By Brendan J. Lyons (Times Union)
March 5, 2012
Citing "concerns about how these cases are being handled," the district attorneys all signed a proposed memorandum of understanding that was presented to Hubbard early last month. Hubbard, who has been bishop since 1977, signed the document Friday, a day after the Times Union asked the diocese questions about it. He declined a request for an interview.
The district attorneys signed the memorandum in alphabetical order of their counties, which include the greater Capital Region and an area covering dozens of churches and Catholic schools from Delaware to Washington counties.
The memorandum was shown to the Times Union by two people not authorized to comment publicly. It marks the second time since 2002 that the district attorneys have banded together and privately raised questions about the diocese's handling of sexual abuse cases, including whether church leaders had once systematically shielded accused priests from law enforcement scrutiny.h
In the letter to Hubbard, the district attorneys said the diocese's current practice is problematic because church officials screen people who come forward with allegations of sexual abuse before law enforcement officials are notified. The victims are also required to fill out detailed forms about the abuse and the effect it has had on them, and to sign waivers giving the church access to their medical records.
"This stated policy of the Albany diocese does not require the diocese to notify law enforcement of any allegation that the diocese does not find credible or believes is beyond the statute of limitations," the district attorneys' letter says. The diocese's system "has resulted in a screening process of cases by which the Albany diocese makes a determination on credibility, requires any person making an allegation to fill out a questionnaire, provide a deposition, names of witnesses and sign HIPPA (health information privacy) releases."
Once an abuse allegation has been processed by the diocese, Michael L. Costello, an Albany attorney whose firm has represented the diocese for decades, sends a letter to the district attorney whose county is where any alleged abuse took place.
Costello's letters do not give many details or identify the victim. Last November, Costello withheld the name of an accused clergy member in a letter to the Warren County district attorney relaying a new abuse allegation. His letter to District Attorney Kathleen B. Hogan said the priest's name was "available upon request." He identified the victim as born in 1965 and a resident of Texas.
The concerns raised by the region's top law enforcement officials come 10 years after their agencies issued a similar letter to the diocese to "express the grave concerns of our constituencies about the manner in which such cases have been handled in the past," said the letter, dated April 11, 2002.
In a statement issued late Friday, the diocese cast the recent demands from 14 district attorneys as a collective effort with the church.
Kenneth Goldfarb, a diocese spokesman, said: "The diocese is working with the district attorneys to develop a new agreement that updates the initial 2002 protocol that established a standardized practice for reporting allegations of abuse to law enforcement agencies."
The diocese's handling of sexual abuse allegations came under extreme scrutiny in 2008 when Gary Mercure, a former longtime priest in the Albany and Glens Falls areas, was accused of raping young boys in the 1980s and 1990s. In the mid-1990s, the diocese sent Mercure to a church-run hospital near Philadelphia, St. John Vianney, for undisclosed counseling and what church officials described as a "nervous breakdown."
Mercure was later returned to the ministry. Then, around 2000, a mother of two former altar boys in Glens Falls contacted church officials and reported that her son had told her Mercure had once tried to kiss him on the family's front porch.
The woman, who now lives in another state and spoke to the Times Union on the condition she not be identified, said she was put in touch with Father Louis Deimeke, a diocese official who later retired.
"He wanted to know 'what do you want from us,'" she said. "I said we don't want any money ... I'm calling to protect other children."
She said Deimeke acknowledged they'd "had problems" with Mercure.
Church officials would later say Mercure denied the allegations and resumed his ministry duties in Troy.
The woman said about a year later she learned Deimeke would be at St. Mary's Church in Glens Falls. She waited and followed him into the sacistry, where she introduced herself.
"He did not acknowledge me in any way shape or form," the woman said. "He continued to put his coat on and walked out the sacistry door and out of the church. I stood there dumbfounded."
In 2008, after one of her sons learned Mercure was still a priest at an area church affiliated with a school, the alleged victim contacted the Warren County district attorney and recounted years of alleged abuse at Mercure's hands. On paper, it looked as though the New York statute of limitations barred any prosecution. Hogan investigated and learned Mercure had raped some of his victims in Massachussetts, where his crimes were not time-barred from prosecution.
Last year Mercure was sentenced in Berkshire County to more than 20 years in prison after being convicted of three counts of forcible rape.
The former Glens Falls-area woman, whose son testified at Mercure's trial, said no one from the diocese contacted law enforcement. "They never reported it," she said. In 2000, her sons were adults but reluctant to tell the chuch what had happened. But they may have told police, she added.
The 2002 letter from 14 district attorneys to the diocese also outlined concerns about the diocese's reporting practices and noted that other public and private organizations "nearly universally" would contact law enforcement.
"There is the legitimate view held by many of our constituents that the policy and practice of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese has been to shield individual offenders from the criminal justice system," the district attorneys wrote. "There exists a truly grave concern that the policy and practices of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese places individual offenders into a position where such individuals could victimize young people."
Before 2002, it's unclear the diocese had ever proactively reported allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement.
In December, in response to questions from the Times Union about its past reporting practices, the diocese said that prior to 2002 it would "defer to the wishes of the complainant/victim."
"When an allegation of clergy sexual misconduct was received by the diocese between 1977 and 2002, the diocese's approach was to investigate the allegation, offer counseling and other appropriate assistance requested by the victim, and take appropriate action against the accused priest," Goldfarb said in a Dec. 22 statement. "To the best of our recollection, no complainant/victim or their attorneys ever asked that the diocese contact a law enforcement agency. The accused priest was placed on administrative leave from ministry until an independent psychologist certified that he was not at risk to re-offend."
After 2002, and under pressure to change its handling of abuse complaints, the diocese adopted a policy to notify district attorneys when an alleged victim came forward. Goldfarb said the changes were made by a task force and that the diocese adopted recommendations from the district attorneys.
Now, the district attorneys have asked the diocese not to ask the alleged victim or person reporting the allegation to "make or sign any statements." They also are directing the diocese to comply with any subpoenas for documents or witnesses.
In addition, the district attorneys have asked the diocese to promptly report allegations of sexual or physical abuse without conducting any screening or "diocesan investigation." Their reports to law enforcment should include the name, address and telephone number of the accused and the victim and any contact information for the person reporting the abuse. They also asked that the diocese refrain from requesting additional information from the person reporting the abuse.
The counties represented by the district attorneys who signed the memorandum are: Albany, Columbia, Delaware, Fulton, Greene, Herkimer, Montgomery, Otsego, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, Warren and Washington.