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Spotlight Report

Push made to toughen abuse laws

Romney, Reilly weigh changes

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 7/26/2003

Governor Mitt Romney's chief legal counsel has contacted the attorney general's office in a push for tougher state laws in response to the clergy sex abuse scandal, after Romney declared Thursday that ''people should go to jail'' for allowing the abuse of children.

Following state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly's announcement Wednesday that criminal charges would not be brought against leaders of the Catholic Church, Romney said, ''The conduct that was outlined in the report must be illegal. People need to go to jail for what happened here.''

Romney's comments -- his strongest so far on the actions of church officials -- immediately raised a stir, especially among victims, some of whom believe strongly that Catholic leaders should face criminal charges for protecting offending priests.

Yesterday, after Romney's remarks drew attention in legal and political circles, with some interpreting the governor's unusually strong language as second-guessing Reilly's legal conclusion, the governor's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, sought to clarify his statement.

Fehrnstrom said the administration plans to work closely with Reilly to ''enhance'' state laws to require tough prosecutions of people whose actions lead to the abuse of children. There would be no independent review of Reilly's findings, said Fehrnstrom, who downplayed any potential conflict between the Republican governor and Reilly, a Democrat. The two are seen as potential rivals in the governor's race in 2006.

On Thursday, when asked about Reilly's report, Romney responded: ''The conduct that was outlined in the report must be illegal. People need to go to jail for what happened here. I have already instructed my chief legal counsel, Dan Winslow, to meet with the attorney general's office and determine what action we should take -- what we can do.'' According to Reuters, Romney was then asked if he meant that the former archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, in particular, should be jailed. The governor said he meant ''the people responsible for not protecting our children.''

''Is there not any way we can bring indictment against these people?'' Romney asked, according to Reuters.

Reilly's 16-month investigation found overwhelming evidence that for many years Law and his senior officials had direct knowledge that numerous children had been sexually abused by priests working in the archdiocese.

Reilly said he was unable to bring criminal charges against Law and his top aides because the child-abuse reporting law in Massachusetts did not include priests until 2002.

Fehrnstrom yesterday stressed that Romney has ''no reason to second-guess the attorney general's decision in this case. The governor shares the frustration of the attorney general that there is no basis in state law to prosecute anyone involved in the clergy sex abuse scandal.''

Winslow, who, like Romney, was on vacation yesterday, was unavailable for comment.

Beth Stone, a spokeswoman for Reilly, confirmed that the attorney general's office had been contacted by the Romney administration, but said it was ''only to express a willingness to discuss any legislation that may be helpful in protecting children from future abuse.''

Lawyers for alleged victims of abuse said many of their clients had been heartened by what they initially believed Romney had said.

''It got a lot of people's hopes up, unfortunately,'' said Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer for the Boston firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents about 260 people suing the Archdiocese of Boston over alleged sexual abuse.

''I think when [Romney] speaks, he needs to speak with clarity,'' MacLeish said. ''I got a lot of calls saying `Hey, the governor is going to intervene.' If he's not, a bunch of people are going to be disappointed.''

Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 114 people who have filed civil claims against the archdiocese, predicted that his clients would be disappointed as well.

''Some of my clients desperately want to see prosecutions'' of church leaders, Garabedian said.

In the scathing 76-page report, Reilly found that, under Law and other church leaders, the archdiocese operated with an ''institutional acceptance of abuse'' that resulted in ''the greatest tragedy to befall children -- ever'' in Massachusetts.

Yet while as many as 1,000 children may have been abused over the last six decades, the report found, the attorney general's staff could not find any criminal statutes under which evidence uncovered during a 16-month grand jury investigation would support an indictment.

The report states that Reilly and his staff considered prosecuting Law and his top bishops as accessories before or after the fact of a felony, for conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice, and even weighed indicting the archdiocese itself for failing to stop the abuse of its agents, the priests.

In each case, the report found, there was either insufficient evidence uncovered to justify an indictment, no evidence of criminal intent on the part of church officials, or there was not a specific statute on the books that prohibited the conduct at the time it occurred.

However, since news of the abuse scandal broke more than a year ago, Beacon Hill lawmakers have already taken steps to tighten state laws regarding child abuse. Recent changes in state law added clergy to the list of so-called mandatory reporters, such as teachers and social workers, who must by law inform state authorities of suspected abuse cases. The changes also created the crime of ''reckless endangerment'' of children.

Reilly has proposed further legal changes, including raising the maximum fine for mandatory child abuse reporters who fail to report abuse from $1,000 to $25,000. Reilly has said he opposes some other measures, such as elimination of the statute of limitations.

It was not clear what changes the Romney administration would urge be enacted.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/26/2003.
© Copyright 2003 New York Times Co.


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