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Rhode Island AG, state police to review 70 years of sexual abuse allegations from Providence diocese

Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin.
Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin. (Josh Reynolds/Associated Press/File)

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PROVIDENCE — Attorney General Peter Neronha announced Tuesday that his office and the state police will review all files of childhood sexual abuse collected by the Diocese of Providence since 1950.

The attorney general’s office and Bishop Thomas J. Tobin entered a memorandum of understanding Monday that will give prosecutors and the Rhode Island State Police access to 70 years of diocesan files and records — whether or not the allegations were deemed credible by the diocese.

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The attorney general said the review is intended to identify any prosecutable cases and ensure there are no credibly accused clergy in active ministry. The attorney general’s office will also determine how the diocese responded to past reports of child sexual abuse and give the diocese input into improving its policies and procedures for preventing and responding to allegations.

“While this voluntary, additional disclosure by the diocese is an important step forward in our review,” Neronha said in a statement Tuesday, “we will not hesitate to take any additional steps that may prove necessary to fully determine the scope of misconduct here and take appropriate action.”

Neronha also promised to be as transparent as possible within the law on the results of the review.

“I welcome this opportunity to continue our cooperation with the Rhode Island Office of [the] Attorney General and the Rhode Island State Police,” Tobin said in a statement Tuesday. “It also affirms our longstanding commitment to transparency and accountability in dealing with clergy sexual abuse of minors.”

The diocese’s office of compliance has its own investigator, retired state police Major Kevin M. O’Brien, who reviews allegations of sexual abuse and refers complaints to the state police. O’Brien compiled a list of accused priests that was published July 1; the list identified nearly 50 clergy who had been accused of child sexual abuse.

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The diocese said it began working cooperatively with the attorney general’s office in 2016 to formalize its protocols on how allegations are reported to law enforcement.

When it was released, the list ended up outraging some victims, who demanded to know why the clergy they’d reported weren’t listed. Former Suffolk University and Lesley University president Margaret McKenna was angry that the priest she’d accused of molesting her was labeled “publicly accused” and not “credibly.”

The attorney general’s office said the new memorandum of understanding expands on a 2016 letter of understanding with the diocese, by providing greater access to historical records. The diocese will begin providing the files to the attorney general’s office and state police within five days for review on a rolling basis.

In addition to the complete list, the documents will include previously collected files for the period of 1971 through 2007. It will also include all files related to allegations of child sexual abuse that are maintained in the diocese office of compliance, as well as any other files requested by the attorney general.

The list of accused priests was released on the same day that Governor Gina Raimondo signed legislation to give victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to sue perpetrators and hold institutions and public entities accountable.

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“Passing this bill has caused a chain reaction, and that’s a good thing,” said Narragansett state Representative Carol Hagan McEntee, who sponsored the bill in honor of her sister, Ann Hagan Webb, who testfied about being molested by a priest.

She called Tuesday’s announcement “a big step in the right direction.”

But she said she had some concerns about the confidentiality terms in the memorandum. “I hope these are the complete files and not cherry-picked by the diocese,” she said.

The new law extends the statute of limitations for reporting child sexual abuse to 35 years. McEntee said the attorney general’s investigation will help the cases of people who alleged they were victims of sexual abuse -- and may help others realize who had abused them.

The diocese is also giving prosecutors its collected client files from its former counsel, William T. Murphy, which were transferred to the law firm Partridge Snow and Hahn. All pleadings, depositions, interrogatories, and documents produced in discovery from prior litigation on child abuse cases will also be turned over to the attorney general’s office for its investigation.

Lawyer Timothy Conlon, who has represented dozens of victims of clergy sexual abuse, said he hopes the attorney general’s office is also looking at the involvement of the diocese, and not just the actions of individual priests.

“We have cases in which rational people would call sexual abuse that was downplayed as just ‘tickling,’” Conlon said Tuesday. “They used terms like ‘horseplay’ to mask sexual abuse. What is the culpability of the higher-ups?”

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The release of the list “stirred up a hornets nest,” Conlon said, partly because of those whose names were omitted.

He said it’s too soon to know the impact of the attorney general’s investigation. “It’s important that it’s happening, and it’s good that it’s happening, and it’s good that the office of the attorney general will have feedback on conduct. And the review of the institution is significant.”

What Conlon knows for sure: The volume of files that the attorney general’s office is requesting from the diocese will fill several rooms.

“Take that directly from someone who’s seen that,” he added.

Read the memorandum of understanding below.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com.