By Catholic Sun staff

The Diocese of Syracuse released Dec. 3 a list of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor in the diocese in the past 70 years.

The list names 57 priests of the Diocese of Syracuse. Of the men listed, 38 are deceased. Of the 19 living, 15 are permanently removed from ministry; two are laicized; and two have been dismissed from the clerical state.

No priest credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor remains in active ministry, the diocese stressed in materials accompanying the list.

The list can be found here and at syrdio.org.

Decision to release

There long have been calls for the diocese to release the names of priests accused of abuse. The diocese’s longstanding policy had been to confirm the name of an accused abuser when a survivor made it public. That approach, diocesan officials have explained, was an effort to respect the wishes of both those survivors who wanted abusers’ names made public and those who did not.

“Upon serious reflection and prayer, I have concluded that this practice has become a roadblock to moving our local Church forward,” Bishop Robert J. Cunningham said in a Dec 1. letter to the people of the diocese announcing the release of the list.

The letter was made available in parishes over the weekend. Priests were informed of the release in meetings with the bishop on Nov. 29. Diocesan staff were informed Nov. 30.

Bishop Cunningham told the Sun that “with a lot of prayer and appropriate consultation, I’ve decided to release the names in the hopes of rebuilding some lost trust [and] giving a measure of comfort to some victims who felt that this was important.”

Additionally, “some faithful Catholics have suggested that it would be better for me to release the names so that they could hear it from their bishop,” rather than from a government agency or a media report, the bishop said.

The Diocese of Syracuse and the seven other Roman Catholic dioceses of New York State in September were subpoenaed by the state Attorney General’s office as part of a civil investigation into handling of sexual abuse allegations dating to 1950. The diocese has stated it is cooperating fully with the investigation.

The bishop also took into consideration the next leader of the diocese: “I believe it is not fair to my successor whomever he is or whenever he comes, to leave him with this decision,” he wrote in his letter. In accordance with canon law, Bishop Cunningham submitted his letter of resignation to the Holy Father on his 75th birthday in June. A successor has not yet been named and Bishop Cunningham remains the leader of the diocese.

Credible allegations

The list names clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor. Bishop Cunningham said the list was created through a careful review of records by diocesan staff followed by review by the Diocesan Review Board. He said the diocese’s council of priests was consulted about the list’s release.

According to the diocese’s Child & Youth Protection Policy, a credible allegation is one that, “based upon the facts of the case, meets one or more of the following thresholds: a. Natural, reasonable, plausible and probable; b. Corroborated with other evidence or another source; or c. Acknowledged/admitted to by the accused. In making this determination, consideration is given to the trustworthiness of the source.”

The credibility of an allegation is determined by the Diocesan Review Board, “a confidential, consultative body whose primary purpose is to assist the Diocesan Bishop in making a determination of a cleric’s suitability for ministry upon receipt of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor, young person, or vulnerable adult,” according to the same policy.

Status of accused priests

Living clergy are listed with one of three statuses: removed from ministry, laicized, or dismissed from the clerical state. According to materials from the diocese, the definitions of those canonical statuses are as follows:

  • A priest permanently removed from ministry remains a priest but is no longer able to function as a priest, identify himself as a priest, or wear clerical attire.
  • A man who is laicized voluntarily sought to be dispensed from clerical obligations. He has no affiliation with the diocese.
  • A man who is dismissed was, as a penalty, released from the clerical state. He has no affiliation with the diocese.

Under canon law, the diocese is required to provide priests removed from ministry with basic sustenance, which may include housing and health allowances, explained Danielle Cummings, chancellor and director of communications for the diocese. Such priests cannot live in diocesan housing, she said, and must arrange for private housing.

Priests removed from ministry are monitored by the diocese’s Compliance Officer, a position established in 2003. The officer, a layperson with a background in law enforcement, makes scheduled and unannounced visits to removed priests to ensure they are not providing any ministry, presenting themselves as priests, or wearing clerical garb, Cummings explained.

Allegations referred to DAs, diocese

Bishop Cunningham’s letter notes that “there is no priest in active ministry with a credible complaint of child sexual abuse and any allegations received have been decades old. It is important to note that this list has been provided to the District Attorneys of all counties in the Diocese.”

According to a 2015 Memorandum of Understanding between the diocese and the district attorneys of the seven counties of the diocese, “when a Diocesan official has learned or has reason to suspect that a member of the clergy or religious, who is under the auspices of the diocese, has sexually abused a minor, the Diocese will immediately refer the matter to the appropriate District Attorney’s Office for investigation, regardless of the age of the allegation or whether or not the clergy member or religious is active.”

“In nearly all cases, the allegations we have received are decades old and beyond the statute of limitations,” Cummings said.

The diocese begins its canonical investigation of an allegation only after civil authorities have completed their investigation. AMRIC Associates is retained by the diocese to interview the alleged victim, the accused clergy, and others during its investigations. These findings and supporting documents are presented to the Diocesan Review Board. The board determines if the allegation is credible, not credible, or unsubstantiated, then presents its recommendations to the bishop, who begins canonical action as necessary. The board’s recommendations have always been accepted by the bishop, Cummings said.

Posthumous allegations

According to the diocese’s Child & Youth Protection Policy, the Diocesan Review Board
“does not investigate the credibility of an allegation if the accused priest or religious is deceased as there is no action that can be taken in terms of that cleric’s suitability for continued ministry,” however the names of posthumously accused priests are included on the list.

Bishop Cunningham explained that the credibility of the allegations in these cases is “based on what we presume is the truthfulness of the person who brought the complaint.”

“Out of an abundance of caution and a desire for transparency, the Review Board recommended that it was advisable that we include these individuals,” he said.

Preventing future abuse

The diocesan Office of Victim Assistance receives notifications of all allegations of child sexual abuse, informs the alleged victim of his/her rights and obligations, and organizes and directs timely and responsive pastoral care provided by the diocese.

The diocesan Safe Environment Office educates clergy, religious, employees, and volunteers of the diocese on preventing sexual abuse and creating safe environments for children and young people in parishes, schools, and communities. The office is also responsible for conducting screening of clergy, employees, and volunteers.

Per diocesan policy, all clergy, religious, parish and diocesan employees, and volunteers whose ministry or role places them in regular contact with children, young people, or vulnerable adults are required to complete Safe Environment training and pass a criminal background check. Recertification training is required every five years.

According to diocesan figures, since 2003, more than 41,000 individuals have been trained and more than 15,000 Catholic school and faith formation students have received Safe Environment training.

Hopes for healing, trust

“While I am aware that the release of these names will cause pain for some victims, families of the accused, friends and parishioners, I know that we are at a critical juncture in the history of our Church,” Bishop Cunningham wrote in his letter to the people. “It is my fervent hope and prayer that this effort will bring some peace and healing to those who have been directly harmed and to all members of our community of faith.”

Members of the council of priests shared this view when the bishop consulted them on releasing the list, noted Father John Manno, president of the council.

“The council clearly recognized that this would be difficult for the victims and for all people throughout the diocese,” he said in an email to the Sun. “However, the council truly felt that this transparency would hopefully bring about healing and restored trust for the faithful.”

The council approved a resolution pledging on behalf of the entire presbyterate of the Diocese of Syracuse “to do whatever is necessary to assist our Bishop and his delegates in ensuring that no more new cases of abuse will arise and that all victims that come forward will be heard, shepherded, and responded to accordingly,” Father Manno said.

The council also encouraged Bishop Cunningham to release the names at the beginning of Advent, “since it is a penitential season,” Father Manno noted. “The candles on the Advent wreath remind the faithful that, Jesus is the light of the world and in him we put our faith and trust, knowing that he will lead us from ‘darkness into his wonderful light’” [1 Peter 2:9].