The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church

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An overeager clergy watchdog

By Joan Vennochi, Globe Columnist, 3/12/2002

Down, boy.

First, he wanted to run the Boston Red Sox. Now, he wants to run the Archdiocese of Boston.

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly ran for the office on a narrow prosecutor's platform. Now, with the enthusiasm of an eager-to-please puppy, he is rushing to expand the AG's role as it applies to ferreting out pedophile priests. This comes after his recent attempt to get former Red Sox CEO John Harrington to give him veto power over board appointments to the Yawkey Foundation.

Last week, Reilly said he wants his office to have a say in the way the archdiocese hires its employees, including clergy. He told the Globe he wants influence that is different from and independent of the blue-ribbon commission charged with overhauling the way the archdiocese handles the sexual abuse of children by clergy and church workers. Asked if he is referring specifically to the recruitment, selection, training, and monitoring of priests, Reilly said, "Yes, absolutely."

Responding to Reilly's bid, even Wendy Murphy, one of the lawyers who represents victims of sexual abuse, said, "You could argue that he has the authority to intervene on behalf of certain classes of vulnerable people, such as children. But I think he's pushing the envelope here."

Not only is he pushing the envelope, Reilly is pushing his own headline-generating agenda. Hopefully, it does not come at the expense of more legally practical and politically viable reforms in the wake of the Boston clergy abuse scandal.

For the first time ever, Boston's political and business establishment is standing up to Cardinal Bernard F. Law and all he represents in the Catholic Church. That does not happen easily in this city. It comes in recognition of two factors: the shocking scope of the revelations and the awareness that the media, local and now national, are not backing away from the original story or further developments.

Reilly and five district attorneys sent a powerful message to Law when they stood together and warned that they might convene a grand jury to force the church to turn over incriminating information about pedophile priests. Quickly, Law agreed to drop confidentiality agreements and provide prosecutors with the names of alleged victims and witnesses.

That's where Reilly should continue to lead the charge -- in the court of law. He cannot reform the Catholic Church from the AG's office. But he can help determine whether any of the priests should be prosecuted. He is also right in pressing the Legislature to quickly pass a pending bill that would require clergy to report suspected child abuse, with the narrowest of possible exemptions.

It is never too late to take up a cause such as protecting children from abuse of any kind. But it is interesting and not coincidental that the cause is taken up with particular passion when the headlines are hot and the public is supportive. Defrocked priest John Geoghan was first indicted in 1996. Reilly was elected attorney general in 1998. Where was he then on the issue of sexual abuse by clergy?

Of course, he was not alone in choosing to focus his attention elsewhere. Boston's political and business elite yielded regularly to the power and influence of the Catholic Church. They did it because they did not want to offend the cardinal and in doing so, believed they would also reflect the public's general regard for the church and its leaders. Now that it is clear that the people have lost respect, not for their religion, but for their religious leaders, it is safe for Reilly and others to challenge them.

Well, better late than never. But, instead of rushing down individual paths to media glory, why can't the state's political leaders work together to col lectively achieve the best results for the Commonwealth's children?

Reilly won the headlines and the public relations battle with Harrington and the Red Sox. Anxious to close the deal, the winning bidders, now the team's new owners, kicked in more money for charity. Harrington's lawyers also agreed to give Reilly an advisory role in the appointment of board members to the charitable trust.

But the ongoing clergy abuse scandal should be more than an opportunity to score political points in a PR war.

I like my attorneys general to be creative crusading watchdogs -- but not just when the time is right for them. That gives the powerful far too much time to prey on the powerless.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

This story ran on page A21 of the Boston Globe on 3/12/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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