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Spotlight Report

AG says state law takes precedence

Urges cardinal to act quickly

By Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 10/19/2002

 Related stories
Bishops hopeful on abuse policy
Law says Boston rules will endure
Bishops' policy flawed, priests say
Changes in canon law may follow

 The conflicts
A look at where canon law and the Dallas policy proposal differ

 Documents
Exchange of letters between the Vatican and the US bishops

The state's top law enforcement official yesterday urged Cardinal Bernard F. Law to brush aside the Vatican's initial rejection of the US bishops' proposed policy on clergy sexual abuse, asserting that the state's civil and criminal statutes override provisions in church law cited yesterday by officials in Rome.

''Canon law is irrelevant when it comes to crimes committed against children,'' said state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly. ''By now everyone should recognize that - the Vatican as well as every bishop in this country.''

Reilly also called on Law to ''immediately implement'' the child protection recommendations delivered to him last week by a special commission Law formed earlier this year. ''Cardinal Law can send a very clear message that notwithstanding the Vatican's failing, change is necessary and that change will begin here with the implementation'' of the commission's recommendations, Reilly said. ''The time for action is now.''

Law said at a news conference yesterday that he and other church officials are reviewing the commission's recommendations and that he hopes to approve a new archdiocesan policy on clergy sexual abuse before the end of the year.

The Vatican, in its statement yesterday, said it was delaying approval - or recognitio - of the bishops' proposals adopted at a June meeting in Dallas because ''some aspects are difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the Church.'' The statement offered no specifics but church observers have said that several aspects of the bishops' proposed policy run counter to canon law, the body of internal laws governing the Catholic Church.

For instance, canon law says the statute of limitations for a charge of sexual abuse of a minor expires when the alleged victim turns 28. But state criminal statutes - particularly when a priest or other perpetrator leaves the state where crimes were committed - can run much longer. The Rev. James F. Talbot, a Jesuit and teacher at Boston College High School during the 1970s, was indicted last month on sex abuse charges based on complaints made by men older than 28.

Members of the Canon Law Society of America, in a detailed statement issued last month, said that a provision of the bishops' policy promising a new era of openness in pursing allegations of clergy sexual abuse also appears to run counter to church law. ''It is difficult to reconcile this desire for openness with the canonical requirement that the entire process for investigating allegations of sexual misconduct is to be confidential,'' the society's statement said.

In particular, the recently adopted policy of many dioceses - including the Boston archdiocese - of naming priests removed from active ministry because of sexual abuse complaints could violate canon law provisions. Some dioceses, including the Washington, D.C., Newark, and Scranton dioceses, have chosen to not release the names of accused priests until preliminary investigations are complete.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which formulated and approved the bishops' policies, said in a statement yesterday that the Vatican had also raised canon law concerns about the bishops' proposal to create review boards with lay majorities to evaluate sexual abuse allegations.

Those concerns drew a sharp response from Voice of the Faithful, the Newton-based organization formed in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal. ''It is deeply troubling that the Vatican has concluded that the judgment of those closest to the problem and to the 64 million members of the US Catholic community is so severely flawed,'' the organization said in a statement.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse reacted to the Vatican's statement with particular bitterness. ''We're terribly upset,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ''What American bishops are trying to pass off as tweaking is actually radical surgery to a document that was already painfully flawed and inadequate.''

Attorneys for victims also reacted to the Vatican's statement with dismay, although some said they were not surprised. ''Why should we believe that those who looked the other way as priests molested children have the ability to create proper procedures, much less carry them out?'' said Mitchell Garabedian, who represents alleged victims of convicted pedophile and former priest John J. Geoghan.

Said Robert Sherman, an attorney representing alleged victims of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley: ''The Vatican appears to be circling the wagons to protect its own.''

Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com

This story ran on page B6 of the Boston Globe on 10/19/2002.
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