Why hasn’t Charlotte Catholic diocese released list of priests accused of sex abuse?

Dozens of Catholic dioceses and religious orders across the country have, in recent months, released lists of priests who have been credibly accused of child sex abuse over the years.

In North Carolina, the 54-county Raleigh diocese published its list in October. But the Charlotte diocese, which includes the rest of the state, hasn’t yet.

The state’s attorney general, Josh Stein, says the Charlotte diocese should follow the lead of the others. “I believe that transparency is important,” Stein told the Observer, “not only for families that came into contact with the named priest, but to restore confidence in the institution itself.”

The Charlotte diocese remains undecided about whether to join that “stampede,” as its spokesman called the big increase in such lists since August. That’s when a Pennsylvania grand jury report shocked many Catholics by identifying nearly 300 “predator priests” in that state going back decades.

Why no list so far from Charlotte, which has acknowledged paying out millions of dollars to settle some child sex abuse cases?

For starters, said David Hains, who speaks for Charlotte Bishop Peter Jugis, there’s concern that a list might further hurt victims.

“There is no empirical evidence that publishing a list brings comfort or aid to a victim,” he said. “(Some Catholic priests) have obviously done a lot to harm victims. We don’t want to pile on and do more.”

The diocese is also torn about what should and should not be on such a list. “There is no standardized approach,” said Hains.

Should the list include, for example, any deceased priest who was accused after he died? “There’s no way that he can defend himself,” Hains said.

But about 60 percent of the 1,000-plus priests named in lists released since August are dead, according to an examination by the Associated Press.

As for Hains’ claim that releasing a list might “re-traumatize” victims, the former leader of a national group that represents the victims of clergy sex abuse had a one-word reaction: “Baloney.”

“The overwhelming majority of survivors WANT this info out there,” David Clohessy, who is still active in the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, wrote in an email to the Observer.

Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist in Charlotte, agreed. She’s the author of “Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church” and was the only psychologist invited to address U.S. Catholic bishops on the issue in 2002, when the scandal first erupted amid the Boston Globe’s investigation of widespread clergy sex abuse of children in that city’s archdiocese.

“The vast majority of victims will say that it brings relief to see the name (of the priest) published. It’s one step toward some kind of justice,” Frawley-O’Dea said. “There are victims who doubt themselves. Or they weren’t believed. Or they were told by a diocese that the priest would be sent away and not be around children. (Such a list) is very validating for the victim to show that they weren’t crazy, that it happened and that this guy was known as a perpetrator.”

Hains pointed to another psychologist, Thomas Plante, who teaches at Santa Clara University, a Catholic school in California, and wrote the book, “Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012.”

Plante told the Observer that “it was a hard call” to judge ahead of time how such lists might affect survivors of clergy sex abuse.

“Some victims may see this as a good thing —more accountability and more transparency. They may feel validated,” said Plante, who has investigated clergy sex abuse cases as a member of review boards with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Diocese of San Jose. “Some other victims don’t even want to see the newspapers. They’re like, ‘Enough of this.’”

But Plante predicted that the Charlotte diocese will find it difficult to withstand the growing pressure.

“I think that the train has left the station,” he said. “So many dioceses have released these lists that it’s becoming harder not to release them. ... It’s going to be hard for Charlotte to be an outlier.”

‘Tremendous pressure’

After the Boston revelations rocked the Catholic Church 17 years ago, bishops promised zero tolerance of clergy sex abuse. Dioceses launched background checks and training for volunteers and employees — including priests — on how to provide a safe environment for children.

In the Charlotte diocese, Hains said, “you could just about fill Bank of America Stadium” with the number of local Catholics — more than 48,900 — who have gone through its “Protecting God’s Children” sexual abuse awareness training.

The thinking in the church in the years since was “we’re doing better, there are fewer cases, we just hope . . . “ said Terry McKiernan, founder of BishopAccountability.org, a watchdog group that tracks clergy sex abuse cases.

But in August, he said, “Pennsylvania blew that up.”

A grand jury report released by that state’s attorney general detailed sexual abuse by Catholic priests of more than 1,000 people, mostly children.

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing, they hid it all,” the report said. “For decades, Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops,. archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.”

Though some bishops insisted that these were mostly old cases, McKiernan said, “that didn’t matter to people. They were shocked.”

Pennsylvania’s clergy abuse hotline has received 1,400 new allegations since the grand jury report, according to the Associated Press.

In North Carolina, Attorney General Stein doesn’t have the same investigative powers as the attorney general in Pennsylvania or those in some other states —including New York and Florida — where similar investigations of the Catholic Church are now underway.

Stein said he hopes to convince the legislature to broaden the state’s investigative grand jury statute. But for now, the clergy sex abuse allegations coming into his office — including at least one involving the Charlotte diocese — are being funneled to local district attorneys.

All this has turned up the heat on Catholic dioceses, including those in North Carolina. Many bishops are responding by releasing these lists of priests who have been, as most put it, “credibly accused” of child sex abuse. The Raleigh diocese said priests were included on its list when the allegation had “a semblance of truth,” words from Catholic canon law.

“The lists are happening now,” said Clohessy of SNAP, “because of tremendous pressure from parents, police, prosecutors, parishioners and lawmakers..”

And in North Carolina, pressure from the attorney general.

Last September, the Charlotte diocese began doing what Stein said his office had urged it to do: Immediately report all child sex abuse allegations to the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys. The Raleigh diocese has been doing that since 2003.

Now Stein would like to see the Charlotte diocese release its list of credibly accused priests.

“I think it needs to be done sensitively and thoughtfully,” Stein said in acknowledging some of the concerns the diocese is mulling. “But if I were a parent whose family interacted with a priest for many years, I would very much want to know if that priest were alleged to have engaged in child sex abuse so that I could talk to my loved ones, my children. It’s entirely possible that it happened and they had shoved it deep into their core and haven’t adequately confronted the pain that that abuse created.”

‘One of least transparent’

Charlotte attorney Seth Langson said he’s not surprised that the Charlotte diocese is, in his words, “resisting all efforts to release the names of accused priests.”

He said he has brought three lawsuits against the diocese in child sex abuse cases, winning a $1 million settlement in 2010 for his client, Robby Price, who was molested in 1999 when he was a 14-year-old altar boy.

The predator priest in his case was the Rev. Robert Yurgel, who sexually abused Price for six months, including in the sanctuary at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Ballantyne and in the rectory at Our Lady of Consolation Church on Statesville Avenue, Langston said.

“I want the struggle I have endured to be a symbol to other abuse survivors,” Price said in 2010, when he was 25. “It is possible to bring criminal and civil justice to victims of sexual abuse.”

In his court battles, Langson said he has reviewed more than 30,000 pages of documents produced by the diocese, including personnel files. In a recent interview, he said he he believes the Charlotte diocese is “one of the least transparent” in the country.

“People would be stunned at the names,” he added, if a complete list of accused priests in the diocese is ever released. Langson said he could offer no details, since those particular diocesan files — listing all accusations going back to 1980 — were stamped “confidential.”

Hains strongly denied Langson’s characterization of the diocese as secretive on matters of clergy sex abuse. Among other things, he said:

The Catholic News Herald, a weekly newspaper published by the diocese and sent to 60,000 Catholic homes, reports on all clergy suspended or removed from ministry because of allegations, arrests or convictions of child sex abuse.

Auditors paid by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops have found the Charlotte Diocese to be in compliance with its “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” every year since the charter’s beginning in 2003.

The diocese has a victims assistance coordinator and a lay-led board that reviews sex abuse reports. Its members include investigators and “experts on child sex abuse..”

The Observer requested interviews with David Harold, the victims assistance coordinator, and with Rick Menze, who chairs the Review Board. Hains said Harold was not available and that Menze had declined the request.

Bishop Jugis, who has led the diocese since 2003, refused to talk with the Observer. Jugis returned to Charlotte on Thursday after attending a week-long spiritual retreat with other U.S bishops that was called to pray over the church’s child sex abuse crisis.

Hains pointed out that Jugis devoted all three of his public statements at the diocese’s Eucharistic Congress last September to the crisis.

“I share your sorrow and I am truly sorry for these crimes against the innocents,” Jugis told Catholics attending the annual gathering in uptown Charlotte then. “This abuse imprints lifelong scars on its victims. In addition, the entire church has been very seriously wounded.”

Jugis has also met with victims, Hains said, and has endorsed calls by the U.S. bishops for a new lay-led independent commission “with the authority to follow all leads wherever the truth may lead.”

Hains also cited a five-page spread in the Aug. 31, 2018 edition of the Catholic News Herald that reported facts and figures on the diocese’s history and response on the child sex abuse crisis. According to the articles, there have been 15 allegations of sexual abuse involving seven priests in the Charlotte diocese since 2004. Three of the priests, none named, had died by the time the abuse accusations were made. The other four were removed from ministry. Two were charged with a crime, and one — Yurgel — was convicted.

But the News Herald report on how much money the diocese has spent on sex abuse litigation and counseling for victims left out what its insurance companies paid. It said legal costs totaled about $1.4 million “not already covered by insurance,” while counseling and other medical services for victims came to $633,000.

At the Observer’s request, the diocese also calculated what the insurance companies paid. Since 2003, Hains said, the insurance companies have paid much more to settle two cases in the diocese involving the sexual abuse of a minor. In 2008, he said, the settlement costs and legal fees paid by insurance totaled nearly $1.7 million. In 2009, he said, the total was just over $2 million.

Asked about the two cases, Hains responded by email that he couldn’t offer any other details, and that “we may have (a) non-disclosure agreement in these cases.”

Hains did point out that there were no legal expenses for child sex abuse cases in fiscal year 2017-18 and no such cases were pending.

As for releasing the list of priests, “We just haven’t decided if we’re going to do it,” Hains said.

The diocese may opt to wait for guidance gleaned from a summit on the subject that has been scheduled by the Vatican for February, with Pope Francis meeting with top bishops from the U.S. and other countries.

Then the U.S. bishops are expected to reconvene in June, and possibly take action on how to move forward.

McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org said Charlotte Bishop Jugis should not only release a list, but put one out that is so complete — with the accused priests’ parish assignments and something about the allegations — that it becomes a model for other dioceses wanting to “get it all out in the open.”

“What’s been happening (with the lists) is that we’ve gotten a better sense of best practices,” McKiernan said. “Why doesn’t Charlotte help that along rather than standing back until they’re told what to do?”

Tim Funk has covered faith & values for the Charlotte Observer for 15 years. He has won three national awards from the Religion News Association and numerous awards from the North Carolina Press Association. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.