Update on Child Abuse Issues in the News — by Brian Mark Hennessey

Update on Child Abuse Issues in the News.

Three Provincial Superiors of the Franciscan Order face the Grand Jury in Pennsyvania for conspiracy to endanger children.

Perhaps the most notable news story covered in the past week was that three Friars of the Third Order Regular Franciscans have been criminally charged in Pennsylvania with conspiracy and endangering children for their alleged role in enabling a brother in their order, believed to have sexually abused upwards of 100 minors, primarily at a Catholic high school. The report appeared in a number of press issues – including the Associated Press, the National Catholic Reporter and CNN. Brian Roewe of NCR reported that the charges were announced by Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane:

Franciscan Frs. Giles Schinelli, 73, Robert D’Aversa, 69, and Anthony Criscitelli, 61, were each charged with one count of endangering the welfare of children and criminal conspiracy; each are third degree felony charges, which carry a maximum seven-year prison sentence and $15,000 fine. The three men served in succession as provincial superior from 1986-2010. The charges relate to Franciscan Br. Stephen Baker, who is accused of sexually abusing more than 100 children in the Johnstown area, including as many as 80 students at Bishop McCort Catholic High School. Baker committed suicide on Jan. 26, 2013, at age 62 — just days after Ohio news outlets reported settlements with 12 former students of John F. Kennedy High School, in Warren, Ohio, with each student saying the priest had molested them. “These men turned a blind eye to the innocent children they were trusted to protect,” Kane said.

The Grand Jury found that these individuals, when serving as Ministers Provincial and thereafter did endanger the welfare of hundreds of children by placing and/or permitting Stephen Baker to have contact with children and the public as part of his ministry”. It was the investigation into Baker in April 2014 that initiated the broader grand jury investigation into the handling of abusive priests and allegations in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese. That report, 147 pages in length and released March 1, detailed the histories of 34 alleged abusive priests and found as many as 50 priests and church officials had sexually abused hundreds of children.

Fr Schinelli, provincial from 1986-1994, learned in 1988 of an allegation against Baker, and eventually sent him for psychological examination. While testifying before the grand jury, Schinelli acknowledged that the ensuing recommendations included no one-on-one contact with children; yet he still allowed Baker in 1992 to begin working at the high school, which was not informed of any allegations.

Fr D’Versa, provincial from 1994 to 2002, failed to notify the school of allegations or offer a reason for his reassignment, or to inform local law enforcement. Still, Baker, appointed vocations director for the order, continued attending school functions, and according to alleged victims who spoke to the grand jury, continued to abuse.

In testimony to the grand jury, Criscitelli, provincial from 2002-2010, said he was told Baker wasn’t “high risk,” and that he required “safety plans” for the friar that restricted contact with minors. But the grand jury found holes in these plans, noting Criscitelli lived in Minnesota while Baker was in Pennsylvania, and that a communal system of friars mutually responsible for one another at the St. Bernadine Monastery often left alleged abusers looking out for one another. The investigation found the order had knowledge of at least eight friars, including Baker, accused of sexual abuse of children.

Calls for the French Cardinal Phillipe Barbarin to step down.

The National Catholic Reporter also carried a report this week to the effect that there have been calls demanding that Cardinal Barbarin should relinquish his role as Archbishop of Lyon, France. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called on the prominent cardinal to “assume his responsibilities” amid widening allegations of a pedophilia cover-up targeting Lyon’s Roman Catholic diocese. In an interview with BFM TV on March 15, Valls refused himself to comment on whether Cardinal Philippe Barbarin should step down. The archbishop of Lyon, Barbarin has been accused of covering up alleged sexual abuse of young Boy Scouts by Lyon priest Bernard Preynat between 1986 and 1991 – before Barbarin was named cardinal. Last week, the Lyon prosecutors’ office announced preliminary charges against Barbarin and five other members of the diocese for “non-denunciation of a crime.” Preynat was removed from service last year after his accusers came forward. The leading French newpaper, Le Figaro, asked, “Is this the start of a ‘Spotlight’ a la Francaise?” referring to the Academy Award-winning movie now playing in France. Identified by an assumed name, “Pierre,” the accuser in the initial case – now a 42-year-old father of two – said he met Preynat during a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Prosecutors have opened a preliminary inquiry. Pierre told the newspaper he had approached Barbarin in 2009 after a doctor urged Pierre to press charges. The cardinal reportedly apologized on behalf of the priest, whom he acknowledged had a “problem,” notably earning a year’s suspended prison sentence more than a decade ago for exhibitionism. Contacted by the newspaper, the priest said he had “no memory” of the alleged incident. For his part, Barbarin has steadfastly denied any cover-up, an argument he repeated on Tuesday.”Never, never, never have I covered up any act of pedophilia,” he said at a press conference in Lourdes.

The Anglican Church cut contact with Child Abuse Victim on order of Insurers.

This week the National Secular Society published a report by Ian Elliott, an expert in child safeguarding, who has found “repeated failures” by clergy and bishops in the Church of England to deal with reports by survivors of child abuse.

A single survivor of child sex abuse told “over 40 members of the clergy during the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s” of sexual abuse he had suffered at the hands of a senior member of the Church of England, but failed to receive an adequate response – including from people in “very senior positions within the Church” and the office of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. As late as 2014 the survivor made another report of the historic sex abuse and found “the response less than adequate.” The Church offered no “real investigation into his disclosures” and “every question arising from the issue of senior disclosures was entirely ignored from the outset by the bishop he reported to, the Head of Safeguarding.”

The report has been made public after the Church initially released its conclusions alone. David Greenwood, a lawyer specialising in helping child abuse victims claim compensation, said in a press release that the church had “indicated that it does not wish to publish the whole report so the survivor is taking the step of providing the report to the press.” The report offers a damning verdict on the Church’s response to allegations by the survivor, referred to as “B”. According to the report, it was “deeply disturbing” that despite B reporting the case to a “large number of people”, some of them claim to have “no memory of the conversations.” “What is surprising about this is that he would be speaking about a serious and sadistic sexual assault allegedly perpetrated by a senior member of the hierarchy. The fact that these conversations could be forgotten about is hard to accept,” Elliott wrote. To avoid legal liability, the report found, the Church “issued instructions that all contact with a survivor was to be ended, causing considerable distress and also placing the survivor at risk.” Elliott said the decision was “reckless” and contrary to the Church of England’s own policy.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, which has been researching clerical abuse for many years and given evidence on the topic at the United Nations, commented: “The problem wasn’t that bishops weren’t trained in such matters, it is the institutional culture of denial and the bullying of the abused and whistleblowers into silence. One report suggests that 13 bishops ignored letters written in the 1990s warning of abuse by Ball on behalf of a victim who later committed suicide. I have seen evidence that such bullying persists to this day. “I hope that the Archbishop’s review into the case of Peter Ball will deal with such bullying and what appears to be the undue influence exerted on the police and CPS by the Church in dealing with this case. “The total failure of procedures, outlined by Ian Elliott, echoes that revealed in the totally damning Cahill Report about the conduct of the Archbishop Hope of York in respect of Robert Waddington. The report has been released ahead of the preliminary hearing of the Goddard inquiry into child sex abuse, which will scrutinise the Church’s record and policies on abuse.

My Comment: The story relating to the Franciscan Provincial priests is notable in the context of this blog in that those familiar with the sexual abuse by members of the Comboni Missionary Order at their Mirfield Seminary in the 1960s and 70s will know that the abuse was reported at the time to members of the Order’s Hierarchy at a local level, a provincial level and at the very centre of the Order’s Curia in Italy at the time that it happened. The Curia Hierarchy of the Comboni Missionary Order of Verona, Italy, still denies that any abuse occurred. One has said that indeed “there has never ever been a case of sexual abuse reported within the Order”! In the case of the three Franciscans the Grand Jury has stated that despite having knowledge of alleged abuse, the three former provincials “acted to protect the institution they led rather than the children and families they served”. How familiar is that to my ears! It is precisely what the Comboni Missionary Order has done throughout the decades – and still does to this day.

In the context of the above news reports from both the USA and France, I note that a BBC Panorama Programme has claimed that the failure to report child abuse should be a crime in the United Kingdom Statute Book. There are many views for and against. In the United Kingdom, the failure to report all crimes was once a felony. Under the Law at the time of the sexual abuse at the Mirfield Seminary an omission or failure to report a crime was regarded as a “Misprision of a Felony”. In effect, it was an offence under the Common Law of England to fail to make reports of a crime to the appropriate authorities when that crime was within their knowledge. The degree of criminality was greater when the omission was committed by persons in a special position of responsibility. The law of “Misprision” was in effect until July 1967 when a new Act of Parliament came into force and was subsequently introduced in 1968 – and the former law was abrogated. Prior to that abrogation of the Act, some 10 reports of sexual abuse that had been perpetrated against those Mirfield child seminarians by Fathers John Pinkman and Domenico Valmaggia, had been made by the young seminarians to priests and superiors at the Mirfield seminary. The failure to take any action against the perpetrators of the abuse at that time – and their failure to report those crimes to the Police as they were obliged to do, constituted arrestable and imprisonable offences. Yet, those priests chose to do nothing at all and their criminal indifference and criminal inaction was nothing less than the equivalent of watching those young, helpless Victims slowly drown in shallow water before their very own eyes simply because they did not want to feel the discomfort of getting their feet wet. The Victims will never forget such callousness. The Catholic Communities of Great Britain to whom the Comboni Missionary Order plead for funds for their mission will not forget such un-Christian callousness either.

The tale of the failure of reports of child abuse to elicit a response from the Anglican Church will be such a familiar tale to all the abused seminarians of the Comboni Missionary Order’s Mirfield Seminary. The Order has entrenchedly cut all contact with those seminarians who were abused by priests of their order. There is no acceptance of the truth that is known to them and admitted by some of them – no dialogue – no apology. Just a wall of silence that the Order hopes will protects them from any accountability. Christian Biblical ethics have not one jot of meaning to some members of the Comboni Missionary Order’s hierarchy. “If you are waiting for an apology, you will wait in vain”, Mark Murray was told when he went to Verona seeking a resolution to the sexual abuse he suffered when a child at Mirfield. The French Cardinal cries, “Never, never, never have I covered up any act of pedophilia.” Father Martin Devinish, the Provincial of the London Province of the Comboni Missionary Order cries, “There are priests alive today who were at Mirfield at the time of the abuse who have NO knowledge of the abuse”! – but Father Martin Devinish neglects to add that, “There are priests alive today who were at Mirfield at the time of the abuse who DO have knowledge of the abuse”! Indeed, one of those priests has stated that he actually told Father Martin Devinish of that abuse himself! It is of little wonder that parish congregations are diminishing in number rapidly throughout the informed Western world. The downfall of Christianity – if it ever does fall down – will be brought about by the self conceit of its own clergy – not by the Victims of clerical child abuse – and not by the little people in the parish pews who are today already walking away from the churches in disgust. That disgust is not solely related to the abuse – but to the sordid, even indeed criminal failure of Church Clerics and Hierarchies to take effective, appropriate and “Christian” action to remedy the crimes and heal the suffering of Victims.

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