Saturday, March 16, 2002

Prosecutors ask what church hid

Allen sees duty to report possible abuse

By Dan Horn,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County prosecutors want to know why authorities were not told about allegations of sexual misconduct involving several Catholic priests.

        Although church officials insist they followed the law, Prosecutor Mike Allen said Friday he's not so sure.

        He said he will ask officials from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to explain their actions next week.

[photo] Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk at a press conference Thursday.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        If they refuse, Mr. Allen said, prosecutors will consider other options, including seeking grand jury subpoenas to compel church officials to discuss the allegations.

        The archdiocese disclosed this week that in the past 15 years it had “substantiated” allegations against fewer than five priests, all of whom remain in priestly roles.

        “If any of these occurred in Hamilton County and were not reported, we need to know why,” Mr. Allen said. “It's our position that they had a duty to report it.”

        The prosecutor's comments came as Catholic churches across the country struggle to explain how they have responded — or have failed to respond — to allegations of sexual abuse.

        Critics say the church has been willing to sacrifice the well-being of victims to protect itself from bad publicity and lawsuits.

        But church officials say they have acted in the best interests of everyone involved, from the victims to the accused priests. And they say they notified authorities whenever the law required them to do so.

        “We believe we have reported in a timely fashion everything we were required to report,” said Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

        Mr. Allen described that explanation as “mealy-mouthed” and “weak.” Several other prosecutors within the 19-county archdiocese said they would be dismayed if it turns out church officials failed to report allegations to them.

        “Any time it's found that an adult is having improper sexual contact with a minor, it's a matter that should be reported to the police,” said Debra Armanini, Montgomery County's first assistant prosecutor. “It should hold true whether the person is a priest, a track coach or a Boy Scout leader.”

        Mr. Allen said a failure to report allegations suggests the church is more interested in protecting the perpetrators of the abuse than the victims.

        “It's shameful,” Mr. Allen said. “You have a moral obligation to report these matters to law enforcement.”

        There is some debate, however, about whether the church had a legal obligation to report the abuse.

        The Ohio law covering the subject now requires anyone “acting in an official or professional” capacity to immediately report suspected abuse.

        But the law has been amended many times over the years, and church officials say it has not always been so explicit. At the time of the Cincinnati cases, they say, the list of professionals required to report abuse allegations did not include clergy.

        “The laws on notification were different then,” Mr. Andriacco said.

        After researching the law Friday, Mr. Allen said he disagrees. Since 1977, he said, the reporting requirements applied to “persons rendering spiritual treatment through prayer in accordance with the tenets of a well-recognized religion.”

        Based on that, Mr. Allen said, he will seek an explanation from the Archdiocese about its response to the allegations.

        He would not say if anyone who failed to report accusations could face legal action. “We will explore all of our legal options,” Mr. Allen said.

Cases get too old

        Prosecutors say delays in reporting abuse are a serious problem for law enforcement.

        “If law enforcement authorities aren't aware of the allegations until later, it can make it difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute them,” said Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper.

        Last year, Mr. Piper's office investigated allegations of sexual abuse involving three minors by Rev. Ken Schoettmer, who was pastor of Queen of Peace parish in Hanover Township.

        Authorities said Father Schoettmer admitted to sex acts with the three minors, but the cases were too old to prosecute under Ohio law.

        Unlike the Schoettmer case, the cases disclosed this week by the archdiocese involve priests who were never publicly identified or investigated by police.

        Church officials say the priests received counseling and are subject to close supervision. They say the priests do not have regular contact with children.

        Mr. Andriacco would not identify the priests or describe the type of work they do now.

        “If we just washed our hands of these people and sent them back into the community, that doesn't make them any less of a threat,” Mr. Andriacco said. “Keeping them under supervision makes them less of a threat.”

        He said the archdiocese paid for counseling for at least some of the victims of the abuse, but not all. He said he did not know whether other monetary damages were paid to the victims.

        Some of the victims did not want their cases to be reported to authorities, Mr. Andriacco said.

        “We did nothing to discourage victims from reporting,” he said.

"Mishandled this totally'

        The church's willingness to disclose allegations of abuse became a national issue this month when church officials in Boston admitted they did not report dozens of allegations involving a priest there.

        Those who have studied the church's history with abuse allegations say disclosure is crucial.

        “It's so important to involve outsiders,” said Geral Blanchard, a therapist in Sheridan, Wyo., and the author of Sexual Abuse in America. “A lot of times you're not just dealing with an impairment, you're dealing with pedophilia.

        “You can't cure that with a reprimand.”

        Another author, Philip Jenkins, said his research suggests priests are no more likely to abuse than anyone else. But he said the church's tendency to keep allegations under wraps makes the problem appear much worse than it is.

        “They have mishandled this totally,” said Mr. Jenkins, author of Pedophiles and Priests. “Their public relations have been horrendous.”

        Mr. Allen said his goal is to find out how serious the abuse cases in Cincinnati may have been, and whether they are worthy of criminal charges.

        But for now, he said, he has to find out why authorities were not told of the allegations in the first place.

        “It's a simple matter of needing to know,” Mr. Allen said. “I don't think that's too much to ask.”

        Steve Kemme contributed to this report.

Related stories:
Catholics have little sympathy for abuse
Covington diocese has written guidelines
Pamphlet sets rules for prevention, response
Sex abuse cases not new locally

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