A grand jury in the United States has accused Catholic Church officials on Long Island of protecting clerical child sex abusers for decades by using sham policies and a bogus "intervention team" which silenced victims and covered up crimes to avoid scandals and to limit the financial consequences.
It said that failures, documented in testimony by priests and victims and in church records including secret archives on 43 priests, could not be attributed to incompetence.
Diocesan officials "agreed to engage in conduct that resulted in the prevention, hindrance and delay in the discovery of criminal conduct by priests," it found.
The grand jury report into the diocese of Rockville Centre in New York state, the sixth largest in the US with 1.3 million Catholics in 134 parishes, was released this week. It found the diocese had protected at least 58 abusive priests with tactics which purported to help victims and their families but that actually used intimidation, claims of confidentiality and hush money to avoid publicity and legal actions.
It found that since 1990, the diocese had maintained a special "uninsured perils fund" to cover sexual abuse claims, asbestos exposure and trampoline accidents. The fund raised money from parish collections and had paid $1.7 million in claims, none for asbestos exposure or trampoline accidents, and had $11 million in its account last October.
The grand jury also found that abuser priests were shifted from parish to parish and were often allowed to minister to children. It said recommendations for psychiatric treatment were ignored by the diocese and a "legal affairs" team, set up to help victims, actually helped to suppress legal claims.
According to the 180-page report, following a nine-month investigation, "the history of the diocese of Rockville Centre demonstrates that as an institution they are incapable of properly handling issues relating to the sexual abuse of children by priests".
Presenting the report, the Suffolk County district attorney, Mr Thomas Spota, told a news conference it showed that "high-ranking prelates protected 58 colleagues from disgrace rather than protecting children from these predator priests".
"Time after time and despite overwhelming evidence that priests were committing crimes against children, they were willingly sacrificing the truth for fear of scandal and for monetary considerations."
A spokeswoman for the diocese said the grand jury report was unfair and insisted that it had taken all cases of sexual abuse by priests seriously and had improved its methods of handling such cases, under Bishop William Murphy, who became bishop there last year.
"While sexual abuse of minors is always a grave sin and a crime, the ways of dealing with it have developed over time," she said. It was "unfair to use today's standards to judge sincere attempts in the past to assist victims and to help perpetrators not to offend again", she said.
The diocese took "extremely seriously any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor, sent the accused priest away for evaluation and treatment and worked with the victims for a just settlement," she said.
Bishop Murphy was not available for comment as he was due in Boston to testify before a grand jury there. That jury is investigating whether he and other church officials could be prosecuted for protecting abusive priests. He has been cited in almost a third of pending cases in Boston. Bishop Murphy was formerly deputy to Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned last December.
A New York Times survey last month found that the clerical child sex abuse crisis had spread to nearly every American diocese, involving 1,200 priests and more than 4,200 victims over the last six decades.