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Spotlight Report

Archdiocese eyes more legal rights for accused priests

By Stephen Kurkjian and Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 9/25/2002

 In-depth
Accused of abuse and absolved, Msgr. Michael Smith Foster returned to parish work sobered by his experience.  
Coverage of the Foster case
Their voices have grown louder as the clergy abuse scandal has unfolded this year: priests who say they have been falsely accused of sexual misconduct and then languish in legal limbo, hearing little from the church about the charges they face or how they might defend themselves.

On Friday, church officials in Boston plan to offer their first official response to such complaints, authorizing the drafting of a sort of canon law bill of rights that would be made available to all priests.

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, said Cardinal Bernard F. Law's principal advisory group, the Presbyteral Council, will consider a number of ways to address the due process concerns of priests, including how they may challenge a suspension from pastoral duties - now an automatic consequence of a credible accusation of abuse - and whether they can bring a lawyer along should a summons from the chancery come.

Since the abuse scandal erupted in January, the archdiocese has suspended 23 priests from service for allegations of past sexual abuse. There has been little controversy about many of the suspensions. But, in recent weeks, the Globe has reported on questionable evidence that led to the suspension of Monsignor Michael Smith Foster. Globe stories have also underscored the slow work by the archdiocese to investigate details of sexual allegations in Foster's case and others.

In the view of lawyers versed in canon law, the new guide should address the issue of how long such investigations will take. Canon law now requires that such investigations be pursued ''expeditiously.' But, given the church's desire to be meticulous in such matters, no specific limit on the scope of investigations is likely to be set.

Also, the lawyers said, two other facets of canon law are likely to be addressed in the guide:

  • The kind of evidence required before a priest, facing an accusation, is suspended. Canon law says an allegation must have ''moral certainty,'' which has been interpreted to mean that it must be more probably true than false.
  • The right of priests to have civil or canon lawyers accompany them to meetings with the archdiocese's principal investigators. This, too, is provided for under canon law.
  • It may, however, be some time before the guide is formally issued, Coyne said, because Law wants to first discuss the issue with priests in the archdiocese, as well as with the blue-ribbon commission that advises him on ways to prevent clergy sexual abuse.

    Attorneys defending priests were heartened at the prospect of guidance on canon law rights, but dismayed that it may be some time before it is available to priests who have, in many cases, despaired at their treatment by the church.

    ''From what I've seen and heard, there has been an absolute denial of their due process rights,'' said James F. O'Brien, a Boston and New York lawyer who represents three priests suspended by the archdiocese. ''The priests are so blindsided by the allegations ... that they never question what's happened to them until it's too late.''

    The situation is illustrated by one of O'Brien's clients, the Rev. Victor C. LaVoie, who was removed as pastor of St. Eulalia's Church in Winchester in July. Lavoie sent letters to Law and other officials in the archdiocese and in the Vatican yesterday seeking an administrative review of his suspension. O'Brien, a specialist in canon law, said Lavoie had ''no idea'' that he could seek such a review until he consulted with him.

    The Rev. William P. Joy, a member of the Presbyteral Council and a pastor at St. Angela's Church in Mattapan, confirmed that the proposed changes were an effort to improve communications with priests, who may know little of their rights.

    But the Rev. Phillip B. Earley, the pastor of St. Thomas of Villanova Church in Wilmington, was critical of the proposed changes. He said assurances are still needed that investigators in these cases will be well-trained and experienced. Also troubling, he said, is the lack of limits on how long an investigation can go on.

    This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 9/25/2002.
    © Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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