Seeking to restore the trust of New York Catholics shaken by recent revelations of abuse, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan announced on Thursday that he had appointed a former federal judge to review how the Archdiocese of New York handles cases of sexual abuse of minors and sexual harassment of adults.
The review, led by Barbara S. Jones, a former judge in Federal District Court in Manhattan, will primarily focus on whether the archdiocese is following the protocols to protect minors from abuse that were approved by the nation’s bishops in 2002. Tackling a type of misconduct that was not addressed by the 2002 reforms, she will also examine whether current workplace policies are sufficient to prevent the sexual harassment of adults and other abuses of power in churches and seminaries.
Cardinal Dolan said in a Thursday news conference that Catholics in the archdiocese had come to him repeatedly over the summer distraught over the litany of sex abuse revelations that seem to make daily headlines, including the lurid accusations against Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, who was removed from ministry in June following a substantiated allegation of sex abuse of a minor in New York, and the explosive grand jury report into clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania released in August.
“I need your help if I am going to respond to my people’s plea for accountability, transparency and action,” Cardinal Dolan told Ms. Jones at the news conference. “I look forward to receiving your recommendations and your insights and I pledge that I will take them all with utmost seriousness.”
Ms. Jones, 71, who will hold the title of special counsel and independent reviewer at the archdiocese, said she had been promised full access to personnel and other case files and will report directly to Cardinal Dolan. While producing a report for the public is not part of her initial mandate, Cardinal Dolan said that if he does not follow her recommendations, she should “hold my feet to the fire” and “report back to my people.”
Two weeks ago, the attorney general of New York State announced a civil investigation into how all the Catholic dioceses in the state have handled sex abuse allegations over decades. Several states have opened similar probes following the revelations of sex abuse and cover up in the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
The timing of Cardinal Dolan’s announcement left some skeptical that he was simply trying to get out in front of that investigation, which has already issued subpoenas to the dioceses for all files relating to sexual abuse.
“I think that the Cardinal’s move is basically a P.R. move that was made under duress,” said Michael Reck, a lawyer who represents clergy abuse victims in cases against the diocese. “This is the type of thing that could have and should have been done years ago.”
Shaun Dougherty, a New York representative for SNAP, an advocacy group for survivors of clergy sex abuse, said that if Cardinal Dolan truly wanted transparency, he would stop lobbying the state legislature against the passage of the Child Victims Act, which would lift the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases and allow lawsuits against the church for abuse that took place decades ago.
“Today is just another distraction from the bigger picture,” he said. “The Roman Catholic hierarchy is fully aware that we have just merely scratched the surface into the extent of the cover up of child sexual assault, and they are desperate to get this lid back on the bottle.”
Ms. Jones, who was a federal judge until 2012 and is now a partner at Bracewell, just finished an assignment as the court-appointed special master identifying which items were subject to attorney-client privilege among the millions seized in raids on President Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
She was an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan and chief assistant to Robert M. Morgenthau, the former Manhattan district attorney, before she was appointed to the bench in 1995 by President Bill Clinton. As a federal prosecutor, she served as chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force Unit. At Bracewell, she specializes on compliance issues and internal investigations.
She said Thursday that she began an initial review of church policies 10 days ago and found a “robust infrastructure” in place to handle allegations. She will now examine if those protocols are being followed. For the most part, abuses that took place before 2002 will not be part of her review.
“I approach this important assignment with an open mind and an understanding of the scope and scale of the issues that challenge the archdiocese,” she said.
The archdiocese is already engaged in an effort to settle claims with sex abuse victims, provided they agree to forgo further legal action. Over the past two years, its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, led by mediator Kenneth Feinberg, has awarded settlements to 295 people abused by diocesan priests over decades, costing the diocese $59.75 million dollars.
Cardinal Dolan has not published a comprehensive list of all priests who have been credibly accused of abuse on the archdiocesan website, as other dioceses have done in a move toward transparency.
“I, for one, don’t exactly see why we should, because the names are already out there,” he said Thursday, adding that the archdiocese has released all the names of abusive priests over the years one by one. Victims groups, however, have disputed that all the names have been made public.
Cardinal Dolan said that he would be open to publishing a list of accused priests if Ms. Jones recommended doing so among her other suggestions. Ms. Jones, who will be paid by the diocese for her work, said that it was too soon for a timeline for when the review would be completed.