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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

A higher authority

11/13/2002

The legal playbook of the Catholic Church is not the Bible, and the crafters of canon law are not the divinely inspired authors of scripture, points worth remembering in reacting to the decision of US bishops to bow to the regressive dictates of Rome.

Angst is not the answer to the decision of the bishops to abandon a commitment they made only five months ago to report all allegations against sexually abusive priests to local authorities. Anger is.

Civil law supersedes canon law in every jurisdiction in the United States. Let the laity work to ''keep the faith and change the church.'' Let the lawmakers of this country work to change the laws and keep the churchmen accountable.

It took public fury at the sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston earlier this year to force the Legislature to do what prosecutors and social workers have been advocating for years: Add clergy to the list of those required to report suspected child abuse. That outrage, grown hotter by the betrayal this week of the bishops' meeting in Washington, ought to prompt every state to pass similar legislation and to eliminate the statute of limitations in sexual assault cases.

If the bishops cannot be trusted, they can be trumped. They will be less willing to shield deviant priests when the price of secrecy is criminal prosecution. They will be less likely to offer the rectory as permanent sanctuary if the passage of time no longer places sexual predators beyond the reach of the law.

The lasting image of this gathering will be of concerned Catholics and pained victims with their noses pressed against the windows of the bishops' closed-door meetings. The symbolic sound bite will be Bishop Wilton D. Gregory's denunciation of criticism as ''the call of the false prophet.'' The president of the US prelates told his colleagues ''we bishops need to recognize this call and to name it clearly for what it is.''

What Gregory calls false prophecy a dispassionate observer might call dissent. No organization likes it; most discourage it. But dissent is as American as Bishop Gregory's McCarthy-like attempt to demonize those who hold opposing views.

It is important that secular authorities steer clear of this internal ugliness. From a public policy standpoint, the issue here transcends the immediate scandal and the fact that the perpetrators and their protectors this time happen to be clergymen. All victims of sexual assault, especially children, deserve the assurance that no rapist, priest or not, will escape justice because of an arbitrary time limit.

''Rape is not a stolen car or a house break,'' notes state Senator Cheryl Jacques, a Democrat from Needham who, as a prosecutor, witnessed firsthand the particular pain of sexual assault victims. ''How do you tell people with the strength to face their attacker that it is too late, that the doors of justice have closed?''

Six years ago, after a protracted battle with the defense bar, Jacques persuaded the Massachusetts Legislature to raise from 10 years to 15 years the statute of limitations on rape prosecution. Legislation is pending that would eliminate it entirely, but with the House and Senate meeting in informal session, there is little prospect of action before January.

Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley built a $200,000 campaign ad around his support for this bill. Attorney General Thomas Reilly notes that even though ''you shouldn't have to pass a law'' to protect children, the message out of Washington from the bishops is that we do.

It was not a canon lawyer but John F. Kennedy, the lone Catholic president of the United States, who reminded us so long ago that people must be the agents of the change they wish to see in the world: ''With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His Blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God's work must truly be our own.''

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/13/2002.
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