The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Judge at center of Geoghan case considered 'a fresh-air person'

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 5/8/2002

The city had just lost a $100,000 court judgment to a local businessman and then-Springfield Mayor Theodore Dimauro was leaning toward paying. Writing the check, he decided, would keep the city from wasting money on a fruitless appeal and, he knew, the lawyer on the other side was a big deal in city politics.

He walked over to City Solicitor Constance M. Sweeney's office to tell her his decision. Sweeney fixed Dimauro, her boss as well as her political mentor, with a steely eye.

''You can't pay him,'' she snapped. ''We're going to win the case. Don't do it.''

The ensuing appeal cost Dimauro a political supporter, but it also saved Springfield taxpayers a bundle and helped to solidify Sweeney's growing reputation for blunt independence.

That reputation followed her to the Superior Court bench a few years later in 1986 and was enhanced last November when Sweeney made perhaps the most momentous decision of her judicial career, ordering the public release of 10,000 documents from 84 lawsuits against former priest John Geoghan.

Another Sweeney order commands the spotlight today, when Cardinal Bernard Law will be deposed by a lawyer representing Geoghan's alleged victims.

The release of the documents in January on a motion by the Globe - after a Spotlight Team series exposing how Law and his subordinates in the Archdiocese of Boston knew they were reassigning a pedophile priest - revealed in extraordinary detail the complicity of Roman Catholic Church officials in Geoghan's molestations. As much as any other single event, the documents' disclosure launched a national debate on the Church's handling of sexually abusive priests.

Lawyers who have studied Sweeney's decision say that the politically and legally safer decision would have been for her to continue the confidentiality order.

Given her background, including 16 years of Catholic education, Sweeney would seem an unlikely candidate to handle the Catholic Church with anything but the softest of kid gloves. But those who know her say her ruling fits with her reputation for fierce independence and a preference for bringing issues out in the open.

Rulings by the 52-year-old Springfield native, who is nominally a Democrat, betray few discernible leanings to either the political left or right. In 16 years on the bench, observers say, she has shown mostly a tendency toward populism and a preference for public disclosure over secrecy.

''She is a fresh-air person - that is her bent,'' said William Leahy, chief of the Boston Committee for Public Counsel Services, who served with Sweeney on a judicial study committee in the early 1990s. ''Her attitude usually is: Let's get it out there and talk about it.''

The Catholic Church has for centuries been one of the most secretive of institutions. But it is not the first private organization to confront Sweeney's faith in public disclosure.

In 1994, Sweeney ordered the YWCA Abuse and Rape Crisis Hotline in Springfield to turn over a rape victim's confidential records, saying they might contain evidence relevant to the defense of the alleged rapist. When the YMCA refused, Sweeney imposed a $500-per-day fine that women's groups called ''an outrage.'' The decision was upheld by a higher court and the YWCA eventually turned over the records.

Sweeney's disclosure decision in the Geoghan case was a surprise to many. It reversed decisions by the previous judge presiding over the case, James McHugh, who was elevated to the Court of Appeals last year.

Superior Court Chief Judge Suzanne Del Vecchio chose Sweeney to take over the case in part because the Springfield native had few ties to the Boston legal, political, and religious establishment, and because she had handled other cases involving sexual allegations against clergy.

Del Vecchio was also seeking a judge tough enough to keep all the parties in the Geoghan case moving toward a resolution, those familiar with the decision said. Those who know Sweeney say she was the perfect choice.

''She is strong and tough and smart,'' said former governor Michael Dukakis, who appointed Sweeney to the bench in 1986. ''She had a reputation in Western Massachusetts as being a real lawyer's lawyer.''

Sweeney, who is now the senior Superior Court judge in Western Massachusetts, lives in Wilbraham. She attended Holy Cross Grammar School and Cathedral High in Springfield, and graduated from Newton College of the Sacred Heart in 1971.

She graduated from Western New England School of Law in 1974, and after passing the bar began working as an assistant city solicitor in Springfield's legal office. There she met Dimauro, a city councilor and local attorney. After two years, she joined Dimauro's law firm, where she became the first woman lawyer in Springfield doing civil trial work. When Dimauro was elected mayor in 1980, he named her city solicitor.

Dimauro said Sweeney, who is single and has no children, impressed him with her smarts and voracious intellectual curiousity. She still does much of her own legal research, and has at times outstripped even attorneys for the Boston Archdiocese with her knowledge of complex canon law.

''She doesn't want to be bothered with minutiae; she only wants to work on and be involved with the important and intellectually challenging matters,'' Dimauro said.

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 5/8/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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