Bishop: Our challenge is to keep victims' suffering in mind as we 'purify and reform the Church'


Editor’s note: Bishop Thomas J. Tobin sat down with Rhode Island Catholic Executive Editor Rick Snizek on Tuesday, Aug. 28, to discuss the current state of the abuse crisis in the Church, on the international, national and local levels.

RS: What impact is the issue of sexual abuse having on the Church right now, here and around the world? What needs to be done in order to move forward?

BISHOP TOBIN: I do think that we are in unprecedented territory here, where cardinals are fighting with each other, bishops are fighting with each other and certain well-placed bishops are questioning the pope’s stance in response. So it is new territory for us and I hope that the situation can be investigated and be resolved very promptly and very justly.

RS: You served as vicar general and general secretary, as well as auxiliary bishop during your time in your home diocese of Pittsburgh around 1990, a time in which many claims of abuse were filed that are now coming to light with the release of a Pennsylvania attorney general’s report on alleged abuse by clergy. Were any claims of abuse brought to your attention that you did not act upon at that time?

BISHOP TOBIN: No. The grand jury report in Pennsylvania covered approximately 70 years of local church history, and some of the allegations that were made were reported even before I was born, so I can only speak to the time I was there. I have no doubt that over a 70-year history some things were not done properly, that serious mistakes were made and that people suffered as a result of it. I can say that during my time as vicar general and general secretary the reports of clergy abuse and misconduct did not come to my office. They were reported to the diocese and they were responded to responsibly and very transparently. The reports were received by and dealt with other offices of the diocese, the Bishop’s Office, the Clergy Office, the Legal Office, the Communications Office. The allegations were being dealt with by the diocese, but they were not being dealt with by my office specifically. The fact that I was not personally involved does not mean they were not being handled or that I didn’t care. I wasn’t involved in the grand jury process. I wasn’t contacted, I wasn’t interviewed, and in an 800-plus page report my name wasn’t even mentioned.

RS: What is your reaction to the breadth of the Pennsylvania attorney general’s report?

BISHOP TOBIN: It was a huge report that involved five or six dioceses across Pennsylvania, it spanned 70 years. The scope is very broad and very long and that context is very important. The number I saw was that approximately 90 percent of the allegations occurred more than 25 years ago. The bottom line is that the church today, here and elsewhere in the United States, is very different than it was 25 or 30 years ago. That doesn’t make it any easier for the victims. Our culture’s different, our society is different in the way that we deal with these things. Anyone who’s concerned about my commitment to solving this issue might look at my track record. In 22-plus years as a diocesan bishop, in two different dioceses in dealing with issues of sexual abuse, I’ve been very firm and consistent and I’ve responded very quickly and strongly to any allegations of sexual abuse that have come to my attention.

RS: How do you deal with abuse claims made here in the Diocese of Providence?

BISHOP TOBIN: Our process has been very thoroughly outlined. When we receive allegations they are immediately reported to civil authorities — regardless of their credibility — they are reported to the state police and the attorney general. When they’re proven to be credible, the priest is removed from office, his faculties are withdrawn, local parishes are notified, public notices are made, there’s outreach to the victims, the survivors. So we’ve outlined pretty carefully the process that has been followed at least since the charter (the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People) was begun in 2002. Since 2002, the diocese has provided approximately $2.2 million of assistance for medical and psychological care for more than 100 identified victims. So our response to the victims is not just about spiritual care, as important as that is, but we’ve done our very best to respond to their personal medical and psychological care as well.

RS: Do you support the elimination of the statute of limitations in Rhode Island, an issue that has been debated before the State Legislature, to allow for older claims of abuse to be brought to trial?

BISHOP TOBIN: There are good reasons that we have the statute of limitations as a well-established and recognized legal principle, and I think that we have to be very careful before we eliminate or change it. There has been lots of discussion already about the laws in Rhode Island and I’m sure those discussions will continue. We want to be good neighbors and we want to be part of the discussion with reasonable and rational people without threatening anyone else’s rights. A change should not target just the church or the non-profit community. It should also include the public sector because if a child is abused in a public setting, in a public school, it’s just as horrendous as if that child is abused in a church, at camp, little league or anywhere else. So, if we’re really concerned about sexual abuse of children and youth, as we must be and should be, any statute of limitations has to include the whole community.

RS: What is your message to all of those who have been abused by the clergy?

BISHOP TOBIN: We need to apologize for the terrible suffering they have endured at the hands of some members of the Church, including clergy. The effects of abuse are horrendous, they are long-lasting and they do not heal quickly. We have to remember that these victims go to bed every night and wake up every morning with the consequences of abuse. So we need to be acutely aware of that and continue to do everything we can to respond to allegations of abuse, to purify and reform the Church and reach out to those who have been harmed. That is our challenge now and our mandate from God.