When, pursuant to court order, the Diocese of Bridgeport this month released some 12,000 pages of documents pertaining to the abuse of minors in the diocese, it also filed with Waterbury Superior Court a “Revised Privilege Log” identifying over 1,000 pages of documents it believes are still exempt from disclosure and the purported legal basis for its position.
If one reads the argument accompanying that log closely, it appears that the diocese believes that documents created as a result of counseling sessions between priests in which abuse is discussed are exempt from disclosure. The logical extension of this argument is that not only is the document protected, but also the communication itself. Thus the priest-recipient of such communication would not seem to be required, in the view of the diocese, to report the abuse or abuser to state authorities.
If this analysis of the diocese’s position is correct, its much heralded “Safe Environments Program” is nothing more than a hollow promise to parishioners. That program provides that anyone who has “actual knowledge of or [has] reasonable cause to suspect abuse or misconduct against a minor” is required to report such knowledge or suspicion to one of its Victim Assistance Coordinators or the Department of Children and Families Hotline, and in the case of a “mandated reporter,” to the police within 12 hours of becoming aware of an incident or concern.
Further, the Diocese argues that it, alone, is empowered to make decisions regarding the assignment of its priests, and that the civil authorities are precluded from inquiring into or obtaining documents relating to such decisions. Once again, the logical extension of this argument seems to be that the diocese believes that if it has obtained information regarding abuse by one of its priests only through counseling sessions or by other means that it views as constitutionally protected, it may reassign that priest to a position involving supervision of and/or contact with children, and that such decision and the documents on which it is based are not reviewable by the courts.
If such a position were taken by any other institution in society, it would be rejected on its face.
I believe that the laity of the diocese should demand that Bishop Lori clarify, in a transparent manner, the claims made on behalf of the diocese by its lawyers in this log and confirm that all clergy (outside the seal of confession) and employees of the diocese are in fact both required and encouraged to report either actual instances of abuse or suspicions that abuse may be occurring. We have seen too many instances in the past where priests ignored sleepovers at the rectory by young guests of their fellow priests, or other instances where the circumstances were such as to alert any reasonable person to the inherent dangers they posed.
The people of the diocese should also demand a clear statement from their bishop regarding the recent revelations regarding Monsignors Genuario and Wissel, of Greenwich. Rather than hide behind an elliptical statement issued by his long-time flack on his last day as an employee of the diocese, Bishop Lori should state directly whether the allegations involving these two priests were referred to the Diocesan Sexual Misconduct Review Board, how it investigated the complaints, who, if anybody, was called as a witness and the basis for its recommendations. Such apparently secret proceedings, if in fact they took place, fail any reasonable test of transparency.
Further, if a thorough investigation took place and the complaints were not found to be credible, the bishop should explain clearly why he authorized settlements that apparently cost the diocese $40,000, and why such settlements were not publicly disclosed. There should be no room in these matters for the doctrine of “mental reservation” so artfully employed by the Irish hierarchy in their dealings with their own abuse crisis.
If the bishop truly believes the positions asserted on his behalf in the log by his lawyers, he is sacrificing any claim he may have to moral leadership by an overly broad claim of privilege under the law. But that is perhaps the position we can expect from an organization that seems unwilling to deal with its members in an open, transparent and accountable manner as educated, adult members of the People of God.
Daniel B. Sullivan is co-chairman of the Voice of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport.