/ 8 March 2011

In the US, abusive priests live unmonitored

Carl Sutphin was a problem priest who left ministry in the Roman Catholic church just before being charged nearly a decade ago with 14 counts of molestation for sexually abusing six children.

He was never convicted of the charges, and he now lives in a double-wide mobile home in a quiet neighbourhood within 3km of a youth sports complex, a library, two daycare centres and at least two elementary schools. Sutphin admits he molested children as a priest, but his name doesn’t show up in a sex offender database because the charges were dismissed because too much time had elapsed.

“I don’t remember the numbers. I won’t say I deny it. I do not deny it, no,” Sutphin, who has been accused of abuse by 18 people, told the Associated Press. “The church could have acted quicker, I think, and sometimes reports were not made right away. In my case, some of the cases didn’t come forward until 15 or 20 years later. … So the church didn’t do anything about it, they couldn’t do anything about it.”

Sutphin is one of dozens of former and current priests and religious brothers accused of childhood sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who now live unmonitored by civil authorities in communities across the state and nation. For many, the statute of limitations had expired by the time the abuse was reported, making it impossible for prosecutors to land convictions and subject the priests to sex offender databases and monitoring.

Confidential files
Plaintiffs’ attorneys have worked with private investigators since October to compile a list of the priests’ addresses, the most comprehensive accounting of the whereabouts of the 233 clergy accused of abuse in civil lawsuits in the Los Angeles archdiocese. They hope to use it on Thursday to persuade a judge to recommend the release of all church files for every priest or religious brother ever accused of sexual abuse in the sweeping litigation.

Those confidential files are at the centre of a heated dispute between the church and plaintiffs’ lawyers since the country’s largest archdiocese reached a record-breaking $660-million settlement nearly four years ago. Plaintiffs want the files — which could include internal correspondence, previous complaints and therapy records — released, saying it’s a matter of public safety. The church is pushing for a more limited release of information.

The list of addresses, obtained by the Associated Press, contains nearly 50 former priests who live unmonitored in California, and another 15 in cities and towns in the country. More than 80 more cannot be located despite an exhaustive search by plaintiffs’ attorneys. Four are believed to have fled to Mexico or South America. About 80 are dead.

Lead plaintiff lawyer Raymond Boucher says it’s the only time anyone has put together a list of priest addresses in any other diocese or archdiocese nationwide. Lawyers hope to eventually make the names and locations of abusive priests available to the public, similar to databases for convicted child molesters that exist nationwide.

“Many of these priests would be in prison but for the fact that the archdiocese essentially created immunity for them by hiding them and keeping the secrets. It’s essential that these documents come out because we know one thing: there is no cure for priests or anybody that sexually abuses a child,” said Boucher.

‘Time bomb waiting to go off’
“Many of them are within a mile of multiple schools, daycare centres and parks and they are a time bomb waiting to go off. The only way the public can ever protect itself is to have a full, complete knowledge about them.”

Tod Tamberg, the spokesperson for the archdiocese, referred questions to archdiocese attorney Michael Hennigan.

The church is willing to release a significant number of documents from priest files and has already made public the names of priests who were credibly accused or whose names were listed in civil lawsuits, Hennigan said.

The archdiocese believes, however, that many of the priests whose addresses appear on the list were wrongfully accused. The archdiocese included those clergy in the $660-million pay-out without admitting wrongdoing, simply to settle the claims, Hennigan said.

The allegations of sexual abuse have ruined those priests’ reputations, he said.

Accused, but not convicted
“These are people who have been accused, these are not people who have been convicted,” said Hennigan. “We have great sympathy for victims of childhood sexual abuse … but to suggest that there’s a compelling interest in producing these documents wholesale is a stretch. Many of these people deny it and many of these people credibly deny it. It haunts them.”

The archdiocese in 2004 released the names of more than 200 accused priests — including Sutphin’s — in a report to parishioners. The list did not include the men’s whereabouts.

But plantiffs’ attorneys say the documents the church will release are not enough because it is still fighting to keep documents specifically relating to sexual abuse allegations secret. For example, no one outside the church has ever seen Sutphin’s confidential file or the full files of many of the priests like him who have been convicted or admitted to abuse, said Anthony DeMarco, another plaintiff attorney.

“He’s admitted abuse now, but we don’t know if he admitted abuse 10 or 15 years ago to the church,” he said. “We don’t know if a lot of these guys are admitted or accused abusers and I think that would make a difference to a lot of people.”

About 30 of the individual priests, including Sutphin, are also fighting the release of files.

They argue that the settlement, which contained provisions for the release of documents, was an agreement between the archdiocese and the plaintiffs without their consent. Most of the priests themselves are not named as parties to the lawsuits and obtaining their records violates the constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure, said Donald Steier, their attorney.

“Even though people don’t like these guys, the rules still apply,” he said. “It’s easy to evaporate their rights but when you evaporate their rights, you erode all of our rights. Everybody needs to play by the same set of rules.” – Sapa-AP