Report on Springfield diocese calls for changes, sees progress in handling of sex abuse claims

  • At a Wednesday press conference, Bishop William Byrne of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield recognizes members of the Independent Task Force on the Response to Sexual Abuse, which issued a report recommending changes to the way the diocese handles allegations of sexual abuse within the church community. Irene Woods, co-chair of the task force, is seen at left. Brian Steele

Staff Writer
Published: 9/8/2021 7:59:58 PM

SPRINGFIELD — An eight-member task force charged with reviewing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield’s response to allegations of sexual abuse by clergy issued its final report Wednesday, recommending changes to a process that survivors have said is sometimes worse than the abuse itself.

The Independent Task Force on the Response to Sexual Abuse spent more than a year and a half analyzing the diocese’s practices, interviewing clergy and collecting testimony from focus groups of abuse survivors.

The task force announced its recommendations at a press conference alongside Bishop William Byrne. The Springfield diocese serves Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties.

“The Task Force learned that a significant number of the ‘people in the pews’ are disillusioned by the diocese’s failure to communicate fully and accurately about the issue of clergy sexual abuse,” the report reads. “In fact, many survivors said that the experience of having to deal with the diocese was more damaging to them than the actual sexual abuse.”

Restructured review board

A nonprofit organization called Stop it Now!, which works to prevent child sexual abuse, conducted focus groups with survivors, and recommended to the task force that “a trauma-informed and trauma-responsive lens be applied to every action taken by the diocese as it moves forward.”

The task force said the Diocesan Review Board, which hears cases of sexual abuse within the church community and makes a recommendation to the bishop about the credibility of a claim, is being restructured to include “Catholics and members of other faith communities, law enforcement, social work, survivors, and survivor families as well as others from the professional community with expertise in dealing with these issues.”

The report found that, prior to a June 2019 leadership change at the Office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance (OSEVA), internal investigations were not conducted in accordance with best practices. Now, “four highly qualified professionals” run that process and report their findings to the review board.

The task force found that the diocese’s response to abuse allegations has “improved dramatically” since Jeffrey Trant was hired as director of OSEVA, and that OSEVA is now “headed in the right direction.”

Byrne said he received the report “with a grateful heart” and agreed to appoint a committee to provide oversight of the plan’s implementation; he asked the task force, appointed by former Bishop Mitchell Rozanski in May 2020, to remain in place until the new committee convenes.

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, a prominent advocate for sexual abuse survivors who has been portrayed in films by actors Ted Danson and Stanley Tucci, released a statement criticizing the diocese as “an institution which has allowed the wholesale sexual abuse of children.” Garabedian, whose law office represents victims who were sexually abused by priests with the Springfield diocese, said church officials are not capable of protecting children.

“History has taught us that the Diocese of Springfield has been involved criminally in the wholesale sexual abuse of children for decades, cannot be trusted, and is interested primarily in financial gain,” said Garabedian, adding that “any sexual abuse survivor should just call the police and report the crime,” even if the assailant is a member of the clergy.

The report states that, “A constant refrain expressed by parishioners, survivors, and the law enforcement community was that allegations of clergy sexual abuse should be investigated initially by the police, the district attorneys, and other civil authorities, and not solely by the diocese.”

“Over the past 20 months, we worked diligently to meet the goal of providing the diocese with the roadmap to improving every aspect of its dealings with survivors of abuse and to make sure it is doing the best it can in assuring safe environments,” Irene Woods, co-chair of the task force, said in a statement. “Bishop Byrne’s enthusiastic acceptance of the plan gives us confidence that our efforts including the voices of survivors, the clergy and the broader Catholic community will be heeded.”

Woods is founding executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Franklin County and North Quabbin. She replaced retired Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Daniel Ford as chair after Ford resigned from the task force, citing the appearance of a possible conflict of interest related to his work with a law firm that represents the diocese. Member Joan Tabachnick resigned after the original 100-day time frame for the group’s work passed without a final report.

Orlando Isaza, a social worker and community activist who served with Woods as the task force’s co-chair, said the group “took particular care to review” a report by retired Judge Peter Velis.

In that 373-page report, released in June 2020, Velis criticized how the Diocesan Review Board handled the initial allegations of sexual abuse against Bishop Christopher Weldon, who died in 1982. Velis called the response both “weak” and “woefully deficient,” and found that the abuse allegations leveled at Weldon by a Chicopee man were “unequivocally credible.”

Byrne said the church owes transparency “to the courageous survivors who have come forward” to expose the “evil” of sexual abuse.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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