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Panel Details How Springfield Diocese Should Change Its Response To Clergy Abuse Allegations

Independent Task Force on the Response to Sexual Abuse co-chair Orlando Isaza talks about the panel's final report at a news conference as co-chair Irene Woods looks on.
Paul Tuthill
Independent Task Force on the Response to Sexual Abuse co-chair Orlando Isaza talks about the panel's final report at a news conference as co-chair Irene Woods looks on.

Report calls for restructuring internal review board

A much-anticipated report was released today recommending changes to how the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts responds to allegations of sexual abuse.

An independent task force worked for 20 months to produce a 20 page report that recommends six strategic initiatives and several action steps to achieve the goals which are to improve how the diocese investigates allegations of abuse, ensures transparency, protects the vulnerable, and holds the credibly accused responsible.

Springfield Bishop William Byrne accepted the recommendations.

“It is my sincere hope that this will offer us a blueprint to once and for all set a course for real change in how we handle future allegations,” Byrne said.

He said the work of the task force was directed from the grassroots, not the top down.

“ I understand how people might be skeptical, but we really see this as a new day in the work of transparency and the hard work of making sure we acknowledge, we bring healing, we bring justice into the work that we do,” said Byrne.

The next step will be the appointment of an advisory committee by Byrne that will oversee the implementation of the changes over a three-year period.

“We are not putting off important work, we are trying to do it systematically,” Byrne said.

Irene Woods, the founding executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Franklin County and the North Quabbin, who co-chaired the task force, said the advisory committee is key to turning the promises of accountability and transparency into action.

“ I see there really is a check and balance system in there and it will be done by people from the community that have been chosen to serve on the advisory committee,” Woods said.

A key recommendation from the task force is to restructure and reform the Diocesan Review Board, which hears cases of sexual abuse and makes a recommendation to the bishop about the credibility of the claim.

The nine-member board will now have four non-Catholics.

Jeffrey Trant, who heads the diocesan Office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance, said there is autonomy between the investigators who work out of his office and the Review Board.

“The investigators complete their investigation before it is submitted to the Review Board and the investigators themselves are not present in attending (Review Board) meetings,” explained Trant. “ It is not an integrated process.”

The diocese will now publish an annual report on the activities of the office responsible for investigating clergy sex abuse allegations.

Other recommendations from the task force include updating the code of conduct for clergy, administrators, staff, and volunteers, and mandatory sex abuse prevention training in each parish for anyone who has regular contact with minors.

The report urges the current and future bishops of Springfield to maintain the agreement reached in April 2020 with each of the region’s three district attorneys to immediately refer any claim of abuse for possible criminal prosecution.

Task force co-chair Orlando Isaza said to produce the final report the 10-member committee interviewed clergy, analyzed the community survey responses of 492 people, and reviewed the results of focus groups of clergy sex abuse survivors.

“These courageous individuals helped us understand the pain, the trauma, the need for healing and the path for going forward,” Isaza said.

The task force’s recommendations were heavily influenced by a report issued last year by retired Judge Peter Velis that detailed how the diocese mishandled credible allegations of sexual abuse against the late Bishop Christopher Weldon.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.