A list of Roman Catholic clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse within his diocese should be released within the next few months, Bishop of Baton Rouge Michael Duca said Friday in offering the greatest details yet of how he'll disclose information about problem priests.
Duca released his first column Friday for the diocese’s Catholic Commentator newspaper and wrote that “this moment in our lives” demanded reflection on the sexual abuse crisis that has pummeled the church for decades. He will head next week to Baltimore for an assembly of U.S. bishops, in which he and others will vote on a series of reforms to investigate abuse accusations against bishops.
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While Duca had previously pledged to release a list of Catholic clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse in Baton Rouge and surrounding civil parishes, the column was the first time he explained both who will be included and the time frame he hopes to follow. He said he would name priests, deacons and bishops who have served in the diocese if there is a credible accusation against them.
Calls for the Catholic Church to release names of abusive clergy have rained down since a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report in August that found Catholic leadership there, over a number of decades, protected more than 300 predator priests while more than 1,000 victims suffered.
Duca said the pain of the grand jury report has challenged the church — bishops, especially — to review their responses to sexual abuse. He said he determined that releasing a list of credibly accused clergy in Baton Rouge is a “required action needed.”
“I hope first of all that this will affirm and give credence to the voice of the victims of this tragedy,” the bishop wrote. “Also, it is my hope that this accounting will be an important help to build a deepening trust between you and myself as your bishop, and you with my diocesan staff.”
He went on to describe reforms that Catholic bishops adopted in 2002, which required bishops to immediately remove priests and deacons from ministry if they were credibly accused of sexual abuse. Duca said that response to the abuse crisis was “exceedingly strong,” but wrote that recent accusations of abuse have revealed its loopholes — namely, that the set of rules did not apply to bishops.
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For example, ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick climbed the Catholic hierarchy despite abuse allegations that dated back decades and often involved seminarians. McCarrick was only removed from ministry in June, and Duca wrote that his case “revealed a different kind of wound in the church that needs to be straightforwardly addressed.”
When they meet, the U.S. bishops “will consider concrete ways to investigate accusations against bishops, such as through an independent review board, holding a bishop accountable for his actions and/or to prove an accusation true or false,” Duca wrote.
“This is a measure that I will wholeheartedly support at our bishops’ meeting next week,” he added. “This will hopefully be another crucial step taken to rebuild trust where it has been lost within the church community.”
One of Baton Rouge’s former bishops, Joseph Sullivan, was credibly accused of sexual abuse after his death in 1982. The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge has settled at least two lawsuits related to Sullivan’s abuse, one from a man who said Sullivan abused him in 1975 when he was a teenager and another from a man who said Sullivan abused him between 1978 and 1982.
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The diocese settled the first lawsuit against Sullivan in 2004 and the second lawsuit against him in 2009. Other Baton Rouge priests who were removed after accusations of sexual abuse include Christopher Springer, Daniel Lemoine and John Berube.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans on Nov. 2 became the first in the state to release the names of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse. Its list said 57 clergy members over a century in New Orleans were credibly accused, including eight priests with ties to Baton Rouge.
Those eight priests included Pierre Celestin Cambiaire, John Franklin, Lawrence Hecker, Gerard “Jerry” Howell, Michael Hurley, Ralph Lawrence, Malcolm Strassel and John Weber.
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In his letter, Duca pleaded for the people of Baton Rouge to not lose heart and asked for prayers. He reminded them that “the Gospel always seeks to bring what is in darkness out into the light.”