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Bishop Scharfenberger asks for review of church's records on sexual abuse cases

Bishop Scharfenberger asks for review of church's records on sexual abuse cases

Letter asks Albany DA David Soares to review records
Bishop Scharfenberger asks for review of church's records on sexual abuse cases
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, is pictured in 2014.
Photographer: Gazette file photo

ALBANY -- Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese has invited Albany District Attorney David Soares to review the diocese's records on sex abuse cases.

Scharfenberger announced the invitation in an open letter Thursday, calling the decision a necessary one that "ultimately will result in much good but one that is likely to be difficult and incredibly challenging for us for the foreseeable future." 

The letter from Scharfenberger came out on the same day state Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood announced her office has established a hotline and online complaint form as part of the state’s ongoing investigation into clergy sex abuse in all eight New York state dioceses.

The Attorney General’s Charities Bureau is investigating whether dioceses and other church entities reviewed and potentially covered up allegations of sexual abuse of minors, and the office’s criminal division is seeking to work with local district attorneys across the state.

“The Pennsylvania grand jury report shined a light on incredibly disturbing and depraved acts by Catholic clergy, assisted by a culture of secrecy and coverups in the dioceses,” Underwood said. “Victims in New York state deserve to be heard as well, and we are going to do everything in our power to bring them the justice they deserve.”

The hotline number is 1-800-771-7755. Complaints can also be filed online at ag.ny.gov/ClergyAbuse. Underwood said investigators would review any allegations, and will work with law enforcement to protect the identities of victims and witnesses.

Published reports said the Attorney General’s Office has subpoenaed records from all Catholic dioceses in the state. The subpoenas seek church documents related to abuse allegations, payments to victims or findings from church investigations, according to a law enforcement source who spoke to The Associated Press.

The Albany diocese confirmed later Thursday it has received the subpoena.

"We are ready and willing to cooperate with the attorney general in every way we can," said diocese spokeswoman Mary DeTurris Poust.

Soares said the letter had been received, though he still expressed concern that information could be withheld.

"We remain cautiously optimistic about the level of access to be granted and we will be meeting with officials from the diocese to discuss further steps in the process," Soares said in a released statement. "This offer is certainly a step in the right direction towards a full accounting of alleged misconduct dating back many years and we welcome the opportunity to review every record that will allow for a transparent investigation."

Soares, who is president of the District Attorneys Association of New York State, said all DA's offices around the state should cooperate with the state investigation.

“I continue to encourage district attorneys in all counties to work with the Attorney General’s Office to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic diocese. Past victims and current victims deserve to have their complaints aggressively investigated and those who have committed these horrific crimes must be held accountable,” Soares said.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, however, lashed out at the idea of the state investigation focusing only on the church.

"Your decision to launch a grand jury investigation of Catholic dioceses -- to the exclusion of all other religions, private non-sectarian institutions, and public sector entities -- is manifestly unjust and indefensible," Catholic League President William Donohue wrote in a letter to Underwood. "Are you saying that the sexual abuse of minors is peculiar to Catholic institutions?"

The new developments come as the church is again under intense pressure over sexual abuse allegations.

The most recent events in the ongoing sex abuse scandal extend to the Vatican, where Pope Francis has been accused of not taking action after being made aware of allegations against American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. A Pennsylvania grand jury report last month found a pattern of abuse of minors by priests over many decades, with church leaders covering up the incidents.

In a different letter to priests in the diocese released last week, Scharfenberger acknowledged that many Catholics are "angry and dismayed at revelations of ongoing duplicity and unchastity among priests and bishops."

In the new letter, Scharfenberger said the Albany diocese – which serves 14 counties in eastern New York – wants to address the situation.

"After a lot of prayer and reflection, in the best interest of everyone involved — survivors, clergy, parishioners and our local church — we have contacted Albany District Attorney David Soares to invite him to review our records and look at how sexual abuse cases have been handled historically in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, to what extent survivors were heard and believed, what processes were followed, and what consequences resulted," Scharfenberger wrote.

The announcement came two days after Scharfenberger promoted the diocese's first Euchartistic Congress in 80 years, which is slated for Sept. 22 in Auriesville. At that event, he is asking all priests in the diocese to renew their commitments.

There have been 26 priests in the diocese removed from the priesthood over the past 20 years due to abuse allegations, and one, Gary Mercure, of Warren County, is serving a state prison sentence.

Scharfenberger said it is in the best interests of the church to cooperative with outside investigations.

“In the spirit of transparency and in an effort to restore a sacred trust that has been broken again and again, I believe a fully independent investigation, one coordinated by the district attorney, is the only way forward,” the bishop wrote.

Scharfenberger referenced the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, to address a series of revelations emerging at that time, and said it has improved the church’s response.

"Wherever the provisions of the charter were put into practice, the number of new abuse cases thankfully has been diminishing significantly. The protocols in place for reporting to civil authorities, background checks, safe environment training, and more have made the church of today one of the safest places for children,” he wrote.

Underwood said it is important to note that many cases of abuse may not be prosecutable, given New York’s statute of limitations.

Under current law, minor victims only have until age 23 to file civil cases or seek criminal charges for abuse committed while they were minors.

Underwood said she is an advocate of the Child Victims Act, which would allow all victims to file civil suits until age 50 and seek criminal charges until age 28. She said most serious child sex crimes have no time limit on the bringing of criminal charges, but only for conduct that occurred in 2001 or later.  

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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