a shocking catalogue of misconduct by priests that went largely unpunished.

The documents show church leaders, when confronted with allegations, doing nothing to stop the abuse or prevent it even though they had direct knowledge of widespread abuse. In most cases, offending priests were moved to different parishes rather than removed from positions where they continued to have contact with children.

Reilly blamed it on an ''institutional acceptance of abuse.''

Victims and their advocates said Reilly's report shows that more needs to be done to prevent further abuse.

''The fact is that a group of lawless rogues were allowed to reside in our community and to harm our children under the protections of the freedom of religion and the First Amendment, and this simply cannot be allowed in the future,'' said attorney Jeffrey Newman, whose firm represents more than 200 alleged victims in lawsuits against the archdiocese.

The archdiocese is facing more than 500 civil suits from alleged victims of clergy sex abuse. Church officials have repeatedly said they remain committed to working toward an out-of-court settlement.

Reilly, who toward the end of a news conference noted that he considers himself a Catholic of strong faith, spoke hopefully that the report and the arrival of a new archbishop will lead to changes that will prevent future abuses from happening.

''This is not about the Catholic faith, the Catholic religion. This is a massive, inexcusable failure of leadership in the archdiocese of Boston,'' Reilly said. ''That leadership is about to change. ...It is my hope that this report will draw a clear line between the past and a hopeful future.''

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