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Addressing past sins while focusing on our mission

By Bishop Terry R. LaValley

January 15, 2020

Today the great challenge to our faith and to our mission as a diocese is the sexual abuse scandal. The wounds of this crisis were re-opened with the report of the Pennsylvania Attorney General and the passing of the Child Victims Act in New York State last year. Our mission as a diocese is to continue to catechize, sanctify and serve the People of God in the North Country. At the same time, we will continue to reach out to victims of abuse in a way that helps to bring about reconciliation and healing for those who have been so terribly hurt by Church leaders.

Our diocese has been addressing the sexual abuse scandal for decades in a serious and determined manner. Over the past several years, we have instituted policies and procedures to prevent sexual abuse from happening. The procedures ensure that allegations are responsibly and justly handled when they are received. They call for pastoral outreach to victims who have been harmed by this evil. Tragically, in the past, serious mistakes were made when dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.

In our diocese, most incidences of abuse occurred in the 1940s through the 1980s. Cases that were reported in those decades were handled in ways that would be unacceptable today. Back then, most sexual abuse cases in our diocese were handled quietly by bishops, judges, parents, school principals, government agencies, prosecutors and psychiatric professionals. Their actions and decisions were the result of the belief that counseling would rehabilitate the offender and that the stigma of abuse would be damaging to the victims and their families, and to the Church. Accordingly, the abuse was handled in a discrete fashion aimed at protecting the reputations of the victim, the accused and the Church.

We now know that these practices were very wrong and unacceptable. However, those in decision-making positions most often acted on the knowledge available to them at the time and upon the recommendations of professionals.

The Diocese reports allegations to the appropriate district attorney or law enforcement agency. We cooperate with the authorities in their investigations. We have an independent Review Board, comprised predominately of lay women and men with experience and background in abuse cases. Its task is to assess each allegation and recommend appropriate action. Clergy who are credibly accused of abuse are removed from ministry. Assistance to victims is offered by our Victims’ Assistance Coordinator. Every victim is encouraged to meet with the Bishop.
Our diocesan safe environment program requires criminal background checks and safe environment training for all employees and volunteers working with children. We require safe environment education for children to help them recognize and avoid potential abusers and inform them of how to report abuse. These measures have been effective. All claims received by the diocese relate to incidents that date back at least two decades. We have not had a report of contemporaneous sexual abuse of a minor occurring after 1999.

Prior to the recent passage of the Childs Victims Act, our diocese offered assistance to victims of abuse when claims were reported. In 2018, as part of the Year of Mercy, we reached out to victims of abuse through the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) seeking reconciliation with victims and compensation for them for what they suffered. We were able to resolve 38 claims through this program. Additionally, our diocesan attorney was able to resolve 14 claims outside the IRCP.

Under the Child Victims Act the criminal statute of limitations has been extended to provide a better opportunity to prosecute offenders. The Act extends the civil statute of limitations until the victim reaches age 55, affording victims a greater opportunity to pursue their claims in court. These provisions of the Child Victims Act were supported by the bishops of New York State.

The Act also opened a one-year window for victims to bring a claim of sexual abuse that was previously time barred. As a result of that provision, our diocese is currently responding to 20 lawsuits claiming abuse. All these lawsuits involve claims of abuse that occurred decades ago, prior to the institution of our current safe environment policies and procedures.

The Church in the North Country continues to focus on discipleship while addressing these lawsuits. We simply cannot stop doing the work we are called to do as Church. With the help of professionals, we are evaluating our diocesan assets to determine how we can maintain our mission while addressing the needs and claims of victims. This is very time consuming and technical work for our staff and professional advisors.

Additionally, we have hired professionals to help evaluate the claims filed by the victims. We will continue to work with professionals to respond in a just manner to the claims that have been filed. We are evaluating how we can best address victims’ claims and continue our mission. Civil litigation places great demands on our resources, staff and professional advisors. Our task is complicated by the fact that incidents underlying the claims occurred decades ago. Witnesses are unavailable, memories have faded, documents are hard to locate, and many of the accused are deceased.

I share this information to help you understand what the diocese is doing to address the lawsuits filed against it under the CVA, while maintaining our mission. As you know, additionally, the New York State Attorney General’s office continues to review all of our documents that we have provided them pertaining to all sexual abuse cases handled by the Diocese of Ogdensburg.

Certainly, these are challenging times for the Church and for our diocese. We need to address the sins of the past and reach out to victims who are suffering. However, all the while, we will remain focused on the mission Jesus gave us to preach the Good News to the ends of the earth. I shall keep you informed as our consultation process and review continues.

What can you do to help? First, pray for the victims of abuse, those who suffered at the hands of clergy and those who suffered abuse by others. Please pray for our clergy, religious, laity and for our diocese.

I am so grateful for your prayerful support. I am particularly grateful to our staff members who continue to devote long, difficult hours in this work. Please know that you all are in my prayers. We need God’s strength and your support to help us through this time of testing. Please continue to support our diocese, your priests and parish family. Continue to support our safe environment programs and the daily living out of our faith.

We shall remain Christ-led, Christ-fed and Hope-filled, ever confident that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

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