District attorneys bring new muscle to clergy abuse investigations
District attorneys say they will probe complaints of clergy sexual abuse in Western Massachusetts, even if the passage of time leaves them unable to bring charges.
"We want to honor and respect what people in our area have gone through," said Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington. "Prosecution is about standing up for what's right and wrong — and for morality. Whether you can or cannot win a case."
Harrington and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, who represents Hampshire and Franklin counties, say they feel a moral obligation to aid survivors, amid questions about whether the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has 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," he said in an interview at his Northampton office.
Separately, Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni last month created a telephone hotline staffed by state police detectives that is accepting complaints of clergy abuse from any time period.
Moves by the three district attorneys — the top law enforcement officers for the four western counties — come as the office of Attorney General Maura Healey fine-tunes a memorandum of understanding related to how Catholic church officials report complaints of abuse. A spokesman for Healey declined to comment on the memorandum, but said the office is working with district attorneys "to make sure the policies and systems we have in place are strong to protect against these crimes, and remain a resource for survivors."
Steps by the DAs also coincide with action by the Catholic church locally and globally. On Monday, the Springfield Diocese asked Catholic parishes in Western Massachusetts to observe a "Day of Prayer for Healing and Reconciliation" in response to the abuse crisis. At the highest levels of the faith, Pope Francis summoned bishops to the Vatican last month to confront the problem.
And later this month, the Springfield Diocese will hold the last in a series of "listening and dialogue" sessions around the region on the abuse crisis. The final two are planned for March 18 at St. Mary Church in Westfield and March 24 at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Northampton.
One other effort by the diocese, the publication of a two-page report on how it has handled abuse complaints, appears to have triggered action by prosecutors. Gulluni, the Hampden County DA, said last month that after reviewing the church's report, his office found what it believed to be gaps in expected notifications about abuse cases.
"I am dissatisfied with the system in place and in the inconsistency of reporting over the last many years," Gulluni said.
Mark Dupont, spokesman for the Springfield Diocese, said the church welcomes what he termed "increased involvement" by prosecutors.
"They have resources which we do not possess, allowing them to better investigate abuse allegations," Dupont said by email, in response to questions from The Eagle.
Harrington attended the session that the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, the Springfield bishop, convened Feb. 10 at St. Joseph's Church in Pittsfield. Several Catholics rose to speak of abuse they suffered at the hands of clergy.
Harrington, at that point a month into her job, said what she witnessed concerned her.
"I was disappointed by the presentation from the bishop and their legal counsel," Harrington said. "I saw a lack of a willingness to be proactive."
Dupont, the diocese's representative, said the bishop's response to the abuse crisis should not be judged by one meeting. He said this winter's listening sessions, the recent special report in the Catholic Mirror magazine and other steps by the bishop "clearly demonstrates his sincere desire to be responsive."
At the same time, Dupont said, the diocese offers abuse awareness training for adults and young people and conducts criminal background checks on clergy, employees and volunteers. He also cited, as proof of the church's commitment to change, the use of a telephone hotline and the creation in 1994 of a review board.
"Taken as a whole, all these efforts would indicate an institution working hard to address its past failures," Dupont said.
Still, Harrington and Sullivan question whether the diocese notified their offices over the years about the abuse complaints it has received, providing a needed referral to possible criminal investigations.
Last month, after questions arose, the diocese announced that all future complaints would be sent to prosecutors by certified mail, with a return receipt requested.
In an interview last week at her North Street office, Harrington said she recently received two packets from the diocese, one with six complaints and another with four. But before that, no evidence had been found after an internal review.
"We do not have any records of them providing any complaints to us," Harrington said. "We have been very clear that we want all the complaints. It is not up to them to be the gatekeepers. I much prefer law enforcement to be the gatekeeper of complaints."
Harrington said staff members in the three district attorneys' offices have been working cooperatively to provide the best response possible to abuse survivors, avoid overlap and use public resources wisely.
"We want to make this process as supportive of victims as we can," she said. "Survivors should expect to see a very strong response from law enforcement, with an eye to bringing cases and charging people where we can."
At the same time, because prosecutors' offices operate on limited funding, Harrington said help from the diocese itself could be useful. Catholic officials should do more than wait for abuse complaints to come in, she said, and instead actively pursue allegations of wrongdoing.
"They seem to be unable to do that — even in terms of what they will share with us," Harrington said.
In Northampton, Sullivan said that after reading a newspaper story last spring of an assault allegation involving the Rev. Eugene Honan, he had his staff check the files.
The priest had served in Sullivan's home church in Easthampton — and the district attorney is sure he would have remembered receiving a referral from the diocese about the case, which came to light in 2011. It involved an adult man, Richard Koske, of South Hadley, who reported that Honan drugged and sexually assaulted him.
Honan is now listed as a "credibly accused" priest and is no longer serving the diocese.
"I was shocked to see the allegations with Father Honan," Sullivan said. "If that report had come in, I would have remembered that. It simply did not come in."
Dupont maintains a letter about Koske's claims, against Honan as well as two other priests, was sent to the district attorneys' offices, though none of those offices was able to find it this winter, after Koske's daughter, Rebecca, asked them to check.
That spurred the diocese to shift to certified mail — as well as new outreach to the DAs' offices.
Sullivan thinks it unlikely three letters were misplaced.
"Quite frankly, what's the chances of going 0 for 3, that all three district attorneys' offices were sent the letter and nobody received them? We don't destroy any of the allegations. We keep them, because you never know when somebody is going to want to move forward."
Sullivan said that in the Koske case, he is prepared to consider it an oversight by the diocese, rather than a willful step not to disclose.
For his part, Dupont said record-keeping may be an issue in law enforcement.
"I would politely note that the lapses, however, are not just with the diocese. We have identified a number of our past referrals to the various DAs which their offices could not recently find," he said.
Like Harrington, Sullivan sees a moral dimension to his role as district attorney.
"Our job is to help victims get justice in whatever form it may take. A lot of sexual abuse claims can't go forward because of the vulnerability of the victim," he said. "But just the fact that it's acknowledged. So many people have been suffering. When somebody kills your soul, it's much different than a personal injury. You never want to see that happen to a human being."
Linda Pisano, chief of the child abuse unit in Sullivan's office, said survivors are helped through investigations, even if the probes do not lead to prosecution — as can be the case with clergy abuse, given time limits on bringing charges.
"So often for a victim, just having someone acknowledge that they were wronged is incredibly healing for them," Pisano said. "So to have the church step forward and say, you know, we understand what we did. I think that's important for the victims."
Help can also come when institutions acknowledge their failings.
Though the region's district attorneys are joining to help survivors of clergy abuse, Sullivan said this isn't new.
"I think that all the DAs, past and present, have always been on board for full investigations," he said. "In other words, nobody's gotten a pass, whether it's the Catholic church or any other kind of institution. We want to get to the truth."
As a Catholic himself, Sullivan is waiting for his church to do all it should about the abuse crisis.
"There was a mindset for centuries — protecting the institution's reputation over the safety of children. Until you clearly reverse that, and say the safety of children takes priority over any reputation, then it's not going to change fundamentally," Sullivan said.
"There's some bishops that just don't acknowledge it. As a worldwide church they have a long way to go," Sullivan said. "But the local church also. Things are just hidden and kept secret for many years. Until you fully acknowledge it, I think it's still a work in progress."
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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