For the first time ever — as best as church officials could tell — an American diocese voluntarily released the details of reports of child sexual abuse by its priests and a Winona bishop publicly stated that he believes that the allegations are true.
Following a court order, the Diocese of Winona (DOW) released the names of 14 priests "credibly accused" of child sexual abuse last December. On Monday, the diocese released additional information about reports of abuse the diocese received over decades, including, in many cases, when the reports were made and what was done.
"We have learned that we need to be transparent and honest in order for people to understand that what we're doing [now] is different and children are being protected," said Bishop John Quinn, explaining the decision to release the summaries. DOW Director of Communications Joel Hennessy and public relations consultant Laurie Archbold noted the criticism of the diocese in recent news reports, and described the release as an opportunity for the diocese to be honest about the past and demonstrate how it has changed.
Most of the reported abuses took place during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Nine of the alleged abusers are deceased, two have already been laicized, and another two are facing laicization. In most of the cases, reports of abuse were apparently not relayed to law enforcement officials. The Minnesota mandatory reporting law, which requires people who work with children to convey reports of child abuse to law enforcement agencies, was enacted in 1975.
According the summaries released, after reports of abuse, DOW priests were often sent for treatment and counseling before returning to active ministry. In some cases, the documents released by the diocese do not indicate whether any action was taken in response to the reports.
At the time, Hennessy explained, the conventional wisdom was that pedophiles could be reformed. "Today, as a society, we know rehabilitation of a sex offender is most likely not possible," and, accordingly, there is now a zero-tolerance policy, Bishop Quinn stated. "In the past there was some advice that with ongoing counseling, they could be [in ministry]," he continued. "That was a mistake." Still, he added, "it is important that we understand what was done and why, so we can make a different future."
For over a decade, the diocese has had a policy of conducting background checks, training staff to spot suspicious behavior and signs that children may have been abused, educating children about how to identify and respond to abuse, and transferring reports of abuse to law enforcement agencies.
Quinn reaffirmed that policy, promising, "Nothing will be hidden and dismissed. Everything goes to law enforcement."
"I believe that any priest who is credibly accused of sexually abusing a child should [be laicized]," Bishop Quinn stated. He said that he had directed church officials to begin laicization proceedings against three local priests, including Leland Smith, who was laicized this April, and Jack Lee Krough and Joseph Cashman, whose laicizations are pending in Rome. Today, "there is not a single priest in the Diocese of Winona that has been credibly accused of sexual abuse," Quinn said.
Quinn stated that he does believe the alleged abuses took place. He explained he has met enough victims to know that "they don't make these things up." Previously, diocese officials had stated the study that produced the list of 14 names "encouraged over-reporting" and included unsubstantiated allegations. Diocese representatives had argued against the release of the list, pointing out that none of the priests had been tried and that the bar for what qualified as "credibly accused" was relatively low: any accusation that was not withdrawn or clearly false.
On Monday, Quinn said he regretted "the horrendous effect of the deep wounds that have been caused by sexual abuse in our diocese." When asked in an interview whether speaking publicly about the history of abuse was difficult, Hennessy said, "It's hard to witness the hatred toward the church for the sins of these priests in the past." He added that many do not recognize "the monumental good that the church does for all of society. So in that way, this press conference was very exciting. There is a point in time where we want to move forward."
Nevertheless, Quinn said, "The test will be in the future, in how people see us responding. I know in the future I need to show that I am trustworthy and credible and that what I say is happening happens."
Links to full summaries of allegations against DOW priests may be found online at www.dow.org/disclosures. At the bottom of that page links are available to pages on each priest. At the top of each of those pages, summaries of allegations may be downloaded under "Click here for detailed summary."