New York — The Archdiocese of New York told a California Catholic college in December that a local priest had never been accused of sexual abuse, even while the priest was being investigated by the archdiocese for several abuse charges. An administrator at the college called the letter “a lie,” and said she can no longer trust assurances from the archdiocese.
On Dec. 4, the New York archdiocese issued a letter stating “without qualification” that Father Donald Timone had “never been accused of any act of sexual abuse or misconduct involving a minor.”
In fact the archdiocese first received in 2003 an allegation that the priest had sexually abused minors, and it reached settlements with alleged victims (and surviving family members) in 2017.
The archdiocesan letter was received Dec. 13 by John Paul the Great University in Escondido, California, where Father Timone served. According to the university, the letter was not rescinded until after university officials contacted the Archdiocese of New York, following a Dec. 20 New York Times report on the history of allegations against Father Timone.
Allegations were first made against Father Timone in 2003, but they were dismissed as “unsubstantiated” by the archdiocese following an investigation by the archdiocesan review board. New allegations were made against the priest during a 2017 investigation by the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program of the Archdiocese of New York.
Last week, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York told CNA that the archdiocesan review board had reopened its formal investigation into Father Timone in early autumn 2018.
The officially retired priest, still active at the university and in other contexts, was removed from ministry Dec. 21, according to the New York Times.
Father Timone has served for the last decade as a visiting priest at the university during the winter and summer terms. His duties included saying Mass and hearing confessions. He taught a class during the summer term of 2018 and was scheduled to lead a seminar in the coming term.
University Vice President for Administration Lidy Connolly told CNA that she was “thrown for a loop” when she heard about the allegations against Father Timone.
“Father Timone has been coming here for more than a decade and New York never told us anything about [the allegations] against him,” Connolly said.
Letters of suitability are issued by dioceses around the world for priests traveling outside of their home dioceses. They have assumed a far greater importance in recent decades, especially in the United States, following the sexual abuse scandals of the last twenty years.
“What do these letters of suitability and good standing mean if they say there’s never been an allegation and there clearly have been?” Connolly asked.
“Does this mean we can no longer have priests come visit from New York? At the moment the archdiocese’s word means nothing.”
The Dec. 4 letter was signed by New York’s archdiocesan director of priest personnel, Msgr. Edward Weber.
“I have carefully reviewed our personnel and other records which we maintain,” Weber wrote.
“I assure you that Reverend Donald Timone [is] a person of good moral character and reputation and is qualified to serve in an effective and suitable manner as a priest. I have no reason to suspect that the above-mentioned priest is unfit for service as a priest.”
Weber wrote that he could “certify and affirmatively represent without qualification” Father Timone had “never been accused of any act of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct involving a minor,” and “manifested no behavioral problems in the past that would indicate he might deal with people, including minors, in an inappropriate manner.”
The letter also attests that Father Timone has “never been involved in an incident which called into question his fitness or suitability.”
In 2017, the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program paid settlements in response to substantiated allegations that Father Timone had sexually abused two teenage boys, one of whom eventually committed suicide.
A spokesman for the archdiocese told CNA that, after the Dec. 4 letter was issued, archdiocesan officials conducted an internal discussion about Father Timone’s status in active ministry.
“The question of Father Timone remaining active in ministry did arise when a letter of suitability was requested for his trip to California,” archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling told CNA.
“He was initially instructed not to publicly exercise his ministry or present himself as a priest while there; it was followed a few days later with a further restriction of ministry for whenever he returns to New York, while the matter is under review by our review board.”
Connolly told CNA that John Paul the Great University had received letters attesting to Father Timone’s suitability for more than a decade. She expressed shock and outrage on behalf of the university.
“I’d defend the Church come hell or high water,” Connolly told CNA, “but there is no defending this - the [Dec. 4] letter is a lie.”
Connolly said she contacted the Archdiocese of New York after reading media reports about Father Timone, to ask why he had been given a clean bill of health.
“They totally evaded my questions,” Connolly told CNA.
The Archdiocese of New York declined to comment on why it issued letters for years indicating that no allegations had been made against Father Timone, even after settlements were paid by the IRCP and Timone became the subject of a renewed investigation by the archdiocesan review board.
The Dec. 4 letter explicitly states that all the relevant archdiocesan files had been checked before it was issued. The Archdiocese of New York declined to comment on whether this had happened in Father Timone’s case and, if not, whether similar letters had been issued for other priests accused of abuse or misconduct.
Zwilling told CNA that “lessons were being learned” and that a new process had been instituted in the light of the case.
Zwilling said, “As a result of our experience with Father Timone’s case, in the future, before any letters of suitability will be issued by the archdiocese the request will be passed through the offices of the archdiocesan civil attorney and the Safe Environment Officer.”