An abused story

abuseI was in high school 20 years ago. It was an age of great pop music, mullets, and impending U.S. victory in the Cold War. If that sounds like a long time ago, it was.

Which is why I find it odd that The New York Times buried this fact in its story about a Catholic priest who has been removed from ministry because of allegations that he fondled two teenage boys.

Reporter Paul Vitello’s story was curious. It had strong virtues but also strong defects.

On the one hand, Vitello showed that in some cases at least, the Catholic Church’s new policy about removing alleged abusers is severe:

Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the first accuser came to the archdiocese in June. After an internal investigation, he said, the church sent the case to the district attorney’s office, but did not remove Monsignor Harris because it is church policy “not to alert the target” of a potential criminal investigation.

During the district attorney’s investigation, the second accusation against Monsignor Harris emerged, and the diocese ordered him to step aside, Mr. Zwilling said. The five-year statute of limitations has lapsed in both cases, and charges are not likely to be brought, said Alicia Maxey Greene, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office.

The archdiocese still must decide whether Monsignor Harris will be returned to his duties, “returned to the lay state,” or permitted to retire to “a life of prayer and penance,” an inactive status, Mr. Zwilling said. Monsignor Harris is one of 15 archdiocesan priests who have been removed since 2002 on sexual abuse allegations, with just one returning to his post, he said.

Also, Vitello showed that the priest, Monsignor Wallace A. Harris, was no recluse or loner; on the contrary, he was popular and influential:

Monsignor Harris, 61, is widely known in Harlem for his church’s charity works, and known in the community of 648 priests who serve in the Archdiocese of New York as an expert organizer and charismatic leader. He is the chairman of the archdiocesan priests’ council, a position to which he was elected by the priests. He was appointed by Cardinal Edward M. Egan as vicar of central Harlem, one of five vicariates in the five boroughs.

Later, Vitello added

The monsignor was assigned to coordinate Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Yankee Stadium in April — and it is part of local legend that the task involved making sure that 100,000 ponchos were ready in case of rain. “How many people could do that?” Ms. Tuckett said. “He is a very smart man; he makes things work like clockwork.”

On the other hand, the story’s lede was buried. The story opened not with the allegations against Monsignor Harris, but rather about the fact that one former pastor was addicted to cocaine and booze while another one was convicted of molesting a 12-year-old girl. What this angle has to do with the main story line I don’t know.

Also, the fact that the alleged abuse 20 years ago was buried. Here is the relevant paragraph:

Neither the archdiocese nor the Manhattan district attorney’s office would provide more details. But people familiar with the district attorney’s investigation said the complaints involved the fondling of two boys, about 13 or 14 years old, when they were students at the Cathedral School in Manhattan, where Monsignor Harris was assigned before becoming pastor at St. Charles Borromeo.

Readers only learn that the alleged fondling occurred two decades ago comes via a quote from an upset parishioner. By contrast, Oren Yaniv of The New York Daily News highlighted that the alleged abused occurred 20 years ago:

A popular Harlem priest accused of sexually abusing two minors 20 years ago will not be charged because the statute of limitations has expired, prosecutors said yesterday.

The allegations against Msgr. Wallace Harris of St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church on 141st St. date from the late 1980s.

The Catholic Church’s new policy is strict in many ways. Yet I think that the Times‘ story needed to explore the question of why abused teenage boys would come forward 20 years later. Is this unusual? Is it possible or likely that the boys’ memory is faulty? (In the early- and mid-1990s, the question of recovered and repressed memory was a big one.)

As is, the story conveys the impression that the church, St. Charles Borromeo, is somehow to blame. As one parishioner says,

“Must be something about that building,” said Roger Firby, 50, a retired corrections officer who has lived most of his life within walking distance of the church. “Always got some trouble.”

Yeah, I guess. But that is a strange way to explain the abuse and the allegations.

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  • http://www.soilcatholics.blogspot.com Peggy

    FYI: An old abuse case in the Belleville IL diocese has new life recently. The statute on limitations has expired, but there is a question as to whether the diocese covered-up, which alleged crime would not have violated a limitations statute. A judge ruled that the jury needs to find whether the diocese engaged in cover up before proceeding. The case was filed while Wilton Gregory was bishop here. It reflects on his reputation it would appear, though handling the case and the priest in question was delegated to the Vicar General. The reporting appears to be okay, but we don’t really know much yet to compare this story to.

    Link to article: http://www.bnd.com/homepage/story/421402.html

  • Sister Maureen Paul Turlish

    And the fact that the sexual abuse, if found credible, happened 20 or so years ago means what? That it did not happen? That it is somehow less a horrific violation because it was a long time ago?

    What I find absolutely unacceptable about the whole sad story is that no one will really be held accountable for this crime in the end, neither the possible perpetrator nor any enablers if they exist.

    This can all be corrected with changes to the law and those changes should be made ASAP.

    Removing all criminal and civil statutes of limitation in regard to the sexual abuse of children while including a two to five year legislative window for previously time barred cases of abuses is the single most effective way to stem the epidemic of childhood sexual abuse in this country.

    The institutional church does a disservice to all of us in opposing legislative changes. Instead of fighting tooth and nail in against better legislation, the church should be proactive in pushing for better laws. Bishops and Catholic Conferences should be leading the parade not digging in their heels. We are talking about the sexual abuse, rape and sodomizing of children for God’ sake.

    This is a Right to Life issue just as much as is the protection of the unborn and yet there are no postcard writing campaigns in parishes being directed by the Archdiocese of New York to influence Albany legislators to bring state laws into the 21st century.

    Keep in mind that remarks made by former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law not withstanding, the Boston Globe did not create this scandal on their front pages in 2002, the bishops of these United States did. So maybe Bernard Law should have been calling down the eternal wrath of God on himself and his fellow bishops.

    No anti-catholic conspiracy here, no 1850s Know Nothings and no WASPs.

    Just good old collusion, conspiracy and cover-ups.
    __________________________________________________________________________________________

    SUPPORT THE REMOVAL OF ALL STATES’ SOLs IN REGARD TO THE SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN AND INCLUDE WINDOW LEGISLATION FOR PAST OFFENSES.

  • Neela Banerjee

    Mark,

    I find your point about the fact that the NYT didnt mention in a straightforward way that the abuse allegedly occured 20 yrs ago valid. I find the question you raise of why people waited 20 yrs to come forward rather curious. The rolls of newsprint that went to the sex abuse scandals regularly cite mental health specialists who say that it generally takes years for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to come forward. The shame, guilt, denial, anger that the victims experienced silence them for a long time.

    I’m not saying that the Msgr abused these children. I’m just surprised that after all the coverage, you would ask the question of why folks wait–unless you believe that is a reason to doubt them. Which you might want to say rather than insinuate.

    And if anyone wonders what children actually underwent in encounters with abusive priests, I suggest you read the Philly DA’s grand jury report on that archdiocese. It was so disturbing, I had to put it aside for a few days. It gives one a sense of why the victims may need years to grapple with their experiences and talk about them.

    Rgds
    Neela Banerjee

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Sister Maureen Paul Turlish writes,

    And the fact that the sexual abuse, if found credible, happened 20 or so years ago means what? That it did not happen? That it is somehow less a horrific violation because it was a long time ago?

    What I find absolutely unacceptable about the whole sad story is that no one will really be held accountable for this crime in the end, neither the possible perpetrator nor any enablers if they exist.

    I left the wrong impression in my post. I did not mean to denigrate the alleged victims’ claims. I just think that after 20 years, a reporter should give readers a heads up that some victims do come forward decades later.

    Neela Banerjee writes

    The rolls of newsprint that went to the sex abuse scandals regularly cite mental health specialists who say that it generally takes years for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to come forward. The shame, guilt, denial, anger that the victims experienced silence them for a long time.

    I’m not saying that the Msgr abused these children. I’m just surprised that after all the coverage, you would ask the question of why folks wait—unless you believe that is a reason to doubt them. Which you might want to say rather than insinuate.

    She makes good points. I should have stated outright that the alleged victims had every reason to come forward. I regret the omission.

    The issue of abuse and alleged abuse is an understandably sensitive topic that I should have handled more sensitively.

  • Lionel

    Dear Mark,
    I respectfully suggest that you read the present and past articles published at this web site—
    http://www.bishop-accountability.org/AbuseTracker/
    Maybe then you will realize that it takes 40 years for some victims to come forward. The shame,guilt,and the fear of not being believed, even by their parents, are some factors for not coming forward. Some Catholics in your article still don’t believe that he is a monster, even after Underwood admitted that he did sexually abuse children.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Lionel writes,

    I respectfully suggest that you read the present and past articles published at this web site—
    http://www.bishop-accountability.org/AbuseTracker/
    Maybe then you will realize that it takes 40 years for some victims to come forward. The shame,guilt,and the fear of not being believed, even by their parents, are some factors for not coming forward. Some Catholics in your article still don’t believe that he is a monster, even after Underwood admitted that he did sexually abuse children.

    I am well aware that some victims did not come forward till decades later; for what it is worth, I am glad that they came forward. I just think that the reporter should have explained whether this is unusual or not.

  • Martha

    Well, I have a slightly different question: is this going to be investigated, or is it going to be left hanging over the man’s head?

    The implication (whether I am taking it the wrong way or not) in the story is “Because the statute of limitations has expired, this case will not go to court – and hence an *obviously guilty* abuser will go free.”

    We don’t know if he committed the alleged offences or not. There have been false claims – yes, there have, and I can give you an instance of one from right here in my own townland in my own country where I knew the alleged abuser (she was the nun who taught me in Third Class in Primary School). I can also cite you a court case from right in my town where a guy – an adult – tried to extort money from a priest and threatened to bring a charge of sexual abuse against him if he didn’t pay up. (He needed the money to pay off his drug dealer).

    It’s not fair to either the alleged victims or the alleged perpetrator if such accusations are just left hanging out there in mid-air with no conclusion one way or the other.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    To Martha’s point, religion reporter Gary Stern had some excellent thoughts on that matter at his blog.

  • Martha

    Thanks for that, Mollie.

    I certainly wouldn’t hold the position that “This must be a false accusation. Father X is so popular! Everyone loves him!”

    In far too many cases, it was the popular, friendly, easy-going Father X who was indeed guilty of the offences.

    But the statute of limitations thing does make it sound like “getting off on a technicality”. Something probably does need to be done to change this – if there were no statute, would a prosecution have gone ahead? Are the accusations sufficiently credible to bring to court, or is there no evidence apart from “He said/she said”?

    It’s no good to anyone as it stands – if he’s guilty, he should be punished. Equally, if he’s innocent, he should have some redress – after all, even if a church tribunal finds him not guilty, how many people are going to say “Yeah, right, they’re only covering up for one of their own”?

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    Some Catholics in your article still don’t believe that he is a monster, even after Underwood admitted that he did sexually abuse children.

    Um, no. He’s a human being who did monstrous things. We’ll never know if he repented and confessed them, and was absolved after appropriate penance; that doesn’t absolve him from criminal or civil penalties, of course, but there’s a reason that the statute of limitations exists.

    Are you so sure you really want God and the criminal justice system to be just? I personally prefer mercy.

  • Patrick Farrell

    As for the date of the alleged abuse, Mr. Stricherz apprently missed this reference in the fourth paragraph of the Times story:

    On Sunday, parishioners at Mass were told that the archdiocese had removed Monsignor Harris from his parish and priestly duties while it looked into complaints by two people that he had sexually abused them about 20 years ago.

  • julia

    Are you so sure you really want God and the criminal justice system to be just? I personally prefer mercy.

    Reminds me of the best advice I ever got from my mentor – head of the law firm where I first worked as a rookie. He said the practice of law will break you and your heart unless you understand its limitations. Everybody involved tries to do the best he or she can in carrying out his and her part in the legal system; nonetheless, the most that can be expected is that disputes (in the civil & criminal courts) are resolved as close to justice as humanly possible. Complete justice cannot be had in this life – you only get that later – and hopefully some mercy along with it for yourself.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Patrick Farrell writes,

    As for the date of the alleged abuse, Mr. Stricherz apprently missed this reference in the fourth paragraph of the Times story:

    On Sunday, parishioners at Mass were told that the archdiocese had removed Monsignor Harris from his parish and priestly duties while it looked into complaints by two people that he had sexually abused them about 20 years ago.

    He makes a fair point. I should have noted this in my post. That said, I think it is also a fair point that the story downplayed the two-decade old charge.

  • http://www.cathedral-prep-alumni.blogspot.com Benjie Flores

    I was a student at the Prep during the time in question with Msgr. harris and many of all the Alumni I have spoken to directly do not believe the allegation. Please visit our Blog of Support for Msgr Harris at: http://www.cathedral-prep-alumni.blogspot.com

    Thank you..

  • Sister Maureen Paul Turlish

    Time limits that define Statutes of Limitation ARE COMPLETELY ARBITRARY.

    I repeat they are COMPLETELY ARBITRARY as we in Delaware found out when we began to remove all of them CRIMINALLY AND CIVILLY in the State of Delaware.

    NOW THERE ARE NO CRIMINAL OR CIVIL STATUTES OF LIMITATION IN THE STATE OF DELAWARE WITH THE PASSAGE OF THE CHILD VICTIMS LAW WHICH WAS SIGNED BY THE GOVERNOR ON JULY 10, 2007.

    Before that there was a two year statute of limitaion both criminally and civilly on the sexual abuse of a minor child. Unbelievable and unconscionable but true. I certainly did not believe it and I had lived by that time twenty-three years in Delaware.

    However, with the organization of the coalition, Child Victims Voice (www.childvictimsvoice.com) we changed all that in 2007.

    Included with the legislation is a TWO YEAR CIVIL WINDOW during which previously time barred cases of child abuse – BY ANYONE – may be brought forward in civil court.

    AND THERE WERE NO AMENDMENTS TO OUR LEGISLATION.

    This is not anti-catholic or anti-any religion.

    IT IS ANTI-CHILD MOLESTER, ANTI-RAPIST, AND ANTI-SEXUAL PREDATOR.

    All states should be passing this kind of legislation if they truly want to protect children and not just talk about it or pontificate on how terrible it is. Words are cheap; actions cost a bit more.

    All churches, and especially our own Roman Catholic Church should be actively involved with this along with all states’ Catholic Conferences.

    Or doesn’t anyone remember what Pope Benedict XVI said at every venue along the way during his visit to the United States?


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