By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati on Thursday became the first Catholic institution in the nation to be found guilty of criminal charges for failing to report sexual abuse involving priests and children.
Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk (second from left) stands with his attorneys, Tom Miller (left) and Mark VanderLaan, before Judge Richard A. Niehaus as they enter a plea of no contest to five counts of failure to report a felony in cases related to sexual molestation by priests. At right is Prosecutor Mike Allen.|
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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Although the archdiocese did not admit guilt, it entered a no-contest plea to five misdemeanor charges of failing to report a felony. The plea was an about-face for church officials who have insisted for most of the past two years that they had reported everything the law required.
Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, wearing traditional black clothing and a Roman collar, stood before a packed Hamilton County courtroom Thursday afternoon and entered the plea.
"Do you understand what is taking place today?" asked Common Pleas Judge Richard Niehaus, before finding the archdiocese guilty of all charges.
"Yes, sir, I do," Pilarczyk answered.
The no-contest plea means the archdiocese accepts the facts of the case but does not admit it is guilty of a crime.
Because the plea was made on behalf of the archdiocese - rather than individual officials - no one will face jail and no one will be required to acknowledge criminal wrongdoing.
But the 69-year-old archbishop apologized a few hours later to abuse victims and said he accepts responsibility for the mistakes of his church.
"I express my sorrow and shame at the suffering that priests and other church employees have inflicted on young persons," Pilarczyk said. "Please forgive us and help us to see to it that what you have suffered never happens again."
Niehaus imposed the maximum $10,000 fine and scolded the archbishop, telling him the church had "lost its way."
"Religious organizations ought to show greater respect for human rights, and not try to preserve themselves at the expense of the victims," he said.
Promise of cooperation
At a news conference a few hours later, Pilarczyk promised greater cooperation with authorities and announced the creation of a $3 million fund to compensate victims of abuse.
The fund comes with one caveat: Victims who are suing the archdiocese are not eligible for compensation unless they drop their lawsuits. More than 70 people now have lawsuits pending against the archdiocese and at least four priests.
The plea and compensation fund are part of a settlement that church lawyers and prosecutors worked out during the past several days. As part of that settlement, the archdiocese agreed to institute reporting safeguards that are stronger than those required by Ohio law.
Settlement talks began as Prosecutor Mike Allen prepared to convene a special grand jury to hear evidence about the archdiocese's handling of abuse allegations.
Allen hailed the settlement as the best way to help victims and to prevent future abuse.
"We have held them accountable," Allen said. "We have taken steps to make sure what took place in the Catholic Church over the last several decades will not happen again."
The reaction from victims and their advocates was swift and less enthusiastic. Some saw the plea deal as a means for the archdiocese to resolve its legal woes without making full disclosure about its handling of abusive priests.
"They basically got away with it," said Christy Miller, who claims in a lawsuit that a priest molested her for two years in the mid-1980s.
The plea deal ends the prosecutor's nearly two-year investigation of the archdiocese, but it does not rule out future charges against abusive priests.
Allen said he is satisfied that the archdiocese no longer employs any active priests who have been the subject of substantiated allegations of sexual abuse.
He said his office has reviewed more than 10,000 pages of documents and interviewed four high-ranking church officials about abuse allegations.
Although the five misdemeanor charges do not identify specific cases of abuse, Allen said all occurred between 1978 and 1982 and involve the Rev. Lawrence Strittmatter and the Rev. David Kelley.
Those priests are among five who remained employed by the church despite allegations of abuse. All five have been suspended in the past year.
Allen said he appreciates the frustration of victims who wanted a tougher penalty. But he said it was impossible to determine from church records which individuals were responsible in every case for failing to report the alleged abuse.
He assured victims that the settlement resulted in as strong a penalty as any judge could have handed down after a trial.
"This isn't a plea bargain," he said. "We gave up absolutely nothing."
Both sides said the plea was unprecedented.
Of all the abuse investigations in the past two years, only two others ended with a deal with prosecutors: A bishop in Phoenix avoided criminal charges by admitting he concealed abuse allegations, and church officials in New Hampshire settled out of court with prosecutors. Neither case ended with a plea or a criminal conviction.
Despite the spectacle of an archbishop standing before a judge, victims' rights groups remained unsatisfied with the settlement. Only a trial, some said, would have brought all of the evidence and given victims the closure they need.
"I think, sadly, that the truth only comes out in a courtroom," said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.
Pilarczyk said he believes the settlement will help to heal the victims and the church.
"I apologize to the community and the household of the faith for this deficiency," Pilarczyk said. "It was wrong and it should not have happened."
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