National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 12, 2003

Cincinnati archdiocese convicted for failing to report sex abuse


Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, speaking for the Cincinnati archdiocese, pleaded no contest Nov. 20 to five misdemeanor counts that the archdiocese failed to report cases of sex abuse by clergy to authorities from 1978 to 1982. The plea will keep the archdiocese out of a criminal trial.

While the legal community looked favorably on the plea, victims’ groups expressed disappointment. One group called for Pilarczyk’s resignation. Pilarczyk, 69, was ordained a priest in Cincinnati archdiocese in 1959, became an auxiliary bishop in 1974 and archbishop in 1982.

Pilarczyk appeared in Hamilton County court in Cincinnati to make the plea and accept responsibility for the “institutional” failure of the archdiocese to report allegations of sex crimes.

No victims or priests were named, no specific dates were cited and by pleading “no contest” the church said it would not fight the validity of the charges, but without admitting guilt.

The archdiocese was fined $10,000, and agreed to the following terms:

  • To turn over all pertinent documents prosecutors sought.
  • To follow guidelines of reporting allegations of abuse that are more stringent than those now required by Ohio law.
  • To establish a $3 million fund to compensate victims of priest abuse. The fund will be administered by a three-member panel. The archdiocese will appoint one member, the Hamilton County prosecutor will appoint another and those two members will appoint a third member to chair the panel.

Also as part of the agreement, prosecutors questioned under oath four members of the archdiocese hierarchy who had knowledge about allegations of priest sex abuse of minors.

While Cincinnati’s case is likely the first criminal conviction of a church institution in the nation, it is not the first in which church leaders have struck a deal with prosecutors to avoid a criminal trial.

In Phoenix, former Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien avoided facing obstruction of justice charges by acknowledging that he concealed abuse allegations against priests. In New Hampshire, prosecutors were pursuing misdemeanor charges under the state’s child endangerment laws when church officials agreed to a settlement.

In a statement to the press following his court appearance, Pilarczyk apologized for “the suffering that priests and other church employees have inflicted on young persons.”

“A few years ago, I never would have thought that it would be necessary for a bishop to be making apologies like these,” he said. “But it is necessary and I offer my expressions of sorrow and regret with the deepest intensity of which I am capable.

“Victims, please forgive us and help us see to it that what you have suffered never happens again,” he said.

The deal ends a nearly two-year investigation by prosecutors into whether priests in the archdiocese sexually abused children and whether church officials failed a legal responsibility to report specific cases of abuse.

Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney whose firm says it has handled more than 700 cases of sexual abuse by clergy in 20 years, told NCR that the outcome in Cincinnati was a mixed result. “The ultimate plea was significant but not as much as we had hoped,” he said.

He said he had been optimistic that criminal charges would be made against individuals.

Anderson, who is a co-counsel for at least 67 people who are suing the archdiocese for sexual abuse by priests, said the plea will have a measured impact on civil cases. “They admitted what we already could prove,” he said.

James Tierney, former attorney general of Maine and now a professor at Columbia law school, said other prosecutors will be watching this case and discussing it, but he cautioned against trying to generalize to other cases. “Each case is unique,” he told NCR and in criminal cases, prosecutors have substantial leeway in deciding how to prosecute a case.

He also said that those who think the archdiocese got off easy misunderstand the no contest plea. While it will give the diocese some protection in a civil suit, which is why it is commonly used, “they were found guilty and the judge made that clear,” Tierney said.

“What I think is significant is that the archbishop personally appeared in the court room [and didn’t send a representative]. That is a powerful statement. That may be something that other prosecutors look at,” he said.

There had been some criticism that the $3 million fund for victims was too small, but according to Dan Andriacco, the archdiocese spokesperson, “that is the largest amount we can commit to anything without Vatican approval.”

Andriacco told NCR that the archdiocese’s aim was to get the fund up and running as soon as possible. He also said the size of the fund was comparable to other dioceses of similar size.

Meanwhile, the Dayton, Ohio, affiliate of Voices of the Faithful called for Pilarczyk to resign because, the group said, the archbishop can no longer be effective. In a letter delivered by courier to the archbishop Nov. 25, the group said, “We believe your understanding of the tragedy of sexual abuse and your actions to resolve the crisis have come far too late and in the main mostly after glaring media and legal attention was focused on the problem,” the Dayton affiliate said in the letter. Dayton is in the Cincinnati archdiocese.

The letter said the no contest plea “does not provide us comfort.” The group also objected to the compensation fund being established without consultation with victims, the six-month limit placed on applying to the fund, and the insistence that victims relinquish the right to civil suits if they accept the compensation. The fund “is reflective of the archdiocese’s continued inadequate response to the crisis,” the letter said.

Michael Knellinger, cofounder of Voices of the Faithful-Dayton, said the group was disappointed with the no contest plea and that an “entity” was convicted, not individuals.

“If you don’t admit guilt, there is something hollow there. It’s [the archdiocese and the archbishop] continuing to shirk the guilt,” Knellinger told NCR.

Knellinger said his group waited four days before calling for Pilarczyk to resign. “We gave [the case outcome] time to sink in and to watch the reaction of the archdiocese,” he said. “We decided that somebody had to say what everyone was thinking … we need new leadership.”

Pilarczyk has said he has no plans to resign. The Dayton Daily News quoted him as saying: “It’s not the case that you can serve and walk away.” Besides, he said, “my resignation will not solve all the problems. There are still [civil] lawsuits to settle and [abuse] prevention policies to implement, and I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to step down at this time. I want to stick with this and see it through.”

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer.

National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 2003

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