A criminal case unsealed this week marks a new phase in the Rhode Island Attorney General's investigation: charges based in part on evidence that was already in church files and in some cases had been reported to law enforcement, but had not led to criminal prosecution in the past.
"I don't want to really talk about how this case got made," Attorney General Peter Neronha told NBC 10 News. "Let me just say this: that as we go back and look at all the records, it's an opportunity to look again at information that the Diocese may have provided to law enforcement."
A least 100,000 pages of records involving allegations of child sexual abuse, going back some 50 years, have now been turned over to the attorney general's office by the Diocese of Providence under a voluntary agreement that began last year. Some of those documents had not been seen by law enforcement until now.
"They are more voluminous than I can give you a number on," Neronha said of the files.
Neronha spoke with NBC 10 following the indictment and arrest of a former Woonsocket priest, John Petrocelli. Petrocelli was arraigned on one count of first degree child molestation and nine counts of second degree child molestation on Thursday.
He entered a not guilty plea and bail was set at $50,000 with surety. He was also ordered to have no contact with the three alleged victims in the case or any children under 16.
The Diocese of Providence said in a statement that Petrocelli was removed from ministry in 2002, and is on the list of credibly accused priests.
Neronha said the larger investigation reviewing Diocese records has two goals: first, whenever possible, charge living suspects who sexually abused children in the past.
"Frankly, it's no different than cold case homicides that we are working," he said.
Second: understand the scope of clergy sexual abuse in Rhode Island going back decades.
"How did the Diocese handle the allegations at the time? What, if anything, has changed?" Neronha said.
Neronha said his office and Rhode Island State Police want to speak with any victims who would like to come forward, whether or not the clergy involved are still alive, in order to fully understand how child sex abuse was handled in the past.
"So, it doesn't matter to me whether the case is five months old, or five years, or 50 years old. If there's a victim out there who's looking for justice, this is the office which I hope can deliver it for them," Neronha said.
Victims can call Day One's support line at 401-421-4100 ext. 444 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to be connected with clinical support and advocacy services. Anyone who would like to contact law enforcement can call Rhode Island State Police at 401-764-0142.
Full statement from Diocese of Providence on Petrocelli’s arrest:
The Diocese of Providence learned Thursday morning through media reports that John Petrocelli was arrested on child molestation charges. Petrocelli was removed from ministry nearly twenty years ago, in 2002, following receipt of credible allegations of abuse, which were promptly reported to law enforcement. His name was included on the List of Credibly Accused Clergy made public in July 2019. Every allegation of child sexual abuse is promptly reported to law enforcement regardless of credibility. Recent allegations made against Mr. Petrocelli were received by the diocesan Office of Compliance and promptly reported to law enforcement. Other inquiries regarding the arrest should be directed to the Rhode Island State Police and/or the Office of Attorney General. The Diocese of Providence takes very seriously all allegations of abuse and works closely with law enforcement agencies in accordance with the Charter for the Protection of Young People and diocesan policy. Anyone who has been the victim of sexual abuse, or with credible knowledge of such abuse, by any member of the church, is encouraged to report the information to the Rhode Island State Police Major Crimes Unit (401) 444-1000, the Rhode Island Attorney General's Office (401) 274-4400 or the diocesan Office of Compliance at (401) 941-0760.