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    Files on abusive priests kept confidential

    The Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg says it has no plans to follow the lead of other dioceses and release information on abuse complaints.

    By CHUCK MURPHY and GRAHAM BRINK
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 5, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- As Catholic officials across the nation move to cooperate with prosecutors investigating sexual abuse cases, the St. Petersburg diocese maintains a more secretive approach.

    Though the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg acknowledges that abuse complaints against priests have been handled without contacting authorities in the past, church officials refuse to say how many or provide details.

    "Those are confidential personnel matters," Mary Jo Murphy, spokeswoman for Bishop Robert N. Lynch and the diocese, said Thursday. "I can tell you right now that we don't release that information."

    On Wednesday, the Archdiocese of New York became the latest large Catholic organization to agree to turn over files it has kept on abusive priests. Prosecutors there want to know whether prosecutable crimes are buried in church records.

    New York joined Catholic administrators in Boston, Cincinnati, New Hampshire and Maine in seeking to purge the church of potential criminal cases. The St. Petersburg diocese said it has no plans to release files.

    Florida law provides that sexual battery on small children can be prosecuted at any time, even years after it occurred. But without specific information about a hidden crime, local prosecutors said they are not inclined to demand that the diocese turn over its files for inspection.

    "I've pondered it, yes. I think ponder is a fair word," said Bernie McCabe, state attorney for Pasco and Pinellas counties, two of the five counties governed by the Diocese of St. Petersburg. "But (Wednesday) I checked what sources I have available to me to see if they've heard anything. The best I could find out, there is nothing out there. I think it would be presumptuous and I think it would be inappropriate for me to go to them (diocese officials)."

    Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober also said he had not asked the church for a review of its files.

    The St. Petersburg diocese's refusal to release information about previous sexual misconduct of its clergy comes as the diocese is being sued by a former student at a Hillsborough County boarding school who alleges that he was molested by a teacher there in 1987. Two weeks ago, Lynch acknowledged that the diocese paid a $100,000 settlement to a former employee who accused the bishop of harassing him. The diocese characterized the payment to Bill Urbanski of Tampa as severance pay.

    Also on Thursday:

    Diocese officials declined to provide a list of priests and their dates of birth to the Times, stating it was confidential "personnel information." Murphy said priests and other staff members are checked against criminal records at least every seven years and their names are available in industry guides like the Catholic Directory.

    Church officials were unable to explain why their "Policy and Procedural Guidelines Relating to Sexual Abuse By Church Personnel" fail to address the most common type of complaints against priests: Those by adults who come forward years after the crime to report they were victimized as children.

    St. Petersburg police confirmed they are investigating a complaint made March 18 by a St. Petersburg woman who said she was sexually abused by a priest for eight years, from when she was 8 until she was 16. The man, whose name was not released, is no longer a priest. Police declined to release other details.

    The former Hillsborough prosecutor who declined to file charges in the case of a Mary Help of Christians school teacher who is accused of fondling a student in 1987 said he didn't recall the case. But John Valenti said he would have had little choice but to avoid prosecuting a case with no independent witnesses and no evidence.

    St. Petersburg Diocese officials, who insist they had no knowledge nor control over Father William Burke at Mary Help of Christians in Hillsborough County, stressed Thursday that their policies today would require them to file a report if a child, or a child's guardian, complained of abuse. State law requires the diocese or the church to notify Florida's child abuse hotline if such a complaint is received.

    But what of a person like Rick Gomez, the 28-year-old man who has come forward to say that he was abused by Burke as a student in the 1980s?

    The official policies of the diocese make no mention of handling complaints filed by adults, though Murphy read a statement explaining what diocesan staff is supposed to do in such a case.

    "For complaints that do not involve mandatory reports, such as complaints by adults, we inform the victim that they may wish to report it to law enforcement but that a mandatory report is not required and the diocese will respect their wishes regarding confidentiality," Murphy said.

    So why isn't that in the official policies of the diocese, and why does the diocese choose to tell the potential victim that they aren't required to call police?

    "I don't know the answer to that," Murphy said.

    If the diocese followed its official policies, even with adults, the required call to the Department of Children and Families abuse hotline probably would not produce results, said DCF spokeswoman Shawnna Lee.

    "If the person who were the subject of the complaint had limited contact with children that would be different than if he were a caretaker," Lee said. "If the person were not a caretaker currently the complaint would probably not be taken. It would probably not be referred to law enforcement. It would just depend on the particulars of the abuse report coming in."

    But none of that means priests who are the subject of complaints are not punished internally, Murphy said.

    "Believe me, we are doing all we can to protect children," she said.

    In the Burke case, the investigation by Hillsborough deputies produced no results. Gomez gave a statement in 1989 that Burke had repeatedly kissed and groped him during the 1986-87 school year. But deputies apparently never talked to Burke and submitted the case to the State Attorney's Office for review without finding witnesses.

    Burke went on to teach at a Catholic high school in New Jersey, then to a Catholic retreat in New York which serves 12,000 teens each year. He has been removed from direct contact with children.

    John Valenti, who oversaw the Hillsborough sex crimes section at the time, said he didn't recall the case but that the decision sounded routine. The State Attorney's Office file on the case has been destroyed, though Valenti said sex crime case files were usually preserved in case corroborating evidence surfaced.

    "Normally, those things remained open in case similar allegations came up later," said Valenti, who was ultimately forced from the State Attorney's Office and prosecuted for accepting bribes to fix cases.

    Valenti said he had no connection to Mary Help of Christians and offered no extraordinary help in this case.

    "The only tie I had to that school," he said, "was playing basketball against them when I was in elementary school."

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