CONCORD — Nearly 10 years after a precedent-setting agreement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester ended, state prosecutors report few recent incidents of clergy sex abuse in New Hampshire.
“We have not seen a flood of complaints that other jurisdictions have seen since we had our own settlement agreements and the audits that went on,” said Deputy Attorney General Jane Young.
“This could be because we’ve already gone through this process before; it’s hard to know.”
The past year has been a devastating one for the Catholic Church in America, with a federal investigation and probes in at least 14 states and the District of Columbia.
Nearly all of this sprang from a grand jury in Pennsylvania last August that produced an 800-page report alleging 1,000 incidents of sexual molestation by more than 300 priests in six different dioceses.
Following those allegations, attorneys general in Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, D.C., launched their own criminal investigations into the church.
At the dawn of 2019, Pope Francis issued a stern message to U.S. Catholic leaders while they were gathering for a spiritual retreat on the topic at the Mundelein Seminary in Illinois.
“The church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them,” Francis wrote in a letter that mixed compassionate encouragement and blunt criticism.
Pope Francis wrote that blame-shifting by church leaders had led to mistrust and pain among the church’s followers.
“God’s faithful people and the Church’s mission continue to suffer greatly as a result of abuses of power and conscience and sexual abuse, and the poor way that they were handled, as well as the pain of seeing an episcopate (body of bishops) lacking in unity and concentrated more on pointing fingers than on seeking paths of reconciliation,” Francis concluded.
New Hampshire’s Catholic Church went through this painful process 17 years ago after state prosecutors looked into numerous allegations that present or past priests molested young parishioners.
This came on the heels of the Boston Globe exposing decades of abuse and cover-ups in the Boston Diocese. The stories were chronicled in “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning film for best picture of 2016.
For 10 months, then-attorney general Philip McLaughlin’s staff prepared evidence against 60 priests who had been accused of sexually abusing children over the previous 40 years.
Just as government lawyers were preparing to present child endangerment indictments against the Catholic Church to a grand jury, McLaughlin and then-Bishop John McCormack reached in December 2002 a 10-page agreement committing church officials to change the culture.
In the first-of-its-kind confession, McCormack acknowledged in this agreement that without it church administrators would have faced criminal charges that it failed to protect children from abusive priests.
Scorned by some
Jim Rosenberg was at that time an assistant attorney general working on the criminal case.
He said prosecutors were pursuing the indictment because they felt the problems were a result of institutional decisions and reflected a pattern of behavior by diocesan leaders.
“It’s quite clear that in the decades we looked at, the diocese’s priority was to protect the reputation of the diocese in these matters and to avoid public scandal,” Rosenberg said.
“The diocese put the victims second. There was a train wreck of bad decisions in this case that were made by a great number of people in the diocese over a great number of years.”
By this time McCormack was already scorned by many Catholic reformers because during the mid-1980s as a senior aide to Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, he had been in charge of investigating complaints against abusive priests.
According to published reports, McCormack frequently handled these complaints by transferring accused priests to different parishes rather than removing them from the ministry.
Over the two-year period ending in 2003, the church in New Hampshire paid out nearly $15.5 million to settle lawsuits brought by sexual abuse victims.
McCormack, now 83, remained bishop until he retired in 2011.
His replacement, current Bishop Peter Libasci, penned a letter to parishioners last October about the recent spate of other clergy sex abuse cases.
“These revelations have left me sickened, shaken, embarrassed and heart-broken,” Bishop Libasci wrote.
“I have heard from many of you, either directly or indirectly, that you are justifiably angry, discouraged and saddened that church leadership has breached your trust and failed to protect children, youth, seminarians, and vulnerable adults adequately.”
Under the 2002 settlement, the Manchester diocese submitted an annual audit to the AG’s office for five years to ensure it was complying with the obligation to protect children.
KPMG, one of the Big Eight accounting firms, was hired to do the forensic auditing work.
Young said it took some time to get Catholic Church leaders to become fully compliant.
“We weren’t satisfied with the first audit and we went through a few variations and that’s why the review period extended beyond five actually to seven years,” Young recalled.
By 2008-2009, Young said prosecutors could see the progress they were seeking was finally realized.
“In those last two years it was the position of this office that the progress had been remarkable and that auditors had come to believe the Diocese had come up with a very sustainable program that protected the public,” Young said.
While the settlement period has long since ended, the Catholic Church in New Hampshire remains — as are all others in the human services field — a mandatory reporter of child sex abuse allegations to local and state authorities.
“I can tell you we have had a continuing dialogue with the Diocese since then,” Young said.
Whenever complaints come in, Young said if valid they are referred to the appropriate county attorney or to another state’s prosecutors if the conduct happened beyond New Hampshire’s borders.
“We have had investigators assigned so they will review the matter if it comes in. determine whether the statute of limitations has expired,” Young said.
There have been recent criminal cases in neighboring states.
In April 2017, eight sex abuse victims reached a settlement for $800,000 with a Catholic order based in Massachusetts regarding the late Father James Nickel of Fall River, who died in 2008.
One of the victims, Chris Piersall, was the son of former Boston Red Sox standout Jimmy Piersall.
Last November in a Maine court, Keith Townsend, 44, of Seabrook testified that a former Haverhill, Mass., priest, Ronald Paquin, had during the late 1980s brought him to Paquin’s trailer in Kennebunkport where he and another boy were sexually assaulted.“He would always be touching me,” said Townsend, who had served as an altar boy. “He said it was perfectly normal for men to touch each other. He said it was part of a human sexuality course he was taking.”
A jury found Paquin guilty on 11 of the 24 sexual misconduct counts against him.
The last notable criminal trial involving a church official here was in 2014 when Edward Arsenault, a former high-ranking monsignor in the Diocese of Manchester, was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing up to $300,000 from the church, a hospital and a dead priest’s estate.
Arsenault used much of the money to spend lavishly on a male friend who lived in Florida.
“That was a straight-up theft,” said Young, who prosecuted the case.
There was a connection, however, to the sex abuse scandal here.
In his role as one of McCormack’s top lieutenants, Arsenault was a leading negotiator of the settlement McCormack and McLaughlin signed in late 2002.