Archdiocese found guilty on abuse-related charges

Cincinnati organization fined $10,000

but plea of no-contest criticized

November 21, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

An Ohio state judge found the Archdiocese of Cincinnati guilty yesterday of failing to report sexually abusive priests in the 1970s and 1980s and imposed the maximum penalty, a fine of $10,000.

The Cincinnati prosecutor and local plaintiffs lawyers hailed the decision, saying it was the first time that a Roman Catholic organization has been convicted on criminal charges related to the mishandling of sexual abuse cases.

The judge's decision was the result of an agreement with the county prosecutor in which Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk pleaded no contest to the charges against the Cincinnati Archdiocese. The archbishop appeared in the courtroom with several church officials and personally entered the plea.

"Do you understand," said Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Niehaus to the archbishop, "you admitted facts that constituted guilt?"

The archbishop, pale as he stood before the bench, answered, "Right."

The agreement was reached hastily, as a grand jury was convened to hear testimony against the archdiocese. It came at a time when many bishops appear eager to dissipate the cloud of the sexual abuse scandal that has shadowed them for nearly two years.

Some dioceses have announced settlements with victims, and several have reported to the public the names or number of priests and other diocesan employees dismissed after abuse accusations.

"They're trying very hard to get it off the table and get on with trying to be a church again," said the Rev. James Coriden, a professor of church law at Washington Theological Union in Washington.

Bishops in two other Catholic dioceses - Phoenix and Manchester, N.H. - previously signed agreements with prosecutors in which they acknowledged some wrongdoing but avoided prosecution.

According to the agreement in Cincinnati, the archdiocese acknowledged that by pleading no contest, it was admitting the truth of the five fourth-degree misdemeanor charges and agreeing to accept the judge's sentence.

"The archdiocese is held responsible," said Michael K. Allen, Hamilton County prosecuting attorney. "To my knowledge, this is the first conviction of its kind in any jurisdiction within the United States, and it sends a clear and unequivocal message."

In a statement, Archbishop Pilarczyk expressed "sorrow and shame," and said, "A few years ago, I never would have thought that it would be necessary for a bishop to be making apologies like these. But it is necessary and I offer my expressions of sorrow and regret. ... Victims, please forgive us and help us to see to it that what you have suffered never happens again."

In a news conference, Pilarczyk said he did not intend to resign. "Failure to report a crime is just that," he said. "It is not some sort of concerted effort to conceal."

The diocese was convicted for disregarding Ohio law that requires reporting allegations of abuse to civil authorities, during the years 1978 to 1982. Pilarczyk was appointed to head the Cincinnati archdiocese in December 1982, but served from 1974 as an auxiliary bishop there.

He served as president of what is now called the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1989 to 1992, the time of the first wave of the Catholic church's sexual abuse scandal. During these years, the bishops devised recommendations on clergy sexual abuse that many dioceses said they had failed to follow.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati also agreed to establish a $3 million fund to compensate sexual-abuse victims who cannot sue the church because their cases are beyond the statute of limitations. A three-member "tribunal" will administer the fund.

There is a notable advantage for the archdiocese in pleading "no contest" rather than "guilty," said Konrad Kircher, a Cincinnati area attorney who represents 67 people who are suing the church in civil court for sexual abuse. Under Ohio law, a no-contest plea cannot be used in civil proceedings, he said.

The prosecutor, Allen, said in a statement that he decided to investigate the church after Pilarczyk announced in March 2002 that fewer than five priests who had abused children in the past remained active in ministry. Allen impaneled one grand jury that indicted two inactive priests in March 2003. He recently impaneled a second grand jury to examine why the archdiocese never reported abuse claims to police.

Leaders of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, which has pressed for prosecutions of church leaders, criticized the arrangement in Cincinnati. Barbara Blaine, a lawyer who is the network's president, was among a group who met with the prosecutor in Cincinnati yesterday.

"We owe a great deal of gratitude to this prosecutor," said Blaine. "Mike Allen has really tried hard and gone out on a limb. But at the same time we are not pleased at the actual outcome, because the archbishop was allowed to plead no contest, he didn't enter a plea of guilty, and no individual is being held responsible."

Judge Niehaus, a Roman Catholic, chastised his church in the courtroom yesterday, saying, "I believe that a religious organization that not only should follow the civil law but also the moral law lost its way. And I believe that all religious organizations ought to show greater respect for human rights and not try to preserve themselves at the expense of the victims."

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