The decision by Attorney General Peter Neronha of Rhode Island to review all files of childhood sexual abuse collected by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence since 1950 is a welcome first step toward transparency and the healing it brings to victims.
Now comes the real transparency test: making sure all relevant files are turned over, without any whitewashing by church officials.
According to a Globe report, the agreement between Neronha’s office and Bishop Thomas J. Tobin gives 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.
Again, that sounds positive. However, as Anne Barrett Doyle, codirector of the advocacy group BishopAccountability.org, points out, Neronha is not doing what law enforcement authorities are starting to do in other states — aggressively take on the church by getting search warrants and grabbing church records without prior warning to church officials.
Because the Rhode Island AG is allowing the diocese to gather the files itself, and because Tobin’s cooperation is voluntary, Barrett Doyle said she has doubts Neronha will get the full archives and worries that “the files he does get will have been sanitized.”
There’s cause for concern. On July 1, the Providence diocese published a list of nearly 50 clergy who had been accused of child sexual abuse. However, some victims said the names of some accused clergy were missing from the list. Among those upset was former Suffolk University and Lesley University president Margaret McKenna, who said a priest she had accused of molesting her was labeled “publicly accused” instead of “credibly accused.” To illustrate the difficulty in documenting the true scope of abuse, advocates at Bishop Accountability point to a 2007 court document that shows Tobin admitting to 125 accused priests between 1971 and 2006.
Mitchell Garabedian, the Massachusetts attorney who helped reveal the extent of clergy sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese, said obtaining all relevant files is just step one for the Rhode Island AG. Then, he said, Neronha “has an obligation to follow up the review of files with questions to church officials about the criminality discovered in those files, whether it be sexual abuse or the cover-up of sexual abuse. If laws were broken, then charges must be filed.” That’s not a given: McKenna says she and others have turned over information to the state police in the past, “but nothing happened.”
Even that initial step taken by Neronha might not be as big as some want. But both Garabedian and Barrett Doyle say it should remind Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey that the dioceses in her state require greater vigilance than she has so far exerted. Boston was the epicenter of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and Garabedian said victims continue to contact him. Law enforcement officials in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and across the country must leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of long-overdue justice.