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Spotlight Report

Tougher clerical abuse laws urged

By Peter DeMarco, Globe Correspondent, 11/24/2002

WELLESLEY - Frustrated by the US Roman Catholic Church's unwillingness to adopt a national policy of reporting all clergy members accused of sexual abuse to police, advocates for abuse victims announced a campaign yesterday to pressure state leaders into toughening laws to bring pedophile priests to justice.

Standing in a parking lot across from St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, the advocates called on Governor-elect Mitt Romney, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, and other state officials to make resolving the church sex abuse turmoil a political priority.

Representing an array of victim support groups, the advocates said they intend to lobby legislators and district attorneys by letters, phone calls, and, if need be, demonstrations outside their offices or at political fund-raisers starting next month.

They demanded prosecutors show ''greater diligence'' in pursuing offenders, and urged lawmakers to repeal statute-of- limitations laws for reporting abuse. They also called for legal reforms that would jail those who do not report sexual abusers. A recently enacted state law calls for a $1,000 fine for those who do not report accusers.

''We're more interested in educating and working with political leaders,'' said Paul Baier of Survivors First, one of the seven groups that joined forces for the first time yesterday. ''But I think there's a little carrot and a stick here. If we need to get 3,000 signatures of registered Democrats or Republicans who are interested in getting safe, nonprofit institutions, we will.''

The coalition said it also wants to raise the cap in the state's charity immunity law, which limits legal awards against nonprofit organizations to $20,000.

The advocates, including leaders of the Boston chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the largest victims' advocacy group in the nation, said they decided to push for legal reform after months of unsuccessfully lobbying Catholic leaders to enact change within the church.

Joseph Gallagher, a member of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors group, told reporters yesterday he was disgusted by the national child-protection policy adopted two weeks ago by Catholic bishops assembled in Washington, D.C.

The rules, approved at the insistence of the Vatican, would reinforce the advisory role of lay boards in reviewing allegations against priests and strengthen the rights of the accused by declaring that they are entitled to trials before church tribunals.

The bishops promised to uphold a promise they made when they met in June in Dallas to report all allegations to the police, but that requirement will not be spelled out in church law.

''I think they suckered us'' into believing they would make real change, Gallagher said. ''You're not going to reform the church. You have to rein it in.''

''We want to believe the church will reform,'' added Lucia Mudd, a Cambridge resident who is a member of the Survivors First group, ''but again and again and again, they don't come through.''

Advocates also said they felt betrayed by the Archdiocese of Boston's court motion on Friday to block the public release of 11,000 pages of potentially explosive church records involving 65 accused priests.

Baier said the action to shield the records flew in the face of what he heard Cardinal Bernard F. Law say during his homily three Sundays ago.

''He said, `The secret of sexual abuse needs to be brought out of the darkness and into the healing light of Jesus Christ,'' Baier said, referring to the homily that also appears on the cardinal's Web site. ''Perhaps the cardinal was talking about some other secrets of sexual abuse besides these 11,000 documents.''

Donna M. Morrissey, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the court motion was not inconsistent with Law's words.

''Our first desire is to settle all these cases in a fair, equitable, and expeditious manner out of respect for the survivors,'' she told the Associated Press, adding that lawyers for both sides were fulfilling their obligations to their clients.

She also said she applauded all efforts to protect children, but added, ''I don't agree with the premise that we have not made reforms. We have significantly increased lay involvement in preventing abuse, investigating abuse, and providing outreach services.''

Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's campaign spokesman, said it is a little premature for the governor-elect to comment on any proposed legislation.

''Our response is that the governor-elect is very sympathetic but he would want to get the input and advice of Attorney General Tom Reilly on this issue,'' Fehrnstrom said. ''We're still a month and a half away from Mitt's formal assumption of duties.''

Reilly declined comment through a spokeswoman, saying he had not heard the groups' requests.

David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said about two dozen states are working toward enacting laws requiring mandatory reporting of abusers. To his knowledge, he said, the Boston coalition will be the first such group to concentrate its efforts on lobbying political leaders.

''The group in Boston has been at the forefront. They're usually ahead of the pack,'' he said.

Baier said victim advocacy groups would continue to picket the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where Law leads Mass on Sundays, but that about ''80 percent'' of the coalition's efforts would be directed toward legal reforms.

About a dozen advocates, including members of Speak Truth to Power, Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, Linkup, and Voice of the Faithful, stood alongside Baier and Gallagher as they spoke to reporters yesterday. Several held signs bearing large photographs of children who had allegedly been abused.

''This is me at my First Communion,'' said Susan Renehan, pointing to the photo she held of a smiling 7-year-old in a white dress. ''It was taken about 100 feet away from where I was sexually abused by a priest in New Jersey.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/24/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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