Prosecutors Finishing Investigation Into Church Sex Abuse Allegations

CLEVELAND (AP) - Prosecutors said Tuesday they have investigated 360 people in the city's Roman Catholic Diocese accused of sex abuse, about 100 of whom are priests.

The Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office this week will finish a five-month investigation into child sexual abuse in the diocese. Some allegations date back more than 50 years.

Prosecutor William Mason described the investigation as "unprecedented in its scope and magnitude."

It will be a few weeks before prosecutors know how many cases pass evidentiary rules and statute of limitations restrictions required for presentation to a grand jury, Mason said.

His spokeswoman, Kim Kowalski, said Tuesday that investigators have interviewed more than 700 people claiming sexual abuse.

Priests, nuns, lay teachers, administrators, custodians and school-age students and parents have been accused of abuse, Mason said.

Kowalski said there was no timetable for presenting the case to the grand jury.

"It's hard to say. We have to go through which ones can go to the grand jury," she said.

The time restraints for bringing charges against alleged abusers have been exceeded in almost all the cases, but Mason said he expects some indictments will be issued.

"Our first priority was to protect the children who are in the schools now and those who will come in the future," Mason told The Plain Dealer. "To accomplish this, we needed to take the child abusers out of commission, if they still exist."

Since April, four assistant prosecutors working full time and 25 others working part time have sifted through more than 37,000 pages of diocesan documents.

Church officials could not be reached for comment. Messages seeking comment were left Tuesday at offices of the diocese, which has said it would cooperate with the investigation.

In May, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla said priests guilty of sexual abuse against a child would be permanently banned from the ministry.

Diocesan officials this year have suspended 15 priests accused of child sexual abuse. Thirteen former and retired priests also have been named by the diocese.

Mason said prosecutors identified shortcomings in the sex-abuse reporting system, which they will relate to diocesan and human-services officials at the conclusion of the grand jury presentation.

The investigative team worked out of a basement office in the Justice Center that they called "The Bunker." Investigators examined 23 boxes of diocesan records.

Most of those suspected of abuse will find protection in the statute of limitations, which until 1999 gave alleged victims six years to report the crime after they reached age 18 or, in the case of repressed memories, after they recalled the abuse and told someone about it.

In 1999, the statute of limitations law was stretched to 20 years but covered only cases that occurred since 1993.

"The statute of limitations, unfortunately, is letting a lot of guilty people get away with crimes," said Regina Scolaro of San Francisco, who accused the late Rev. Donald Rooney of molesting her as an 11-year-old at St. Patrick's School in Cleveland's West Park neighborhood.

Rooney committed suicide in April after he was summoned by the bishop to discuss an abuse allegation.

The Cleveland diocese has 235 parishes with more than 800,000 Catholics and about 340 priests in Ashland, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Summit and Wayne counties.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)