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Praying for healing, Syracuse bishop releases names of accused priests

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse, NY. (Debra millet / Shutterstock)

Bishop Cunningham, who has submitted his resignation upon turning 75, said it was not fair to leave the decision to his successor

The Diocese of Syracuse has released a list of 57 priests credibly accused of abusing a minor, with some of the charges dating back to the 1950s.

“It is my fervent hope and prayer that this effort will bring some peace and healing to those who have been directly harmed and to all members of our community of faith,” Bishop Robert Cunningham of Syracuse said Dec. 1.

Stressing that no clergy credibly accused of abuse of a minor are in active ministry, he said the list includes both deceased priests and living priests removed from all ministry.

The accused priests were ordained as far back as 1911.

Some abuse victims have not wanted the names of their abusers released. While the diocese previously yielded to their wishes, Bishop Cunningham said, “upon serious reflection and prayer, I have concluded this practice has become a roadblock to moving our local Church forward.”

The 75-year-old bishop, who has submitted his resignation upon reaching retirement age under Church law, added that it was not fair to leave such a decision about abuse disclosure to his successor.

“The news over the past few months of the tragic failings of the Catholic Church has been deeply distressing and has caused many to lose faith and trust,” he said. “It continues to weigh heavily on our hearts. Personally for me, as your bishop, I have prayerfully considered what I can do to help rebuild trust and forge a path to restoring and strengthening the faith.”

A credible accusation, the diocese explained in documents accompanying the bishop’s letter, meets one of several criteria: the allegation is “natural, reasonable, plausible and probable”; the allegation is corroborated with other evidence or another source; or the allegation is acknowledged or admitted by the accused.

Some additional allegations have been reported to the appropriate district attorneys and will be added to the list if found credible, the diocese said.

A compensation program run by the diocese determined that there are 85 known abuse victims, as of September. A diocesan compliance officer works with accused priests and regularly monitors them.

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick told Syracuse.com he has reviewed the list released by the diocese several times. His office and the diocese have taken steps to ensure that accused priests who are still alive do not pose any danger to children. There are 19 such priests in the diocese.

Bishop Cunningham told Syracuse.com that Catholic leaders had for a time taken the view that sex abusers were not criminals, but psychiatric patients suffering “a sickness that we thought was treatable.” Priests, including some in the Syracuse diocese, were sent to Catholic treatment centers like the Southdown Institute in Canada and St. Luke’s in Maryland.

The bishop also said previous generations had a poor understanding of the damage caused by sexual abuse.

“Not just in the Church, but in society at large, there’s been an evolving understanding of child sexual abuse, the trauma it causes, the difficulty it causes,” Cunningham said in his letter.

“I don’t think the church ever intended to cover anything up,” Cunningham continued. “They frequently handled situations as families wanted or as society was doing at that time. I think it’s a slow awakening to realize how serious this issue is. And it covers much more than the Church.”

The 2002 approval of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People ended the practice of treating priests and returning them to active ministry.

The U.S. bishops had intended to address sex abuse again at their fall general assembly, but the Congregation for Bishops ordered them to postpone voting on resolutions until a special global meeting of the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to address the sex abuse crisis, set for this February at the Vatican.