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Bishop John Barres says Pennsylvania priest sex-abuse report misstates his actions

The leader of the Diocese of Rockville Centre is contacting the Pennsylvania attorney general to correct the errors, a spokesman says.

Diocese of Rockville Centre Bishop John Barres in

Diocese of Rockville Centre Bishop John Barres in January.   Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Long Island's Catholic bishop on Wednesday disputed a Pennsylvania grand jury report on how he handled the cases of two priests who were accused of sexually abusing children in his former diocese of Allentown.

Bishop John Barres said the report contained factual errors and that the Pennsylvania attorney general never reached out to him for a response.

Barres, who now leads the Diocese of Rockville Centre, is contacting Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro to correct the errors, diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan said.

Joe Grace, a spokesman for Shapiro’s office, said in a statement: “We stand fully behind the Grand Jury’s report, unanimously approved by 23 Pennsylvanians, cataloging decades of sexual abuse by priests and institutional cover up by senior church leaders in six Pennsylvania dioceses.” They declined to address specifics of Barres' response.

The report, based on an 18-month investigation, determined that more than 300 priests across Pennsylvania sexually abused at least 1,000 children over seven decades.

The 1,400-page report says Barres, who led the Allentown diocese from 2009 until January 2017, decided against seeking to remove the Rev. Michael Lawrence and Msgr. Thomas J. Benestad from the priesthood.

The report states that Lawrence admitted to diocesan officials in Allentown in 1982 that he had sexually molested a 12-year-old boy. He continued to function as a priest — working in parishes, a high school and diocesan offices — until he retired in 2002.

In 2009, the Allentown diocese received another complaint alleging Lawrence had abused a 13-year-old boy in the mid-1980s. Lawrence denied the allegations, saying any touching of children during costume changes at parish plays was accidental.

Barres recommended to the Vatican in December 2014 that Lawrence remain in retirement and not be removed from the priesthood, the report states.

But Dolan said that account was misleading. He said Lawrence was removed from ministry long before Barres arrived in Allentown and had been sent to live in “a secure and carefully monitored rural facility for sex offenders.”

Dolan could not immediately identify the facility.

Initially, Barres asked the Vatican to remove Lawrence from the “clerical state,” Dolan said. But Barres and the Allentown diocese later decided to withdraw the application “because they were concerned that if Lawrence were removed from the clerical state, he would decide to leave the secure facility and rejoin society.”

Lawrence died in April 2015.

“Bishop Barres stands by his judgment — a judgment with which his advisers unanimously agreed — that it was more important to keep Lawrence in the facility and away from children than remove him from the clerical state,” Dolan said.

The grand jury report also states that Barres never informed the first alleged victim or the Vatican of both of the allegations against Lawrence. But the grand jury “misread the very letter it cites,” Dolan said.

The December 2014 letter from Barres to the Vatican, included in the grand jury report, refers in several places to “prior” and “more recent” allegations, Dolan said, and is just one of a series of letters between Allentown and Rome.

“The Vatican was informed in detail of both of the complaints,” Dolan said. “The persons who wrote the report appear to have accidentally misread the letter they cite, and did not reach out to ask the Bishop about the situation.”

In the other case, Benestad allegedly abused a child from 1981 through 1983 starting when the child was 9 years old, according to the grand jury report. In 2011, when the victim came forward, the Diocese of Allentown reported the allegations to the Northampton County District Attorney’s Office, which “found the victim’s allegations to be credible,” the report said.

More complaints were made against Benestad, who denied all the allegations and had retired in 2009, the report said. “The Diocese elected to rely on Benestad’s word rather than the word of the victims and the determination of law enforcement,” the report said. “No attempt was made to remove Benestad from ministry. Benestad was granted retirement, resides in Boca Raton, Florida, and assists with a local parish.”

Barres ordered Benestad in 2011 to refrain from all forms of public ministry until the investigation was completed. In the spring of 2014, the Vatican cleared Benestad of wrongdoing, and notified the Diocese of Allentown. Barres then lifted the ban, according to documents in the report.

But Dolan said that “here too the Report gets the facts wrong.”

A former FBI agent who had helped the Allentown diocese uncover and remove from ministry other abusers investigated the allegations against Benestad, Dolan said. The investigator presented his findings to the diocese Review Board, which was composed of lay professionals with experience in the field and had recommended the removal of other clerics in the past, he said.

The Review Board recommended against the removal of Benestad, a conclusion Barres accepted, Dolan said.

The grand jury report does not mention the investigator or the Review Board, “and it therefore appears possible that neither the Grand Jury nor the authors of the Report were aware those proceedings occurred,” Dolan said.

In 2003, a Suffolk County grand jury released a 181-page report detailing allegations of abuse of boys and girls against 23 priests stretching back decades in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. It came on the heels of the national church sex-abuse scandal first uncovered in Boston in 2002.

Since taking over Rockville Centre last year, Barres says he has reached out to victims. In an effort to promote healing and closure, he said, the diocese last year launched an Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, in which victims are financially compensated if they agree not to pursue legal action against the diocese.

John Salveson, who heads the Pennsylvania-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, said the church should support proposed legislation to lift the statute of limitations of sex-abuse crimes against children so authorities can carry out investigations and incarceration of guilty priests, rather than the church doing it.

“When you need to have a crime investigated, you don’t go to the church," said Salveson, who alleges he was sexually abused by a priest in the Diocese of Rockville Centre starting in 1969, when he was 13 years old. "You go to the police station.”

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