politics

Is New York State Going to Have Its Own Clergy Sex-Abuse Scandal?

In Buffalo and Rochester, it has already begun.

A member of the clergy prays at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Photo: Mary Altaffer/Getty Images

New York State may be sitting on even more undisclosed cases of clergy sex abuse than Pennsylvania. The Catholic population here is the second largest in the nation — behind California’s — and almost no state makes it harder for victims to seek compensation. There’s never been a vast disclosure here, like the Spotlight investigation in Boston or the grand-jury probes in other states.

But now a sweeping disclosure seems to be close at hand. Barbara Underwood, the attorney general, issued civil subpoenas on Thursday to all eight Catholic dioceses in the state, demanding all the records they have on abuse, payments to victims, and potential cover-ups. She’s also created a hotline and a web form for victims who have never come forward to file complaints.

The documents she’s seeking go back decades, and state law only allows abusers to be charged within five years of the offense — so no matter what Underwood finds, there likely won’t be many criminal charges. However, she’s asked district attorneys throughout the state to partner with her and consider empaneling grand juries, depending on what surfaces in the coming months.

A scandal over clergy sexual abuse has been creeping across the state since February, when a retired priest admitted to a reporter in Buffalo that he had molested many children when he was younger. Since then, about 80 of Buffalo’s clergy have been publicly accused of similar crimes, and another 41 residents in Rochester have leveled accusations. The bishop in Buffalo is facing calls to resign, and has been forced to put his mansion, which the Church has owned for decades, on the market, to cover victim compensation.

The recent Pennsylvania report, which describes a conspiracy to protect “predator-priests” that went to the highest levels of the Church’s regional leadership, suggested New York was poised for its own reckoning. It named 27 priests who had also served in New York or committed acts of abuse here, and in at least one ghastly case, it showed New York’s Church hierarchs were complicit in the cover-up. Edmond Parrakow, who worked at parishes in Yonkers and the Bronx in the ’70s, reportedly admitted in 1985 that he’d sexually abused 35 boys; but instead of defrocking him, let alone reporting him to law enforcement, his colleagues in New York transferred him to Pennsylvania. There he told altar boys not to wear clothing under their cassocks, one of them recently recalled to the grand jury, and touched their genitals in what he claimed were “physical examinations.”

Another reason New York may be next, says Anne Barrett Doyle, who helps run the website Bishop-Accountability.org, is that the Church itself says 5.8 percent of its American clerics have been “credibly” or “not implausibly” accused of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2016. To date, 86 clerics have been outed in the archdiocese of New York City, and around 400 in the state as a whole, out of thousands who have served here — meaning that either reports of abuse in this state are uncommonly rare, or hundreds of sex offenders here have never been exposed. (Doyle estimates that a bare minimum of 7,000 clerics have served in the New York Archdiocese since 1950, based on published reports. If 5.8 percent of those were credibly accused of abuse, it would mean roughly 320 have never been publicly identified. Or if New York City’s rate were on par with Boston’s, it would mean some 666 have never been outed. The archdiocese has dismissed these as “made-up numbers, with no basis in fact.” As of 2004, the archdiocese estimated that only 1.19 percent of its clerics had been plausibly accused since 1950, and it says every report of abuse among its ranks has been passed along to law enforcement.)

Doyle chalks New York’s low reporting rate to the tight statutes of limitations: most victims cannot sue their abusers or seek criminal charges against them after they turn 23 years old. “I think only Michigan and Alabama are worse than New York state,” Doyle said. “It’s shocking, because New York is so enlightened, in so many other areas, in terms of victims’ rights.”

For years, advocates have been pushing for the state to loosen those restrictions. Their annual rallies in Albany have drawn increasingly large crowds. But Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the New York Archdiocese, has bullishly resisted legislative reform that would allow more lawsuits. Between 2007, two years before Dolan was appointed, and 2015, the archdiocese spent $2.1 million lobbying in Albany. This past spring, Dolan said a bill under consideration, which would have temporarily lifted the statutes of limitations for civil cases, would have been “toxic” for the Church. (Church officials have, however, supported legislation that would completely eliminate the criminal statute of limitations on these cases.)

In 2016, Dolan set up a victim compensation fund in New York City, and had paid out $40 million to 189 victims by the end of last year. “I wish I would have done this quite a while ago,” he said when he announced it. “I just finally thought, ‘Darn it, let’s do it. I’m tired of putting it off.’” But most victim advocates remain skeptical. Doyle called it a “savvy, preemptive move,” intended to deter lawsuits. “He was starting, one by one, to pick off victims who might come forward and blow the whole sewer open,” Doyle said.

During the last two legislative sessions, the reform bills in Albany have cleared the State Assembly but been blocked in the Republican-dominated Senate. The law may well change next year, especially if Democrats gain a majority in the Senate; and if it does, it could facilitate the investigation Underwood is starting. (She’ll be stepping down at the year’s end, but all the candidates running to succeed her have pledged some degree of support for continued investigations.)

The recent scandals in western New York started on a balmy morning this past winter, when Robert Hoatson, a former priest who lives in New Jersey and runs a counseling service for abuse survivors in the tri-state area, called a press conference across the street from the Buffalo diocese’s headquarters. Michael Whalen, a 52-year-old man with shaggy, shoulder-length hair, stood before the assembled reporters and told them about how a local priest had abused him when he was 14. “It ruined my life,” he said. The psychological damage, he said, spurred him toward alcoholism and heavy drug use.

The same afternoon, a local reporter tracked down the priest Whalen had accused, who was by then 78 and retired. In a ten-minute interview outside his cottage, the priest said he didn’t remember Whalen in particular but casually admitted he’d abused “probably dozens” of boys throughout his career.

More victims started coming forward, and three weeks later, Buffalo’s bishop released the names of 42 priests who had been accused over the years. But it wasn’t enough. “People were saying, ‘I reported my guy; he’s not on there,’” Hoatson recalled. By mid-summer, the names of 79 priests and one nun had surfaced in public accusations.

The bishop, Richard Malone, set up a compensation fund for victims, more than 90 of whom have filed claims so far. To help cover the cost, Malone put up for sale his $2 million property on one of Buffalo’s toniest streets, owned by the Church for 66 years. But those gestures haven’t done much to quell public anger. Kathy Hochul, the state’s lieutenant governor, and Brian Higgins, the Congressman representing Buffalo, who are both Catholic, have joined local legislators in calling on Malone to resign — a call he’s so far refused. “The shepherd,” he said at a press conference in August, “does not desert the flock at a difficult time.”

John Flynn, the city’s top prosecutor, says he’s been in discussions with Underwood’s office about convening a grand jury for a thorough investigation.

“He’s an Irish Catholic, and I think he’s had a hard time seeing that his church can be this corrupt,” Hoatson said. “But I think now he’s convinced, because the cases just keep pouring out of Buffalo.”

Following Buffalo’s lead, 17 residents in Rochester came forward in June and named eight priests who they said had abused them when they were young. They demanded that the Rochester diocese release any records it has on clergy sexual abuse. Mitchell Garabedian, the plaintiff attorney portrayed by Stanley Tucci in the movie Spotlight, was representing them. Garabedian said another 24 victims have since approached him. To date the Rochester diocese has not handed over any documents or names.

So far, though, the wave of disclosures has not reached New York City.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office already investigated hundreds of accusations of sexual assault by clergymen back in 2002, said Danny Frost, the spokesman for current DA Cy Vance. And later in 2002, the local archdiocese agreed to turn over all new reports of abuse without screening them first. Vance’s office is now looking at ways to update that arrangement and make sure the archdiocese has done its part, Frost said.

But the advocates aren’t satisfied. Marci Hamilton, a lawyer and religion scholar who has worked extensively on this issue, said she and some others met with one of Vance’s staffers several years ago and urged a more thorough investigation. “And we thought that it would happen,” she recalled. “As you can see, we got absolutely nowhere.”

Vance, when he took office in 2010, appointed as his chief assistant an attorney who had represented the archdiocese in litigation. (That attorney, Daniel Alonso, no longer works for him.) Until this year, Vance — along with the DAs in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx — stayed mum on whether he supported the reform bills being presented in Albany. But during the last legislative session, Vance announced his support for the first time and personally urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to make it a priority .

George Arzt, a veteran consultant who advised Vance on his 2009 campaign, said it would be unreasonable to ask Vance to launch a major investigation, absent any egregious new evidence of local abuse or cover-ups. “You can’t go on a tear and say, ‘I know there are 15 pedophiles located somewhere,’” Arzt said. “You just can’t do that. You still have to protect the innocent.”

Neal Kwatra, a political strategist who was formerly chief of staff for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, believes the pressure is building for Vance to scrutinize the archdiocese harder. He noted that Vance took political bruises for not pursuing a case against Harvey Weinstein in 2015. “I think it’s going to be a political impossibility for cases like this not to get more resources and more scrutiny,” Kwatra said. “This cultural moment around #MeToo — coupled with the clergy abuse scandal — elevates this to a different kind of political lane.”

One clear takeaway from Pennsylvania, and every other state where serious investigations have been done, is that prosecutors are the fulcrum. They have to take risks: of alienating powerful Church leaders, of losing Catholic votes, of investing serious resources without getting convictions in return. Underwood’s support will make those risks a little less steep.

“What we often hear from prosecutors is that they want to be able to win,” said Doyle, the victim advocate. “But we’ve seen that when a prosecutor, for whatever reason, is particularly dedicated to child protection, and to investigating an institution that is covering it up, their courage and fearlessness can make all the difference.”