April 18, 2024 at 9:00 a.m.

N.Y. attorney general reaches agreement with Brooklyn Diocese on its handling of abuse claims

It found that the diocese did not always complete investigations in a timely manner, properly monitor clergy with credible abuse allegations, or be transparent with parishioners.
Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Brooklyn, N.Y., delivers the homily during Mass July 23, 2023. New York Attorney General Letitia James announced April 16, 2024, that her office reached an agreement with the Diocese of Brooklyn on Its handling of clergy sex abuse claims. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Brooklyn, N.Y., delivers the homily during Mass July 23, 2023. New York Attorney General Letitia James announced April 16, 2024, that her office reached an agreement with the Diocese of Brooklyn on Its handling of clergy sex abuse claims. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) (Courtesy photo of Gregory A. Shemitz)

By John Lavenburg | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (OSV News) -- Results of an investigation issued by New York Attorney General Letitia James highlight both shortcomings and positive initiatives taken by the Diocese of Brooklyn in its handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations over the past 22 years.

The 75-page document, published April 16, focuses on allegations since 2002, when the U.S. Catholic Church first set up a comprehensive set of procedures, still in place today, called the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

It found that the diocese, on multiple occasions, did not always complete investigations in a timely manner, properly monitor clergy with credible abuse allegations against them, or be transparent with parishioners about a priest's status.

Her report also said that the Diocese of Brooklyn "failed to consistently comply with its own policies and procedures for responding to sexual abuse."

The report states that diocesan leadership -- specifically Bishop Robert J. Brennan, current head of the diocese, and his predecessor, retired Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio -- fully cooperated with the attorney general's investigation.

Responding to the report, Bishop Brennan apologized to victims of clergy abuse and emphasized that the diocese will now move forward with its strongest protection policies.

"This agreement concludes a difficult period in the life of the Church. While the Church should have been a sanctuary, I am deeply sorry that it was a place of trauma for the victims of clergy sexual abuse," Bishop Brennan said in a statement.

"I pray God's healing power will sustain them," Bishop Brennan added about abuse survivors.

Bishop DiMarzio said in an April 16 statement that he "thought it was best to voluntarily enter into an agreement" with the attorney general's office to provide "documentation of the work we have done over the last 20 years in the effort to protect children," and to be advised on ways the diocese could do better.

"Sexual abuse is a crime and a grave sin. It should never have happened within society, but especially the Church," he said. Bishop DiMarzio also noted that he had "worked tirelessly" throughout his episcopacy "to address the resulting trauma and pain caused to victim-survivors." He also said he is "proud of the processes we established in the Brooklyn Diocese to make sure this never happens again."

The attorney general's office began its investigation into the eight New York Catholic dioceses in September 2018. In October 2022, James reached a settlement with the Diocese of Buffalo. Investigations into the Archdiocese of New York and the dioceses of Albany, Ogdensburg, Rochester, Rockville Centre and Syracuse remain ongoing.

The report on the Diocese of Brooklyn also states it "acknowledges the Diocese's cooperation with this investigation, negotiation, and agreement," and added that the agreement "specifically addresses the failures of the Diocese's institutional response to the crisis of clergy sexual abuse and does not affect pending claims for damages that have been asserted by individual survivors of abuse against the Diocese."

James' office reviewed diocesan files concerning 33 clergy, 18 who had credible allegations of abuse against them, and 15 who had abuse allegations against them deemed not credible or unsubstantiated.

Diocesan data indicates that there were 121 abuse allegations made between 2002 and 2005, more than 75 of which were made in 2002. All of those allegations were immediately sent to the appropriate district attorney and the New York City Police Department Special Victims Unit, according to the diocese.

"Now, the Diocese has made a commitment to implementing holistic reforms that will ensure every report of sexual abuse or misconduct is handled quickly and transparently," said James.

The report also acknowledged that since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted new procedures and protocols for bishops and dioceses to follow, the Diocese of Brooklyn has taken a number of additional steps to strengthen its own policies and procedures.

Under Bishop DiMarzio, in 2004 the diocese established the Office of Safe Environment, and the Office of Victim Assistance Ministry, which together make up the Diocesan Support and Safe Environment Offices. Both offices oversee the diocese's policies and procedures related to clergy abuse allegations, and to support victim-survivors.

Nearing the end of Bishop DiMarzio's tenure, he established an Office of Protection of Children and Young People. Established in 2021, the office created a position to monitor credibly accused priests, enhanced existing protocols, and strengthened the communication between the diocese and the NYPD Special Victims' Unit.

In all, during Bishop DiMarzio's ministry, public statements were released about the outcome of Diocesan Review Board investigations that led to the removal of 27 priests from ministry. He also issued 41 other communications regarding the sex abuse crisis, according to the diocese.

Meanwhile, in April 2022, Bishop Brennan made effective the diocese's new "Policies and Procedures Regarding Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons," or what's commonly known as the "Diocesan SAP Policy." In January 2022, Bishop Brennan also implemented separate "Codes of Conduct for Employees, Volunteers, and Clergy."

Many of the diocesan shortcomings highlighted in the report, however, took place before any of the aforementioned improvements were in place. Bishop DiMarzio was in charge of the diocese through the years the report focuses on. He was appointed to the diocese in October 2003, and led the diocese until his retirement in November 2021.

Specifically, over that time the report found that:

-- The bishop applied inconsistent standards to determine if an abuse allegation was credible, which "resulted in inconsistent and, at times, incorrect determinations." Sometimes, the report states, this left credibly accused clergy in ministry without precautions being taken.

-- The diocese failed to properly monitor some priests against whom allegations were made, including those placed on administrative leave or were confined to a life of prayer or penance, according to the report.

-- Occasionally, the diocese delayed completing its investigations, and taking other steps required by its policies and procedures, such as disclosing changes in the status of credibly accused clergy, the report states.

-- The diocese lacked certain policies and procedures, including a whistleblower policy, according to the report.

-- Diocesan personnel occasionally did not comply with policies and procedures concerning internal reporting of relevant information regarding ongoing investigations of clergy abuse allegations, the report states.

In the two-plus years Bishop Brennan has been at the helm of the Diocese of Brooklyn, he has made multiple changes and improvements to the diocese's policies and procedures to address allegations of clergy abuse.

His first action was the implementation of the code of conduct for employees, volunteers and clergy in January 2022. In September 2022, he also appointed former Manhattan Child Abuse Squad NYPD Detective Elizabeth Harris to monitor all priests removed from ministry. Harris' position, the 1722 supervisor in the Office of Protection of Children and Young People, was created by Bishop DiMarzio and filled after he retired. The number 1722 refers to a section of canon law related to the removal of priests.

Arguably most significant, however, are the new policies and procedures Bishop Brennan implemented in April 2022 -- a system to ensure that all incidents of reported sexual abuse of minors are referred to appropriate law enforcement officials, and allows anyone who claims they have been sexually abused as a minor to access to counseling and an opportunity to meet with the bishop. These policies and procedures built on similar policies implemented by Bishop DiMarzio.

In the updated policies, the bishop initiates an inquiry into any abuse allegation he receives, unless he determines that such an inquiry would be "entirely superfluous." From there, the Diocesan Review Board assists the bishop with the inquiry, and a private investigative agency will also be brought in.

Under Bishop Brennan's leadership, two priests have been removed from ministry following the recommendation of the Diocesan Review Board. Still, because of past shortcomings, he has agreed to James' request to implement a number of changes to the diocese's protocols and procedures

Per the agreement, the diocese will ensure that it maintains and adequately funds the Office of Safe Environment, and the Office of Victim Assistance Ministry, which together make up the Diocesan Support and Safe Environment Offices. Both offices were first established by Bishop DiMarzio in 2004 to oversee the diocese's policies and procedure related to clergy abuse allegations, and to support victim-survivors. The diocese also agreed to increase the offices' programs and staff, and increase transparency.

The diocese also will make changes to its safe environment policies, including expanding the methods the diocese uses to receive complaints against clergy. The diocese has committed to creating an online form for receiving complaints, posting information at a prominent place at parishes and schools, and ensuring confidentiality of complaints.

Further, the diocese also has committed to requiring clergy, employees, and volunteers to report all allegations they learn through any manner, except for the sacrament of confession.

The diocese also will make sure that all diocesan officials, clergy, and employees are aware that they must report any allegations formally through the diocesan reporting line.

The diocese will also, at least four times per year publicize in The Tablet, Brooklyn's diocesan news outlet, and post in all schools and parishes in a prominent location, a statement urging victims abuse and improper conduct to report such crimes to the diocese and local law enforcement. The Tablet displays this information in each weekly edition.

To ensure that these changes are complied with, the diocese has agreed to appoint an independent monitor who will serve a three-year term, effective immediately, and issue a report on compliance each year.


John Lavenburg is a national correspondent at The Tablet, newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn.



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