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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Tactics suit the guilty

4/9/2003

It can expose, but it cannot correct, injustice. It can lance, but it cannot heal, a festering boil. It can mirror, but it can never feel, a person's pain. There are limits to what even meritorious journalism can do.

News of a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the clergy sexual abuse scandal came on the same day as word of the Catholic Church's legal strategy to smear the father of a young man who has accused one of Boston's most notorious priests of raping him as a child. It came on the same day that a nun's testimony about her fruitless appeals a decade ago to Bishop John B. McCormack to help victims of predatory priests prompted the bishop to reiterate his decision not to resign as head of New Hampshire's largest diocese.

This story might have passed through an awards cycle, but it is not getting any easier to bear for the victims and their families.

''Today is the worst of all, worse than Greg coming forward, worse than the depositions,'' Paula Ford said yesterday of insinuations by lawyers for the Rev. Paul Shanley that her husband, Rodney, might be the one who raped their son. ''Is there anything worse you can say about someone? Desperate times call for desperate measures and these must be very desperate men to stoop so low.''

Rodney Ford could not talk about church lawyers who chose to champion their client's cause by suggesting in open court that Ford's son's impounded psychiatric records might implicate him in Greg's abuse. He could not come downstairs, so devastated was he by headlines hinting that he hurt the son he has seen through hospitalizations at 17 separate mental health facilities.

''Day in and day out, we have had no peace in our lives for as long as I can remember,'' said Paula Ford. ''All the years, 100 doctors, trying to get at what was wrong with Greg. To finally know, and then to have these lawyers come out, without anything to substantiate it, and suggest it was Rodney, not Shanley, who did this to Greg ... What's next? It wasn't enough that the church let Greg be victimized? Now it is going to victimize Rodney, too?''

The phone was ringing all day at the Ford house, friends calling in support and outrage. The first call came from Newton's police chief, who reminded the Fords that, in all the years, through all the family therapy sessions, no doctor, social worker, or psychologist ever reported a suspicion about Rodney Ford to police or the Department of Social Services.

''Th ere was nothing to suspect,'' said Diane Nealon, a social worker in the office of the Fords's attorney, Eric MacLeish. ''If the notes show a suspicion of sexual abuse, that's good clinical work. He was sexually abused. I've spent the better part of two weeks reading Greg's records, records that would be private had not those lawyers twisted them in open court, and there is only praise for Greg's parents.''

The tactics of the church's lawyers are reminiscent of those employed by attorneys for Louise Woodward, the au pair convicted of killing the Newton infant in her care. Her lawyers were willing to suggest that Matthew Eappen sustained his fatal injuries at the hands of his mother, who was at work, or his brother, who was a toddler. That, in the parlance of the defense bar, is what constitutes a ''vigorous defense.'' MacLeish came closer to the truth yesterday when he called such tactics ''despicable.''

Nealon spent the day fielding calls from other frightened clients pursuing their own claims against the church. ''I can't tell them not to worry, that it won't happen to them, because I don't know that,'' she said. ''These lawyers represent the moral leaders of Catholicism in Boston. It's unreal.''

News cycles turn. It is Iraq, not the archdiocese, that dominates the headlines. Reporters and readers might move on. The victims of predatory priests cannot. The Catholic Church won't let them.

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 4/9/2003.
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