Church Abuse In Rhode Island

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More than 70% of the American population is affiliated to Christianism. Among them, a majority is Protestant. Still, after the 46, 5% Americans that claim to be Protestant, more than ¼ US citizen is a Roman Catholic. It appears that the concentration of Catholics in Rhode Island is above average, with around 40%-50% of Rhode Islanders affiliated to this branch of Christianism, making this state the one with the highest rate of Catholics in the United States.

Rhode Island has a very interesting religious history. Indeed, in the 17th century, several figures flew from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to settle either in Providence like Roger Williamson, or in Portsmouth like Anne Hutchinson, as mentioned in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Thus, the religious background of the state is founded on Puritan dissidents. But that background mainly concerns protestants. The biggest part of the Catholic population has implanted in Rhode Island thanks to immigrational waves of Italians, Irish, French as well as Portuguese and Spanish people, meaning European populations with a majority of Christian Catholics.

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It can be said that religion shaped the history of this small state, thus it is a big part in “culture” in general. Yet, looking at the overall political tendencies of Rhode Island, a simplistic link cannot be made. Indeed this “Catholic” state is not particularly conservative, making a link between the cultural, religious and political background and the Church Abuse issue is as a consequence not evident.

The Church Abuse scandals focuses on Catholics since key members of the catholic “order” make a vow of chastity. They have had “cycles:” at the end of the last century, some revelations were made but were rapidly forgotten, but since the 2000s, the scandal has burst out again, beginning in the United States especially. Since then, a series of events have been uncovered all over the globe, leading to a necessary Vatican Summit on Sex Abuse last February, gathering around 190 Church leaders to try to resolve the crisis.

As the award-winning movie Spotlight shows it, the Scandal popped up again in Boston in 2002, meaning in the state next to Rhode Island. Knowing that priests were often moved from a diocese to another after facing any sort of scandal, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are closely linked concerning the issue. As Rhode Island is a very small state, there is only one diocese: The Providence Diocese which gives away various pieces of information on the subject. The American Bishop Accountability website states that some of the numerous accusations (more than 150) in this diocese go back to the 50s. As Church Abuse covers up a very wide range of cases, this research paper “only” focuses on cases of Child Abuse and on accusation against the Clergy, as some cases concern adults and employees of the Church.

Church Abuse unveils a double issue: by all evidence, the numerous abuses themselves, but also the position of the Church on one hand as it tried to hide the events and on the other as it denied or slowed down any legal process. More than just the facts, the legal and economic aspects incarnate the depth of the scandal. Furthermore, the “aftermath” must be studied. The know events have taken place years ago, nevertheless, victims still suffer the consequences today, some revelations are regularly made and a very recent financial scandal of the Providence Diocese brings back reminiscence of the Church Abuse Scandal. The central question being: How come Church Abuse, a very sensitive and controversial matter can remain in limbo for so long in a state that, at first, seems “liberal”, in the sense open and broad minded? The question revolves around the Church morality policy and shows how it can take a community apart.

Definition of the context, the terms and facts

Church Abuse: What it is and how big it is

Church Abuse touches an even broader panel of people and contexts than one could think.

In 2004, following the first actual “breakthrough” scandal, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops asked for a study in every American Diocese to release lists of accused priests. Seeing these lists reveals both how numerous the cases and accused priests are yet how little we know about them, either because there is very little information on some priests, data sometimes goes back to the 40s-50s or because the Church has only given away a part of what there is to know.

In the case of Rhode Island, it is hard to know the exact number of accusations: the nationwide Bishop Accountability Website, run by the Church suggests around 150 accusations have been made, but through support groups or the media, it is sometimes said more than 500 victims have spoken up. As it is impossible to trace back and evokes all cases, only a global context and several cases can be explained to try to depict a clear overview of Church Abuse in Rhode Island.

Among the many accusations, a majority concerns young children from kindergarten to primary school or teenagers. If some have been assaulting a few times, some claim they have been assaulted over the course of several years, sometimes over a decade. The context of these assaults varies, but very often the molesters or rapists made contact with their victims through schools, but also in orphanage or in hospitals, (as some priests came as chaplains for example), or simply in Church with altar boys. Many testimonies give out horrific vivid stories in very specific situations, which leads to wonder how could the Church cover up such events.

The John Jay Report, also published in 2004, is a study analysing sociological, psychological aspects of Church Abuse in the US and the accusations themselves. As in the US in general, it points out that 4% of the Rhode Island clergy, more precisely priests (since only one nun has been accused for example) has been accused of sexual assault, from 1950 to 2002. It is interesting to see that the percentage given is of “accused” individuals and not of “convicted” or “credibly accused” priests. Indeed, it unveils the fact that in many cases, priests were accused but covered by the Church, died before anything was done about it, or simply that a settlement was agreed on and priests were never convicted of anything.

Church Abuse concerns various abuses going from “sex talk”, “contact” to sex in different forms. Over the years at the end of the last century, accusations are made but always seem to be covered up or to end in an agreement thus the first time something “serious” starts is in 1992. Then, in 1994 and during the following years, accusations add up, without however ending up in anything concrete.

In the years preceding “firm and more relevant actions” like in the 90s, it seems the Church managed to keep things secret and under control. For example, a way to dissipate events was to move around the priests when events took place. There is the example of Reverend Silva, moved every time he was accused. (Record from the Bishop Accountability Website)

Another example would be the case of Reverend Smyth, a priest originating from Ireland, who from the 50s to the 90s, molested hundreds of children in several countries and several states in the United States. His record is even more “impressive” as it unveils how far the will of the Church went in order to hide unethical practises: indeed he travelled in both the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy before coming to Rhode Island where many complaints were held, the diocese was visibly aware of his practises as it was revealed in the 2000s, yet, after Rhode Island, he went to North Dakota, Northern Ireland, Ireland and Massachusetts before being put in jail, after more than 40 years of abusing children.

The responsibility of the Church

By all evidence, there has and there still is a “culture of secrecy” in Church. The records just before shows that the diocese, and more particularly, the bishop of the time was aware of what was going on. It appears that very often, victims tried to reach out in the Catholic community in different ways but were not heard or kept silent. The testimony of Margaret Mckenna, now an academic, that was reported in the Providence Journal, is relevant and representative of the responses of the Church over the years. She was abused as a teenager by a priest called Father Tedeschi. This very priest first threatened her as he abused her that she would not be believed by anyone if she told and that she would ruin her reputation. Secondly, when she was 15, she confessed to another priest what had happened to her, but this second priest asked her to promise she would not tell, adding young girls tempted priests. When she was 22, she then came back to see the priest that abused her and he admitted what he had and seemingly was still doing. She reported him to the diocese but nothing was done about it. Inn the 2010s, she tried again to bring up her case, but since the molester had died in 1986, it was more or less ignored.

Many testimonies and records mention that reports to the diocese were made but that it did not lead anywhere. Oftentimes, the Church managed to buy off victims, by for example paying for therapy, profiting from a context of peer pressure and shame in the community.

The second side of Church Abuse lies in the idea that nothing was done to stop these actions, and furthermore in the will to keep all pieces of information from the public view. The Bishops incarnate the responsibility of the Church in doing so. Firstly, from 1972 to 1997, the Providence Diocese’s Bishop, Gelineau covered up a lot of cases, having himself been accused of child molestation and attempt of murder on one of his victims. When he left, about 50 cases were waiting in court, involving around 12 priests, showing how not reactive publicly at all he had been during his years as bishop. Indeed, he had actually ordered investigations in 93 and thus many pieces of evidence had been found to verify the allegations, those pieces were by all evidence not to be divulged.

He then was replaced by bishop Mulvee, who in the same way, preserved members of the clergy from accusations, letting, for example, a reverend who had molested children in Haiti work in his diocese.

This reluctance to open up on Church abuse also slowed down the pace of any legal process.

Legal process and economic aspect

Legal process

In Rhode Island, there is supposedly no statute of limitation either on first degree sexual assault or on child molestation sexual assault of both first and second degree. That could mean the state is quite reactive on legal processes, yet it seems that regarding Church Abuse, the legal system has shown its limits. The example for that is legal battle that lasted for more than ten years, starting in 1992, and pushing forward the case of more than 30 victims accusing eleven priests and one nun, the only female ever accused of Church Abuse in the state, from what records show. In 1992, a first accusation and complaint was made, the first victim was then followed from several others in 1994, gradually creating a case with a total of 38 plaintiffs. Despite this striking number, the Church managed to slow down all legal process by keeping its documents and pieces of information. Indeed, for 10 years, the Roman Catholic diocese of Providence exploited the first amendment to protect itself, saying it had to protected by freedom of religion. But also, by upholding the clergy penitent privilege. This privilege served on one hand to justify the fact that inside the clerical community, members were aware of the practises of some without ever divulging them; but on the other hand, and more precisely in this case, it allowed the Diocese not to give away data, as if we consider the data as confessions, “the seal of the confessional is ‘inviolable.’” And against the “law” of the Church to give away those documents. In 2002, thanks to the superior court judge, Robert Krause: things finally changed. Mainly, he asked for the documents to be delivered. Different types of documents were at stake: investigations ordered by the Church itself, reports from programmes were accused priests got enrolled, and testimonies by priests and members of the Catholic community. Because the process was so long, 4 of the 12 individuals that were accused of sexual assault died before the end of it. Yet, what is interesting to see is that this affair came to an end with a financial settlement rather than convictions.

In more recent years, a similar scenario took place, indeed in 2012 a complaint was held against a so-called reverend Meehan, a second victim then added his own complaint, and after an investigation, he resigned and was laicized. But, in 2014, as he waited for trial, the reverend died. Here, the process’s pace seemed more rapid yet it appears that as many victims, these ones did not get justice.

In general, the priests that are accused do not go to prison, oftentimes it is because as they are accused many years after the events took place, the parties in legal cases come to an agreement. Nevertheless, even when the priests were accused a short while after the assaults, they were simply sent to programmes, like therapy or counselling. Some have on the other hand been sent to correctional facilities or prison but they were exceptions like Father Leech or O’Connell, who died in prison.

Economic aspect

Since legal processes have often came to an end through monetary agreements. The economic aspect must be studied. Before the big case of the 90s in Rhode Island, it appears that sometimes, the Roman Catholic Church tried to keep victims quiet by paying for the therapy they had to go through, meaning giving away around 12 000 dollars to some of them. But in 2002, the settlement involved a much bigger amount of money. Indeed, the 36 out of 38 plaintiffs that agreed for this settlement were promised 13 Million dollars.

Last February, the Providence Diocese actually said that over the past years it had given much more to the victims, it was said around 25 Million were used to settle the cases of over a 100 people, showing how big the scandal has been and still is. This declaration happened in a very specific context that will be discussed in the last part, but the Church, which also put in place a counselling programme for the victims which cost more than 2 million, might now have financial issues, something which could be doubted back in the 2000s. Indeed, back then lawyers working on the Church abuse case suspected the Church of trying to protect its assets, indeed it owned real estate that was worth millions, which apparently helped financed social services. Among, its properties, it even owned a mansion used in a Brad Pitt movie.

The aftermath, today

Scandals and involvement

The declaration of the Church highlighting it gave away millions to victims was most likely to justify recent events, indeed the Diocese of Providence has been among other entities accused of fraud. The Church justified owning estate by saying it paid for social services through the money made with the estate, yet it seems that the Church is facing financial issues because it failed to finance the pension fund of one health service in the state. This shows the Church abuse cases had an expected impact on the church itself but also shows a “dodgy” side of the Church that accumulated problems.

Secondly, the Church might have revealed how much it gave away to victim because of a bill. A bill has been proposed to extend the time for victims to file lawsuit. Indeed, in some cases the statute of limitation is of 3 years that can be extended to 7 years, and here, the bill suggests that this period of time could be of 35 years. Regarding that decision, the Church reminded it gave away millions to victims to show it “did” something in most cases, it is also to “protect” some clergymen as of its arguments is to say that some allegations are not credible or going too far.

To defend its position, the Providence diocese has a lobbyist: the reverend Healey who interferes in the political sphere directly, which at first could seem surprising. Apparently, he intervenes in the Rhode Island General Assembly and is the leader of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, a group that desires to interfere in the making of public policy. Despite, the Church’s numerous declarations to show compassion for victims and the US Conferences of Catholic Bishops that design charters to protect children, the Church’s position still seems ambiguous.

Aftermath for the victims

If in 2002 some victims declared they were satisfied by the meagre apology of the bishop, in the name of the Church, some other victims have by all evidence seen that measures taken by the Church did not go “all the way”: for example, priests that have been suspended but not defrocked. Even today, in 2019, some people are not convinced of the Church’ commitment to be as transparent as possible: in last December, the diocese announced it would release the names of abusers in the clergy but victims and lawyers remain sceptical, suspecting that only names that are already known to the public will be revealed. Yet, for some, such an action could be major step as sometimes, victims do not know who assaulted them.

Some victims have become very active on the matter of Church abuse and hold conference to not only share their experience but also to push the Church for more transparency. By all evidence, victims still suffer the consequences from the assaults and have to go to therapy, some others get involved in support groups such as SNAP, that is now present all over the world. This type of group shares tremendous amounts of stories and testimonies and looking at them can only trigger indignation regarding how little reactive the Church but also the institutions in general appear to be. Indeed, had new scandals not popped up again, we surely would not hear about Church abuse at all as, despite everything, remains a very taboo subject. In Rhode Island, for example, the attorney general decided to renew his allegations because a report uncovered hundreds of abuse cases in Pennsylvania. Thus, we can ask ourselves is the “culture of secrecy” associated to the Roman Catholic Church is not actually spread out in whole communities or the whole society as we prefer turning away rather than looking at the issues as unethical as they may be?

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Church Abuse In Rhode Island. (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“Church Abuse In Rhode Island.” Edubirdie, 21 Feb. 2022,
Church Abuse In Rhode Island. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Jul. 2024].
Church Abuse In Rhode Island [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 21 [cited 2024 Jul 15]. Available from:

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