Ray Duckler, Ray Duckler: After months of digging, investigators uncover church abuse, then turn up the heat, Monitor

When Will Delker and Jim Rosenberg of the attorney general’s office began sifting through pages from what they called the Secret Archives – two filing cabinet drawers filled with evidence of sexual abuse and cover-ups within the state’s Catholic church – they knew what they had to.

They had to find victims named in the documents and persuade them to come forward. Many had not uttered a word about their ordeal for decades, not to a sibling, a spouse, anyone.

The pattern mirrored the stories that emerged from Boston after the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team uncovered a scandal that later would sweep the nation. Priests had been molesting children and then receiving transfers rather than punishment, allowing the behavior to continue for years. Even after the abuse stopped, the trauma for the victims continued into adulthood.

“I grew up in this community, and I knew the meaningful and significant role the church played here, through school and elsewhere,” Rosenberg said in an interview. “But we were beginning to deal with victims who’d been terribly harmed and whose lives had been shaped or reshaped by sexual abuse at the hands of priests and compounded by the fact that the diocese didn’t react in real time at all. It was a very difficult and emotional balancing act for us.”

The lengthy, arduous investigation began in the summer of 2002, after Delker and Rosenberg had gone through the Secret Archives outside the office of Bishop John McCormack.

McCormack had transferred from the Boston Archdiocese to the Diocese of Manchester four years earlier, in 1998. His power as Boston’s auxiliary bishop made New Hampshire officials suspicious that he might have known about sexual abuse here and not said anything, as he had done earlier in his career.

At the time, New Hampshire was the fourth most Catholic state in the nation, relative to population, Rosenberg said. He also made sure to pass credit around, noting that law enforcement agencies agreed to free up personnel for the investigation for the better part of a year, and those individuals worked with little regard to time clocks.

“We would take information and follow up with these people,” Rosenberg said.

Then his eyes teared up, a sign of gratitude, I assumed, from a man known as a hard-boiled egg in legal circles. He and Delker were overcome with emotion at one point in 2002 while reporting to their boss, Phil McLaughlin, New Hampshire’s attorney general at the time. They had found a victim, a friend.

“He was in our age bracket and we knew him professionally,” Rosenberg said. “We related to him, we were close in age, we knew him from work. You could have put yourself in the shoes of this child victim, and the fact that we knew him personally connected us to his story in a unique way.

“We heard several stories.”

They heard stories about Father Paul Aube and his abuse of children in Berlin and Nashua and Rochester and Manchester, leaving a trail of emotional trauma over an eight-year span that in many cases never faded.

They also heard stories about Father Gordon MacRae and his abusive behavior through the 1980s.

I spoke to a man in his 40s who says he was 12 when a priest sexually abused him in Manchester. The man, who requested anonymity, said the residual stress and shame he feels led to a divorce from his wife and an early exit from the fire academy, costing him a job.

He was targeted, he said, because he had no father figure growing up, leaving him vulnerable and needy for a support system.

“To be honest, this is something you carry with you, always kind of under the surface,” the source told me. “There was depression, not being able to get out of bed.”

Interviews by investigators led to more interviews with more victims. Tony Fowler was a retired Manchester police detective working in the attorney general’s office when Delker and Rosenberg asked for his help.

He spoke to victims in the Carolinas and Maine, adults who’d been sexually molested years before as children.

“I don’t want to get into details,” Fowler told me by phone. “But these people were so brave. You’re talking about people who are married now with kids. Their memories were very specific, serious emotions. I was a driven man during this investigation.”

Fowler and Rosenberg drove to Maine to interview a victim listed in the Secret Archives. He was a professor, with a new life and an old memory, from Berlin in the 1980s.

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘How did you find me?’ ” Rosenberg said. He says, ‘I never complained. I want to talk to you and tell you what happened, but you have to understand that I have not talked to my wife or children about the fact that I was the victim of sexual abuse 30 years ago.’ ”

As the investigation deepened, so did investigators’ understanding of Canon Law, the regulations that governed the righteousness of church behavior.

But, ironically, Canon Law was used to justify cloaking unthinkable crimes in secrecy.

“Canon Law has a core theme of avoiding scandal,” Rosenberg said. “So when the church faces scandal, it will take steps that it feels are appropriate based on its own teachings to avoid notoriety and attention. It’s part of an understood history, culturally speaking.”

That still sticks with McLaughlin, the attorney general.

“One of the themes that recurred, not just with church but in other ways, was the extraordinary endemic attitude of privilege and entitlement of certain classes of individuals and institutions,” he said in a sit-down interview with the Monitor. “It’s in the DNA.”

During the investigation, incriminating testimony by the priests themselves blew the lid off the decades-old tragedy, giving officials what might have seemed like an open-and-shut case against individual offenders.

But those admissions surfaced only because a deal of immunity was agreed upon, needed because the statute of limitations had long since expired.

Instead, the state went after the church as an entity, citing a breach of a fiduciary duty, which gave them a fresh clock after the discovery of the abuse.

In other words, the attorney general’s office had one year from the time the Globe’s Spotlight story hit newsstands to indict the diocese on misdemeanor charges of endangering the welfare of a child.

“I was very confident we had sufficient evidence to result in the grand jury’s indictment,” McLaughlin said.

Nudged by the pressure of an upcoming indictment, set for Dec. 13, 2002, the diocese caved, signing an agreement three days before to avoid a trial and public shame.

The attorney general’s report, released at a press conference on March 3, 2003, officially publicized news that was hard to fathom.

Eight priests were identified as child molesters, each case documented with disturbing details. Overall, the report said, allegations of abuse were levied at nearly 40 priests.

“The investigation confirmed initial suspicions,” the report read, “that in multiple cases the diocese knew that a particular priest was sexually assaulting minors, the diocese took inadequate or no action to protect these children within the parish, and that the priest subsequently committed additional acts of sexual abuse against children that the priest had contact with through the church.”

The agreement also created safeguards. An annual audit to monitor the diocese’s response to allegations of sexual abuse against minors was put into place, but that lasted only five years.

Elsewhere, all facts related to this investigation were released to the public, training classes and a centralized office to handle accusations were established, and a new position, director of safe environment programs for the Diocese of Manchester, was added to the staff.

“We agreed that any cases that came to our attention involving church personnel would be reported to the attorney general’s office,” said Mary Ellen D’Intino, the program director at the diocese since 2006. “That’s the agreement we have in place, we agreed to it and we continue to abide by it. All the measures that were put into place at the time remain in place.”

D’Intino added that victims, maybe 10 per year, still come forward, some of whom were abused by priests long since dead, and some whose stories were already documented.

“Some want to come back and just talk about it further,” D’Intino said.

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