During my third term as Rhode Island’s attorney general, I was presented with evidence that P. Henry Leech, then a diocesan priest, had abused teenaged boys. As a Catholic, I was incredulous. How could anyone — never mind a priest — do such a thing? The facts, however, were compelling and our office dutifully investigated and charged Leech, who was eventually convicted and incarcerated.
What I remember most vividly about the Leech matter was my interaction with the local church hierarchy. Even for a seasoned prosecutor, I experienced a feeling of uneasy discomfort over my upcoming meeting with Bishop Louis E. Gelineau. Those concerns were immediately put to rest as the bishop and his assistants were forthcoming, transparent and helpful in pursing the indictment. Our objectives aligned in favor of justice and the pursuit of truth. Our office had all the support it needed.
Later, similar cases were brought and I observed the Diocese of Providence take meaningful steps to address a burgeoning crisis. In 1993, nearly a decade before The Boston Globe’s Spotlight series earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the abuse crisis, the Diocese of Providence was actively establishing sound, groundbreaking practices.
A former Massachusetts state police lieutenant was hired to investigate abuse allegations, report them, and to devise protection policies for parishes and schools. Bishop Robert E. Mulvee established a review board to assist in assessing allegations of sexual abuse.
Colonel Edmond Culhane of the Rhode Island State Police and I became original, founding members along with men and women of different faiths and expertise.
I have served as the chairman of the Review Board since 2002. Over several decades many distinguished lay people have served on this board including the former Rhode Island child advocate; the former director of the Department of Children, Youth and Families; retired members of the State Police; members of our judiciary; and leaders of other religious denominations.
Any allegation credibly established by this review board — regardless of when it occurred — results in permanent removal from ministry.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has removed five priests during his episcopacy. Sustained by this important work, I have remained a member of the review board since inception. The work of the review board, however, is not completed in a vacuum. In a practice in place for decades, every abuse allegation received — regardless of credibility — is promptly and fully reported to law enforcement so police can undertake independent investigations, make objective judgments and pursue crimes.
Now, allegations are simultaneously delivered to the attorney general’s office as well. It is important to note that this transparency is voluntary. Moreover, these long-standing policies and procedures have worked. The vast majority of allegations received pertain to behavior occurring many decades ago.
Recent national and international events, however, are distorting — and in some instances, ignoring — the crisis history and the demonstrated and effective responses of our diocese. For someone who has spent his life supporting the rule of law and enforcing it with justice for all, including the victims, it is disturbing to see the work of myself and the members of the Board and the Diocese being mischaracterized by a few.
The people of the State of Rhode Island and, for that matter, Catholics and non-Catholics together, may be assured that in the Diocese of Providence there has been a thorough, zealous and ongoing following of this problem since it was first discovered. Fortunately, in recent years the incidences seem to have reduced; however, wherever they appear, they will be vigorously followed and dealt with.
Dennis J. Roberts II served as the Rhode Island attorney general for three terms, 1979 to 1985.