Bishop John O. Barres, who leads the Diocese of Rockville Centre, was named in a grand jury report released Tuesday that details more than 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses that have been accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children and the subsequent alleged cover-up by other clergy members.
Barres, who was named as the spiritual leader of Long Island’s 1.5 million Catholics in January 2017, served as the bishop for the Diocese of Allentown from 2009 to 2016. Though not accused of molesting children, Barres may have been involved in covering for an accused priest with a history of sexual abuse, according to the report, which is more than 1,300 pages and was the result of a two-year investigation.
In a news conference Tuesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro called it “the largest, most comprehensive report into child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church ever produced in the United States.”
But Sean Dolan, spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, said Wednesday that the report contains inaccuracies, and that abusers were removed from office and all reports of abuse were sent on to the appropriate prosecutors during Bishop Barres’s time in Allentown.
In 2009, the Diocese of Allentown received a report from an alleged male victim that Father Michael Lawrence had “fondled his genitals” when he was 13. Lawrence, who had previously admitted to sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy in 1982, told the diocese when faced with the new allegation that he often helped children dress in costumes for parish productions and that any contact was accidental, according to the grand jury report.
A letter written by Barres to the Vatican in December 2014 recommended that Lawrence remain in retired status instead of being removed from the priesthood, the report says. Lawrence died in 2015.
“It is my hope that my opinion offered herein will serve to alleviate your Congregation from further action in this matter,” Barres wrote in the letter.
Dolan said in a statement that the report contains errors regarding how Barres handled the case. In fact, he said, “It misreads the very letter it cites.”
Lawrence was removed from ministry before Bishop Barres arrived in Allentown, Dolan noted, and had been sent to live in a carefully monitored rural facility for sex offenders. The Diocese of Allentown sought to have Lawrence removed from the clerical state by the Holy See, and sent a report on his conduct to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF, in Rome.
Barres and the diocese decided to withdraw the application to remove Lawrence from the clerical state out of concern that if they did, he may leave the supervised, secure facility and re-enter society, where he might be a danger to children. “Bishop Barres stands by his decision,” Dolan said.
The grand jury report also states, “There is no indication that the Diocese notified the victim of Lawrence's earlier confession to molesting a child in 1982. Moreover, there is no indication that Barres told the Vatican of Lawrence's earlier crime or his related confession when the matter was brought to the attention of the Holy See.”
But in the letter, Dolan said, Barres makes clear that prior allegations had been previously discussed, alluding to “more recent” and “additional” allegations.
“The letter is just one part of correspondence between the Diocese of Allentown and the CDF,” Dolan said in the statement. “The entire situation was set forth in the earlier correspondence, and this final letter both refers to the prior correspondence and shows that Rome had been told about both victims.”
The report comes as the Diocese of Rockville Centre continues paying victims of clergy sexual abuse through its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which launched last October and has since closed. In all, 292 claims were filed, according to Camille Biros, an administrator for the program, and as of earlier this month, a total of 161 victims had been paid. Two attorneys representing a few dozen of these victims said settlement amounts have ranged from $25,000 to $500,000.
Dolan said that Bishop Barres is in the process of requesting the Pennsylvania Attorney General to correct this part of the report.
Shapiro’s office did not wish to specifically address Dolan’s statement about the report.