Several prominent members of an independent board charged with reviewing cases of Roman Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse sent a scathing letter to Seattle Archbishop Alexander...
Several prominent members of an independent board charged with reviewing cases of Roman Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse sent a scathing letter to Seattle Archbishop Alexander Brunett yesterday, attacking him on several key points.
Among their chief concerns:
• That the archbishop may be misleading the public by suggesting the problem of sexually abusive priests is over.
• That there’s no evidence Brunett has put safeguards they recommended in place.
• That Brunett challenged their authority to write a report critical of church policies, that he tried to get them to accept a softened version of the report, and that he published the original version in October only after board members threatened to resign.
The letter also expressed surprise that Brunett was disbanding the case-review board and expressed concern that a new board yet to be formed may not be independent enough. And it criticized Brunett’s decision to delay releasing the names of offending priests until after the Vatican had decided their fate.
“We believe we had no alternative but to make sure the Catholic community and the community at large knew how the events unfolded,” said Terrence Carroll, a retired King County Superior Court judge who heads the board.
Seattle Archdiocese spokesman Greg Magnoni declined to respond yesterday to some of the concerns raised in the letter, saying he didn’t want to get into a “he said / she said” with the board about specific allegations.
Magnoni acknowledged the diocese hasn’t been “perfect in all we’ve done. The archbishop said today we’re never going to be done with the work of making the environment safe for children.”
He also said “the archbishop’s responses speak for themselves.” He was referring to Brunett’s earlier response to the case-review board’s October report, which raised many of the same concerns that were raised in yesterday’s letter. Brunett said then that the archdiocese was already doing much of what the report recommended in terms of keeping records of priests and handling complaints by parishioners.
In that response, Brunett also said he would forward the case-review board’s recommendations to another board — one that reviews policies — to see if the archdiocese could do better.
Magnoni also emphasized the archdiocese’s record of being in full compliance with a 2002 policy passed by the nation’s bishops in Dallas to protect children from sexually abusive priests.
The 10-member case-review board is composed primarily of lay people, evenly split between Catholic and non-Catholic, who are experts in fields including law, sexual abuse and psychology. There is also one priest.
Brunett appointed the members in accordance with the Dallas policy, which required each diocese in the country to establish independent review boards, composed mainly of lay people, to assess individual cases and review policies on sexual abuse.
Specifically, the Seattle board was charged with determining whether 13 accused priests in the diocese were suited to remain in ministry.
Yesterday’s letter was signed by six of the 10 members. Besides Carroll, they are Mike McKay, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington and vice chairman of the board; Charles V. Johnson, retired King County Superior Court judge; Lucy Berliner, director of Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress; Ellen McAtee, a psychologist and past president of the Washington State Psychological Association; and Robert Wheeler, a forensic psychologist.
Carroll said the four board members who didn’t sign the letter did not attend a meeting to discuss the issue. They are: Dora Krasucki-Alex, a neurology nurse; William Lennon, director of a counseling service specializing in sexual-deviancy programs; the Rev. John Madigan, a priest with the Seattle Archdiocese; and Lynda Robitaille, a canon lawyer.
Chairman Carroll and Vice Chairman McKay are among the Catholics on the review board.
“The archbishop held us up as a group, and each of us individually with our respective areas of expertise, saying: ‘Hey, I’m not doing this alone. I’m asking these professionals to assist me,’ ” McKay said. “In a lot of ways, a lot of folks became more comfortable with the process. If we were to leave without saying anything, we’d be letting them down.
“We felt an obligation to the members of the church and the public at large [to say] that, as we leave, there are significant issues of disagreement: Primarily that this chancery, this archdiocese, is not putting in place the kind of safeguards that are necessary to prevent this from happening again.”
Of the 13 cases the board was charged with reviewing, three were deemed not credible. Decisions on four of the remaining 10 cases have been returned from the Vatican and released to the public. Three priests — the Revs. James McGreal, David Anthony Linehan and Patrick Desmond McMahon — were permanently barred from ministry; a fourth — John Cornelius — was defrocked.
The other six cases are awaiting decision by the Vatican.
The archbishop has said he would not release names of offending priests before the Vatican has taken action because until that point, a priest might be able to challenge the archdiocese under church law. But yesterday’s letter to Brunett urged the archbishop to release the names anyway. It said other dioceses have done so and that such a move would provide some accountability and justice for victims, and comfort to parents who need to know their children are safe.
The group completed its work on the 13 cases in June.
On Dec. 3, the archbishop sent a letter to board members, saying essentially that the group would be disbanded and that a new board — to review both cases and policies — would be formed, replacing the two existing boards.
That came as a surprise to Carroll and McKay. “I kept inquiring about the status and assumed that if we didn’t hear differently, we would continue,” Carroll said. “To keep the board in place would be a good thing and a strong indication by the archdiocese about how resolute they are on the issue.”
Though the present case-review board has been in place for only two years, a version of it — and of the board that advises the bishop on policy and procedures — has existed on and off since the late 1980s.
Now, though, Seattle Archdiocese spokesman Magnoni said, it makes sense to have just one board that would review both cases and policies.
The new board would have 12 to 15 members, appointed by the archbishop. It would include church representatives along with experts in fields such as psychology, law enforcement and education.
Magnoni said the archbishop had sent letters to case-review board members asking them if they want to be a part of the new board and also urging them to nominate others.
Magnoni said the new board would be just as independent as the old boards. The archbishop “never once interfered with them. Given that history, why would one suspect otherwise in the future,” Magnoni said.
But yesterday’s letter to Brunett expressed serious concern over that issue.
“What was unique about this case-review board as compared to the previous policy and case-review boards was its independence,” the letter says. “It is our observation that this independence was troubling to the archdiocese as reflected in the reluctance to accept and publish our report.”
The report was given to the archbishop in June, and the staff sent it back with “substantial rewrites — things that softened the criticism,” McKay said. The board refused to accept the changes, and the archdiocese released it in October — “only after receipt of our Sept. 16, 2004, letter wherein we threatened to resign if you did not publish it,” the letter to Brunett said.
That strongly worded report took the diocese to task for poor record-keeping related to priests and too much secrecy, among other issues.
With much still to be done, Carroll said, he found misleading the archbishop’s statement in a Dec. 3 letter to him. Brunett wrote that “given the policies and procedures that have been put in place by the archdiocese since the mid-1980s, there have not been, nor is it likely that there will be, any further incidents of child sexual abuse by a priest of the archdiocese.”
Carroll said he knows there are good people within the church working hard to address the problem of abusive priests.
“We just think better can be done, more can be done,” Carroll said. “For me, it’s a certain sadness and regret that this letter must be published. But the truth should be known. And the truth should not be our enemy.”
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org