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Spotlight Report

Law's attorney blasts judge for remarks

By Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer,, Globe Staff, 1/29/2003

In an unusual public rebuke, Cardinal Bernard F. Law's personal attorney yesterday accused Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney of making prejudicial remarks that could undermine Law's ability to get unbiased justice if any of the hundreds of pending civil claims of clergy sexual abuse go to trial.

J. Owen Todd, Law's attorney, noted in an interview with the Globe that Sweeney's caustic written and oral comments regarding court motions filed on Law's behalf have been published in several newspapers and said that, as a result, ''One has to wonder if there's a potential juror left that hasn't read them and formed some conclusions on the basis of the judge's remarks.''

Todd said he may file a motion demanding that Sweeney remove herself from hearing clergy sexual abuse claims.

A former superior court judge, Todd took particular exception to remarks Sweeney made in open court last week, when she rejected a motion to allow Law to delay his continuing pretrial testimony in civil suits filed by alleged victims of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley.

''Instead of just denying the motion, as she has a right to do, the judge held a hearing at which she made what I regard to be irresponsible and intemperate remarks that the motion was brought in bad faith in order to `sandbag' opposing counsel,'' Todd said. ''It seems to me that a judge charging an attorney with bad faith is as serious as an attorney charging a judge with bias and prejudice.''

Todd also objected to Sweeney's written remarks in a ruling last November, in which she said that evidence in church records contradicts Law's sworn testimony that he and his aides did not, as plaintiffs contend, return some abusive priests to parish work without first determining they posed no risk to children.

''Judge Sweeney must have the sense to realize that her remarks prejudice the defendants and my particular defendant, Cardinal Law, in the pending cases before her,'' Todd said.

In her remarks last week, delivered when Todd was out of state, Sweeney described Todd's motion to delay Law's deposition in the Shanley cases as an attempt to ''sandbag'' plaintiff attorneys. ''I do not think that this motion ... was filed in good faith,'' she said.

Todd, in his motion, asked that Law be allowed to postpone his pretrial testimony until after the cardinal completes separate testimony before a grand jury working under Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly that is looking into possible criminal violations by church officials. Law is scheduled to appear before the grand jury on Feb. 25.

Yesterday, Todd said he considers remarks Sweeney has made over the last several months to be so prejudicial to Law and other church officials that he may file a motion asking her to recuse herself.

''I may very well do that,'' Todd said. ''It's something we must give very serious attention to.'' Although Law resigned as archbishop of Boston last month due to his role in the clergy sexual abuse crisis, he remains a named defendant in several pending lawsuits charging Boston clergy with sexual abuse.

Sweeney's most direct comments concerning Law were made last November in a written ruling that cleared the way for plaintiff lawyers to obtain the psychiatric records of a priest accused of sexual misconduct.

''The actual discovery material before the court includes statements from Cardinal Law that between 1984 and 1989 some offending priests were returned to active ministry when, after treatment, archdiocesan personnel and the Cardinal determined they did not present risks of harm to children,'' the judge wrote.

''Despite this assertion,'' Sweeney continued, ''other archdiocesan records obtained through discovery reveal that some offending priests may well have been assigned to parishes, youth groups and the like, even though the cardinal or other archdiocesan personnel knew that the priests in question were at the least suspected of engaging in continuing sexual encounters with children.''

Sweeney could not be reached for comment late yesterday.

Plaintiff attorneys who are not involved in the Boston litigation, as well as outside legal specialists, described Todd's decision to publicly criticize Sweeney as an uncommon - and risky - strategy.

Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University, said it is ''unusual but not unheard of for lawyers to criticize judges publicly about their rulings.'' But, Gillers added, ''as a practical matter, lawyers don't want to antagonize judges who may have to rule on their clients' cases.''

Michael Avery, a Suffolk University law professor, agreed that it is ''certainly unusual for a lawyer to speak out and publicly criticize a judge in the middle of a pending case.''

Avery declined to comment on the advisability of Todd's remarks but said: ''I think it's important in a free society that we have as much debate about public matters as possible. And I think that this church litigation has gone beyond merely being a private lawsuit ... It's also a matter of great public interest, and it's important for people to be able to speak out about it.''

Jeffrey R. Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has represented scores of alleged victims of priests, called Todd's remarks ''extraordinary and very, very dangerous,'' but not unexpected.

''First they deny responsibility,'' Anderson said. ''When that doesn't work, they blame the victim. Then they blame the parents. Then they blame the media. Now they're running out of people to blame, so they blame the judge. I'm sure that if a jury decides a case against them, they will blame the jury.''

But Todd said his remarks were motivated only by a desire to ensure fairness for Law and other church officials.

''It simply can't continue that a judge presiding over these cases is making remarks that are so prejudicial,'' he said. ''She's a judge who is organized and smart, but there's only so much you can pay for those qualities.''

Walter V. Robinson of the Globe Staff contributed to this story.

Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com. Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 1/29/2003.
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