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Spotlight Report

Abuse cases long her crusade

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 5/21/2002

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - Jeanine Pirro has a great smile. She flashed it briefly last month, as lawyers for the Archdiocese of New York took their seats around the polished conference table here in her fifth-floor office, and then there were no more smiles.

Pirro, the district attorney for Westchester County, had assembled a group of seven other district attorneys from in and around New York. They wanted information, and they wanted it fast. The archdiocese had resisted requests to turn over records of priests who had sexually abused minors, so Pirro put together a meeting to present the archdiocese with its options.

Pirro prefaced her remarks by noting that she is a devout Catholic, but quickly cut to the chase: The archdiocese had information about sexually abusive priests that she and other prosecutors needed to see. They could do it the easy way, she said, or they could do it the hard way.

Then she stared at the church lawyers, as if to say, ''What's it going to be, boys, yes or no?''

The church lawyers looked at each other. One of them, a friend of Pirro's, looked at her with incredulity.

And then they blinked. They agreed to turn over the information. ''Eventually, they gave up everything,'' Pirro said in a recent interview here.

Pirro's ability to galvanize prosecutorial pressure on the archdiocese continues to yield results. Until last Wednesday, Cardinal Edward Egan had insisted the archdiocese would forward allegations of sexual abuse to prosecutors only after the charges were first considered by an internal church commission. At the meeting in her office, Pirro had told the church lawyers the commission was an unacceptable usurpation of prosecutorial responsibility. As the church lawyers lauded the commission, noting it would include former prosecutors and judges, one of the district attorneys interrupted and said, ''With all due respect, I don't care if Jesus Christ is on the commission.''

On Wednesday, the archdiocese agreed to report allegations directly to prosecutors, bypassing the commission it had once touted. Pirro, meanwhile, has convened a grand jury to consider charges against priests. Rather than rely on the information turned over by the archdiocese, she is proactively seeking victims. Some tips have come in on a hot line she set up last month. On Thursday, Pirro took out a full-page ad in the newspaper that showed the hot line number under Christian, Jewish, and Islamic symbols, and the words, ''There's no place for abuse in any religion.''

The sexual abuse scandal that erupted in Boston has sent shock waves across the United States, especially in the Archdiocese of New York, the third largest in the nation. But church officials in New York were initially less forthcoming than their Boston counterparts, and some New York prosecutors seemed wary of pressuring Egan the way Massachusetts prosecutors had pressured Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

But Pirro challenged the church that has always been a big part of her life. Now in her third term, Pirro, 50, made her bones as a prosecutor some 25 years ago by going after those who sexually abuse children. Her office became the first in the nation to aggressively pursue pedophiles with Internet stings, in which police officers pose as children in chat rooms. One sting snared a priest last year. But when the church sexual abuse scandal exploded in January, Pirro took it as a personal failing that she hadn't seen it coming.

''I mean, this is what I pride myself most on, protecting children from sexual abuse. I can't think of a more important thing we can do in law enforcement. But I had no idea,'' she said. ''No one called us. No victims, none of their lawyers. And the church did an incredible job in covering this up.''

But if Pirro missed anything in the past, she says she is determined to make up for it now, and doesn't care whose toes she steps on in the process.

''What's become obvious to me in this whole sad episode is that the church is disconnected from the real world. They have no sympathy or empathy for the victims,'' Pirro said. ''That is why they were able to cover this stuff up. They don't see what happens to the victims. But I have. And if you had seen what I have seen, you would understand why I feel so strongly about this.''

Years ago, when cases involving sexually abused children were farmed out to female prosecutors because most men didn't want to handle them, Pirro opened a file about a brother and sister. He was 5, she was 6. The children's baby sitter and the baby sitter's boyfriend had repeatedly raped and sodomized them. Pirro met with the kids and looked deep into their eyes. The eyes, she says, were wounded.

''I worked with those kids for a year, building the case,'' she recalled.

The baby sitter testified against her boyfriend. She got probation and a commitment to psychiatric treatment. The judge, appalled at the evidence, sentenced the boyfriend to 75 years in prison, only to learn that the maximum allowed under state law was 30 years.

Ten years later, after Pirro had been made a judge, she was presiding over a family court session when a case for a ''child in need of services'' case came before her. A teenage girl had tried to kill herself, and the state was trying to figure out what to do with the troubled girl. Pirro looked up to regard the teenager standing before her. It was the girl she thought she had saved a decade before.

''As soon as I looked into her eyes, I knew it was her, even before I saw her name in the file. She still had that sweet face, and the blonde hair. And the eyes. She still had the eyes,'' Pirro said.

Pirro decided to find out what had happened to the girl's brother. He had become a prostitute.

''Now remember,'' said Pirro, ''these were two children who were taken under the wing of the state, who were believed, who were comforted, who were able to see that a jury had vindicated them, and know that the people who did this horrible stuff to them had been sent to prison for a long, long time. And still, look what became of them. It made me realize the enormous impact of sexual abuse on children, the lingering effects, the long-term ramifications. And it made me think, what about all the children who aren't believed, who aren't comforted, who don't see those who harm them held accountable?''

Critics say Pirro is a publicity hound who spends too much time on television and not enough battling corruption and organized crime. Anthony Castro, who lost to her in last year's election, acknowledged that Pirro's Internet stings have been a popular attention-getter, but he said she should spend more time on ''serious'' crimes.

Pirro's back stiffens when she hears the charge.

''What could be more serious than predators who want to sexually abuse children?'' she said.

Pirro said the stories that continue to emerge about the extent to which church leaders covered up the sexual abuse of children disturb her greatly, but she has not lost her faith. She looks at her son and daughter, remembers the abused brother and sister she tried to save so many years ago, and is resolute. ''I've raised my kids in the Catholic faith, and I will continue to raise them in the Catholic faith. There are many good things that the church has done, and continues to do, for poor people. I'm just determined to make sure the church learns from what they didn't do to protect the children. I will hold them accountable,'' she said.

In Pirro's office, where she presides over a staff of 120 lawyers, many photographs on the wall are of children. There is another photo on the wall, just to the left of Pirro's desk. It is of her and the late New York archbishop, Cardinal John O'Connor. The two were fast friends, though O'Connor would gently rebuke her, telling her she was on the wrong side of the abortion debate.

She acknowledged that she had read recent press accounts questioning O'Connor's handling of abusive priests.

''I've heard the stories,'' she said, staring fondly at the framed picture, ''and I hope they're not true.''

This story ran on page A12 of the Boston Globe on 5/21/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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