An abused story

abuseI was in high school 20 years ago. It was an age of great pop music, mullets, and impending U.S. victory in the Cold War. If that sounds like a long time ago, it was. Which is why I find it odd that The New York Times buried this fact in its story about a Catholic priest who has been removed from ministry because of allegations that he fondled two teenage boys.

Reporter Paul Vitello's story was curious. It had strong virtues but also strong defects.

On the one hand, Vitello showed that in some cases at least, the Catholic Church's new policy about removing alleged abusers is severe:

Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the first accuser came to the archdiocese in June. After an internal investigation, he said, the church sent the case to the district attorney's office, but did not remove Monsignor Harris because it is church policy "not to alert the target" of a potential criminal investigation.

During the district attorney's investigation, the second accusation against Monsignor Harris emerged, and the diocese ordered him to step aside, Mr. Zwilling said. The five-year statute of limitations has lapsed in both cases, and charges are not likely to be brought, said Alicia Maxey Greene, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office.

The archdiocese still must decide whether Monsignor Harris will be returned to his duties, "returned to the lay state," or permitted to retire to "a life of prayer and penance," an inactive status, Mr. Zwilling said. Monsignor Harris is one of 15 archdiocesan priests who have been removed since 2002 on sexual abuse allegations, with just one returning to his post, he said.

Also, Vitello showed that the priest, Monsignor Wallace A. Harris, was no recluse or loner; on the contrary, he was popular and influential:

Monsignor Harris, 61, is widely known in Harlem for his church's charity works, and known in the community of 648 priests who serve in the Archdiocese of New York as an expert organizer and charismatic leader. He is the chairman of the archdiocesan priests' council, a position to which he was elected by the priests. He was appointed by Cardinal Edward M. Egan as vicar of central Harlem, one of five vicariates in the five boroughs.

Later, Vitello added

The monsignor was assigned to coordinate Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Yankee Stadium in April -- and it is part of local legend that the task involved making sure that 100,000 ponchos were ready in case of rain. "How many people could do that?" Ms. Tuckett said. "He is a very smart man; he makes things work like clockwork."

On the other hand, the story's lede was buried. The story opened not with the allegations against Monsignor Harris, but rather about the fact that one former pastor was addicted to cocaine and booze while another one was convicted of molesting a 12-year-old girl. What this angle has to do with the main story line I don't know.

Also, the fact that the alleged abuse 20 years ago was buried. Here is the relevant paragraph:

Neither the archdiocese nor the Manhattan district attorney's office would provide more details. But people familiar with the district attorney's investigation said the complaints involved the fondling of two boys, about 13 or 14 years old, when they were students at the Cathedral School in Manhattan, where Monsignor Harris was assigned before becoming pastor at St. Charles Borromeo.

Readers only learn that the alleged fondling occurred two decades ago comes via a quote from an upset parishioner. By contrast, Oren Yaniv of The New York Daily News highlighted that the alleged abused occurred 20 years ago:

A popular Harlem priest accused of sexually abusing two minors 20 years ago will not be charged because the statute of limitations has expired, prosecutors said yesterday.

The allegations against Msgr. Wallace Harris of St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church on 141st St. date from the late 1980s.

The Catholic Church's new policy is strict in many ways. Yet I think that the Times' story needed to explore the question of why abused teenage boys would come forward 20 years later. Is this unusual? Is it possible or likely that the boys' memory is faulty? (In the early- and mid-1990s, the question of recovered and repressed memory was a big one.)

As is, the story conveys the impression that the church, St. Charles Borromeo, is somehow to blame. As one parishioner says,

"Must be something about that building," said Roger Firby, 50, a retired corrections officer who has lived most of his life within walking distance of the church. "Always got some trouble."

Yeah, I guess. But that is a strange way to explain the abuse and the allegations.

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