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Rockville Centre diocese holds off on releasing list of clergy members accused of sex abuse

St. Agnes Cathedral is the seat of the

St. Agnes Cathedral is the seat of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Diocese of Rockville Centre is holding off on releasing a list of clergy members accused of sexual abuse, a decision that shows the delicate balance of speed and accuracy.

Most victims advocates argue the diocese has had plenty of time — years — to pull together an accurate list. A few activists, though, along with church analysts point out that getting the list right should be a top priority, regardless of how long it takes.

Bishop John Barres hasn't commented directly; a diocesan spokesman, Sean Dolan, described the release of a list now as "premature."

"The tradition of American Justice affords all persons the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, the diocese cooperates with law enforcement on all accusations and also engages additional independent, professional investigations,” Dolan said in a statement. 

New York's seven other dioceses and two-thirds of the 198 nationwide have released lists. Rockville Centre serves 1.4 million Catholics, making it the eighth largest in the country.

John Salveson is a victims advocate who thinks diocesan officials are dragging their feet because they don't want to disclose names that haven't already been made public. 

“The only reasonable explanation for me is that there are perpetrators … that they have been protecting and they are continuing to protect,” said Salveson, who alleges he was abused in the '70s by a priest at St. Dominic’s parish in Oyster Bay. “They don’t want to be exposed for what they did when they knew they had an abusive priest.” 

The diocese has had hundreds of priests since its founding in 1957. Diocesan officials do disclose the name of priest when an allegation is made; currently, no credibly accused priest is active in ministry, Dolan said.

Ascertaining which allegations are credible can be difficult for church officials because they aren't trained in investigation techniques, said Msgr. Stephen Rossetti of the Catholic University of America in Washington. 

“You are asking a religious organization, a bunch of guys like myself who were trained in theology, to adjudicate these crimes, which is nonsense,” Rossetti said. "We’re here to preach the gospel, not to determine guilt in a criminal offense. It is the civil authorities’ responsibility.”

Law enforcement officials, however, have investigated less than 5 percent of clergy abuse cases because the statute of limitations has expired on the rest, Rossetti said.

Many of the cases are decades old, and the alleged perpetrators are dead so they can't defend themselves, leaving church officials to figure out the truth, he said. 

“It’s a mess,” Rossetti said.

Rockville Centre has many allegations against clergy members who have died, Dolan said.

“Some of these allegations do not include any details or corroborating evidence, and may pertain to clerics with unblemished records," he said.

The Archdiocese of New York, the second largest in the nation, released 120 names in April. The most difficult part of the process was ensuring that the list was "as accurate and complete as possible," said spokesman Joseph Zwilling.

Terry McKiernan is a victims advocate who understands the need of accuracy but also thinks Rockville Centre should have been prepared to release a list, in part because of nearly two dozen cases detailed in a 2003 Suffolk County grand jury report. 

“A lot has been known about the diocese and its problems for many years,” said McKiernan, who is co-director of Bishop Accountability, a watchdog website. “They are long overdue to release a list.”

Still, he said, pulling together an accurate list isn't easy to do because some accusations prove to be false, such as the ones against Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles more than a decade ago. 

“When a diocese puts out a list, they have to say, ‘Is this true?’” McKiernan said. “It’s hard work and can take a while.”

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