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Spotlight Report

Law indictment seen unlikely

Some would like grand jury to call for legal reform

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 6/20/2002

Legal analysts say a recently convened grand jury will be hard pressed to file criminal charges against Cardinal Bernard F. Law and other church leaders for failing to prevent the sexual abuse of minors.

But a New York grand jury that just concluded a similar investigation may serve as a model for Massachusetts and other jurisdictions where authorities are frustrated in efforts to bring criminal charges against those who allegedly put children in a position to be abused.

While state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly has convened a grand jury to decide whether Law and other church leaders should be held criminally liable for their refusal or inability to control predatory priests, many legal analysts, and even Reilly himself, have complained that Massachusetts laws make that prospect virtually impossible.

In New York, rather than just say they found no evidence to support criminal charges against abusive priests and their supervisors, grand jurors in Westchester County took the unusual step this week of recommending that the state Legislature change laws so that the evidence that they heard would lead to criminal charges in the future.

In an interview, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro said she would not be surprised if the grand jury convened by Reilly faces the same problems the grand jury she convened April 29 confronted - a statute of limitations that does not account for the years it typically takes children to talk about abuse at the hands of authority figures - and the absence of laws that hold supervisors accountable for the criminal activities of their subordinates.

Pirro said the extraordinary 13-page report issued by the Westchester grand jury should serve as a blueprint for change. ''The grand jury spoke for many in our society who are saying, `You won't get away with this again,''' said Pirro.

The idea of using a grand jury as a voice of ordinary people demanding change intrigues some at the attorney general's office, where prosecutors are pessimistic about their chances of charging Law and other church supervisors with a crime.

Ann E. Donlan, a spokeswoman for Reilly, said the attorney general's office was researching whether a Massachusetts grand jury can be something more than a body to evaluate evidence and issue indictments.

Donna M. Morrissey, Law's spokeswoman, who on Tuesday said she was unaware that Reilly had convened a grand jury before the Globe asked her about it, yesterday issued a statement saying, ''We respect the right of the Attorney General to pursue the investigation with any means that are appropriate.'' She declined to elaborate.

Law enforcement sources familiar with the grand jury said it has, so far, focused primarily on assembling a paper trail, charting how the archdiocese responded to allegations against abusive priests, and that witnesses have not yet been called.

Those sources said that the chances of criminal charges against Law and other supervisors, including Bishop John McCormack of Manchester, N.H., who was one of Law's top deputies before becoming a bishop, appear remote.

Pirro said her prosecutors and the grand jurors were frustrated that they could not bring charges against abusive priests and their supervisors in the cases of eight victims because the statute of limitations had elapsed, and because New York has no law holding supervisors criminally liable for the crimes of others.

Legal analysts say Reilly and prosecutors face a similar set of circumstances because Massachusetts laws on conspiracy and being an accessory to a crime require someone not simply to be negligent but to share a criminal intent.

Specifically, the grand jury recommended that the New York Legislature eliminate the statute of limitations for crimes involving the sexual abuse of minors, that clergy be included among those mandated to report suspected sexual abuse to the police, that reckless supervision ''of employees known to have harmed children result in criminal penalties,'' and that confidentiality agreements in civil suits brought against sexual abusers be eliminated.

''This particular form of abuse, the evidence demonstrated, had a unique impact on the vulnerable victims involved, because of the position of religious authority held by their abusers,'' the grand jury wrote. ''The legislative changes proposed are also designed to remedy what the evidence has shown to be a systematic failure by the religious institution that these clergy members serve to respond appropriately when receiving a report of this activity.''

In May, in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal, Massachusetts law was changed to include clergy as mandated reporters. But the New York grand jury goes further in its recommendation, saying that failure to report abuse would be a felony; in Massachusetts, it is a misdemeanor.

State Senator Marian Walsh, once Law's key legislative ally, was so furious over his handling of abusive priests that she filed a bill that would hold supervisors criminally liable if they knowingly put someone in a position where they could abuse children. But the bill has languished on Beacon Hill, dogged by language problems and opposed by private industry.

Wendy Murphy, a former prosecutor who now represents victims of sexual abuse and who is a professor at the New England School of Law, has long advocated that Massachusetts eliminate the statute of limitations in cases of sexual abuse because children typically do not come forward for many years. But Murphy said there has been little appetite for changing that law in a Legislature in which committees that handle legal issues are dominated by criminal defense attorneys.

Murphy said that while Connecticut has a statute that specifically allows for grand juries to issue reports, Massachusetts does not.

''But there is nothing to prevent a Massachusetts grand jury from doing so,'' said Murphy. ''The grand jury is the voice of the people, a democratic vehicle. If this grand jury comes out and says, `We can't believe the evidence presented to us doesn't amount to a crime,' and if the Legislature doesn't listen to that voice, then the General Court is useless.''

As Reilly and his staff look for the ''smoking gun'' that would elevate the enabling behavior of bishops to criminal activity, Pirro said the evidence presented in Westchester ''showed that these cases were handled in a consistent, parallel manner by the church, suggesting there was a policy'' to hide evidence of crimes and dissuade victims from going to police. Pirro said that apparent policy applies to the church's handling of similar cases all over the United States.

If there was a policy, and it was written down, says Murphy, ''that is a smoking gun.''

This story ran on page B5 of the Boston Globe on 6/20/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing LLC.


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