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Providence Diocese to turn over 70 years of records in sex abuse probe

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Attorney General’s Office and the R.I. State Police will now have access to nearly 70 years of records related to allegations of clergy sex abuse.

According to a memorandum of understanding signed Monday by Bishop Thomas Tobin and Attorney General Peter Neronha, investigators will now have access to files kept by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence dating back to 1950.

During an interview with Target 12, Neronha said it was important for him to do his own review of the records.

“Certainly there are victims here in Rhode Island that feel their allegations have not been thoroughly vetted,” he said. “It is incumbent on me to do a deep dive here and really understand what happened, why it happened and what the response of the diocese was to examine whether or not there are cases that could be made.”

The agreement will give Neronha broad access to diocese records involving sexual allegations, including personnel files kept in “secret archives,” and legal documents held by the diocese’s former lawyer, William Murphy, which were transferred to the well-known Providence law firm Partridge Snow & Hahn in 2007.

Neronha is adamant he will be transparent about his findings, which could play a key role in what the public ultimately learns. The files obtained by his office and state police will be treated as “criminal law enforcement records,” which are exempt under the state’s public records laws.

The attorney general originally wanted to follow the playbook of his Pennsylvania counterpart, who last year released a plethora of information related to clergy sex abuse through a grand jury process that’s allowed under state law.

But the R.I. General Assembly shot down a similar bill proposed by Neronha this legislative session, which would have given him the authority to share information from certain grand jury investigations that don’t result in a conviction.

After the bill was rejected, Neronha said he needed to switch gears.

“As soon as you go to that grand jury tool, your ability to talk about what you’ve found in the absence of an indictment is very limited,” he said. “The more information I get voluntarily the more I will be able to talk about in the long run and that’s good for everyone including the diocese.”

What’s clear at the moment is the documents shared with the attorney general will include a list of the 50 “credibly and publicly accused” clergy that was released on July 1. Of the priests and deacons listed, 31 were dead, and the remaining 19 still living had been removed from the ministry, according to the diocese.

A Target 12 review of the list showed the accused clergymen were assigned to 185 Rhode Island institutions in 32 of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities.

The diocese’s internal review was headed by former state police Maj. Kevin O’Brien. In a statement Tuesday, Tobin said he welcomed the continued cooperation with the state agencies.

“It also affirms our longstanding commitment to transparency and accountability in dealing with clergy sexual abuse of minors,” he said.

The deal struck between the state and the diocese expands on a 2016 agreement when the church pledged to forward all accusations to three agencies: the state police, local law enforcement and the attorney general’s office.

The newest agreement will provide “fuller access to historical records,” according to the attorney general’s office, which said the agreement provides for confidential and privileged information to be protected “as appropriate.”

The files will be handed over to investigators within five days and be provided on a rolling basis throughout the review, according to the agreement.

The attorney general’s office urges victims of clergy sexual abuse to reach out to state police Det. Jonathan Elliott at 401-444-1372, or Day One’s Support Line at 401-421-4100 ext. 444, or via email at support@dayoneri.org.

“Support is available for victims no matter when the sexual violence occurred,” the AG’s office said.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow himon Twitter

Ted Nesi and Kim Kalunian contributed to this story.

Correction: This story has been modified from its original version to show the William Murphy referenced was not the former House Speaker.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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