Diocese reaches agreement on handling of clergy abuse reports
PITTSFIELD — A new agreement spells out how the Catholic diocese of Springfield must respond to allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct, while clarifying that its investigations not conflict with work by prosecutors.
The pact details steps to guarantee that abuse reports received by the church are immediately shared with civil legal authorities. All three district attorneys in Western Massachusetts signed on to the pact, which is now in effect and runs until June 30, 2024. The Springfield Diocese oversees Catholic parishes in Berkshire County.
The agreement was reached a year after it came to light that reports of assaults supposedly provided by the diocese to law enforcement could not be located in the district attorneys' files.
Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington said the pact ensures that allegations of clergy abuse reach prosecutors. She called the commitment from the church "overdue."
"Given the history of sexual abuse and cover-ups, law enforcement investigations must not be impeded," she said in a statement.
The Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski said the agreement demonstrates the church's willingness to coordinate with local law enforcement. In a statement, the diocese acknowledged that the heart of the document — three, single-spaced pages — concerns "inconsistencies in how past abuse allegations were reported by the diocese."
Jeffrey J. Trant, who leads the church's Office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance, called the memorandum a significant step forward in protecting people from sexual misconduct by any employee of the church. He said the pact lays out a clear process that allows prosecutors to do their work.
Though Catholic policy requires the institution to investigate allegations of abuse, the agreement calls for the church to wait for up to 90 days, or longer, to avoid interfering with probes underway by prosecutors.
That condition, Trant said, allows allegations to "first be investigated and assessed in accordance with law." Law enforcement officials can request additional time beyond that three-month period.
The diocese's own intake form for abuse complaints has been changed to include a statement that says every caller "can and should report their situation directly to law enforcement."
The diocese also agreed not to use confidentiality agreements in connection with any victim of sexual abuse. Up until now, use of such agreements has not been diocesan policy, the agreement notes.
Along with Rozanski and Harrington, the agreement was signed by Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan and Hampden County District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni.
"The district attorneys held fast that we wanted openness and accountability and wouldn't settle for less," said Sullivan, the chief law enforcement officer for Hampshire and Franklin counties. "If there's a report, it comes to us."
Like Harrington, Sullivan termed the new rules overdue — in his view, "decades overdue."
"It should have never come to this, but it did. Hopefully, this is going to be a new day for the diocese and they can regain the trust of the people involved," he said. "I really appreciate Bishop Rozanski coming to this memorandum in good faith."
In an interview with The Eagle in March 2019, Sullivan cited a moral obligation to aid survivors of clergy abuse, amid questions about whether the diocese adequately relayed abuse complaints to prosecutors.
"It's really about the Diocese of Springfield being transparent, disclosing all the allegations of adult and child sexual abuse and then being accountable," Sullivan said. "It may not be a criminal prosecution, because the statute of limitations may have run on many people."
"But there's other forms of justice, for people to be acknowledged for the harm that was done to them. That restorative justice that goes on can be outside of the courts," Sullivan said.
Harrington was a month into her job in February 2019 when she attended a "listening and dialogue" session hosted by the church at St. Joseph's Church in Pittsfield. That night, several Catholics told of abuse suffered at the hands of clergy.
"I was disappointed by the presentation from the bishop and their legal counsel," Harrington said in an interview last year. "I saw a lack of a willingness to be proactive." She could not be reached Wednesday for additional comment.
A spokesman for the diocese said that reaching the understanding followed "extensive discussions."
The first section lists eight categories of information the diocese must share after it becomes aware of any report of sexual abuse, actual or attempted, or sexual misconduct.
Along with the names and addresses of potential victims of such crimes, the diocese must provide information on who reported incidents of abuse, potential witnesses, dates, and the names and addresses of perpetrators.
Those reports must come with a summary of the alleged abuse "unless such summary or any other documents are protected as a result of the priest penitent and/or spiritual counseling privilege, the attorney client privilege, or information pertaining to psychological counseling ."
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.
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