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Spotlight Report

AG's office asks to monitor priests

Issues raised of church-state relationships

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 3/8/2002

Saying that the extent of child sexual abuse by priests is ''shocking and appalling,'' Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly has asked the Archdiocese of Boston for sweeping influence in the way the church recruits, trains, and monitors priests.

In an interview yesterday with The Boston Globe's editorial board, Reilly said his office's ambitious plan to have a say in the way the archdiocese hires its employees, and the way those employees interact with children, is needed, given the size, scope, and history of the problem within the metropolitan area's Catholic Church.

Reilly said his office wanted influence that was 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. At the request of Reilly and five district attorneys who are investigating cases of child sexual abuse by some 90 priests over the last 50 years, a prosecutor, Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley, was named to the 15-member commission that was announced yesterday.

''We see our role as separate and independent and distinct'' from the commission, Reilly said.

''We share the same objectives, but in the end we're going to be looking for a comprehensive program focused on the protection of children, and we're going to want it implemented.''

Reilly suggested his office's role

Law appoints specialists on abuse to panel. A30.

" Authorities are given names of Jesuit priests accused of misconduct. A31.

would be one of enforcing the stated aims of the commission - in effect, to ensure the commission leads to real reform instead of toothless recommendations.

Some constitutional law experts suggested Reilly's attempt to have such a significant role in the archdiocese's affairs would violate the separation of church and state. ''If this is a program targeted at priests, I'm quite confident it would be unconstitutional,'' said Frederick Schauer, the Frank Stanton professor of the First Amendment at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

But Wendy Murphy, a lawyer who represents victims of sexual abuse, said the attorney general could cite the state's civil rights statute in seeking a role in the way the church recruits, trains, and monitors its employees. ''It's one of the broadest civil rights statutes in the country. It gives enormous power to the state,'' said Murphy. ''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.''

Several legal experts said Reilly's attempt to have Cardinal Bernard F. Law cede to him some influence in church affairs reminded them of the attorney general's recent attempt to get former Red Sox CEO John Harrington to give him veto power over who would be appointed to the Yawkey Foundation, the charitable group that suddenly became one of the best endowed in New England when the Red Sox sold for $700 million. Harrington's lawyers initially rejected the request as outrageous, but in the end agreed to give Reilly an advisory role in the appointment of board members.

Legal experts agreed that the degree to which Reilly's office could influence church policies likely depends on the extent of cooperation the archdiocese grants him. Reilly said he and other lawyers in his office have had discussions with archdiocese officials, but said the details of his office's role still need to be worked out. He declined to elaborate.

John H. Garvey, the dean of Boston College Law School, of which Reilly is an alumnus, said Reilly's initiative sounds legally suspect but politically astute.

''From the public's point of view, he is doing what attorney generals do,'' said Garvey, who is considered by his peers to be one of the nation's foremost authorities on legal issues regarding church and state. ''He sees a problem the public is interested in and he's going at it with both feet. You've got to admire him for that. Maybe for an attorney general, not knowing when to stop is a good quality. But I think he has to stop somewhere short of this.''

A spokesman for Michael F. Collins, chief executive of Caritas Christi, the Catholic hospital network, and leader of the archdiocese's team responding to clergy sexual abuse, said he and Reilly had ''a very good conversation'' yesterday but declined to elaborate on the substance of their conversation.

Donna M. Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said, ''We weren't at the meeting to hear the attorney general's comments, but we know he was very positive about the cardinal's commission to protect children and the members of that commission. We believe that the commission will be very effective and it is a great step in our commitment to protect children.''

There is apparently no precedent for an attorney general having such involvement with a religious institution. But Reilly rejected suggestions that his office's role would amount to a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state. ''We have the authority,'' he said. But when pressed to explain the legal authority he was citing, Reilly declined to elaborate.

Murphy, however, said the civil rights statute could give the attorney general the right to intervene. Still, even she said Reilly was on shaky legal ground. ''I'm the first one to jump on the bandwagon of a creative AG, and this is creative,'' said Murphy, an outspoken victims advocate who has been critical of prosecutors she says have not done enough to fight sexual abuse. ''It's a heavy hammer to swing when the government gets involved in something like this, particularly in the area of religious freedoms. But I think it's a moral question, not a legal one. Are we comfortable with the AG doing this? It takes a lot of chutzpah.''

Reilly said it is imperative the Legislature quickly pass a pending bill that would require clergy to report suspected child abuse. He said he accepts that there will be a provision exempting clergy who are told about suspected abuse in confession, but he said the exemptions must be narrow.

After Reilly and the district attorneys of Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, Norfolk, and Plymouth counties last week threatened to convene a grand jury, the archdiocese agreed to turn over the names of victims to prosecutors by March 18 so they can decide whether to bring charges against any of some 90 priests whose names the archdiocese turned over in January.

But Reilly said his office wants to do more than assist in potential prosecutions. ''We're on two tracks here,'' said Reilly. ''Track one is to get information about past allegations in the hands of prosecutors so they evaluate, analyze, and see whether there's any cases that will come out of it.

''The second track, which is every bit as important, we're looking at as an area of our responsibility. It involves the protection of children. What policies, what procedures, what programs are going to be in place within the archdiocese that will prevent this from ever happening again. If it happens again, obviously the legislation will involve reporting and these cases will be prosecuted or at least evaluated for prosecution. But how do you build in a comprehensive program that prevents this from ever happening again? That's what we're looking for. We intend to stay very involved in that until it's accomplished.''

Reilly said confidentiality agreements the church entered into with past victims helped hide the size and scope of the problem of sexual abuse of children by priests. But, he added, the interest of his office in safeguarding children goes beyond pushing for legislative changes. ''We'd be looking at education. We'd be looking at training. We'd be looking at monitoring. We'd be looking at supervision,'' Reilly said. ''We would look at ways to ensure that what has been put in place'' by the blue-ribbon commission ''is working. We'd be looking at selection and recruitment.''

Asked if he was referring specifically to the recruitment, selection, training, and monitoring of priests, Reilly said, ''Yes, absolutely.''

Asked if the role he was seeking was beyond the jurisdiction of the attorney general, Reilly replied, ''We're very respectful of the fact that this is a religious institution that we're dealing with. We're also mindful of our responsibilities to protect children, to ensure that there are programs and a comprehensive set of programs in place that make children safe.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/8/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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