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Spotlight Report

Group offers to review abuse cases

Church unlikely to accept proposal, spokesman says

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 10/9/2003

A volunteer group of psychologists, social workers, and lawyers who specialize in child sexual abuse asked Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley yesterday to appoint them as an independent oversight board to review the church's handling of alleged cases of clergy sexual abuse.

The appointment of such a board -- a recommendation made this summer by Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly in his scathing report on the archdiocese's handling of sexual abuse claims in the last 60 years -- was also supported by a petition signed by more than 150 professionals in the fields of public health, child advocacy, and sexual assault prevention, said members of the group, which called itself the Victims' Rights Committee for the Boston Archdiocese.

The petition was faxed to O'Malley yesterday, members of the group said.

''We want to and intend to try to serve the archdiocese as independent commentators and consultants,'' said Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, a psychologist and author who specializes in treating adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

She said the group was impressed with O'Malley's efforts, adding, ''We would like to help him.''

But a church spokesman said flatly yesterday that the new group's offer would not be accepted.

''It would be redundant,'' said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese. ''We have shown over the past year that we are capable of following up on our policies and procedures and that we are doing everything that we can to make sure that people who make a claim against the archdiocese or a priest are given the justice they deserve.''

The archdiocese has two groups of mostly lay volunteers who oversee the handling of sexual abuse claims. One group, the Review Board, reviews the handling by church officials of individual cases of alleged abuse. The other, the 11-member Implementation and Oversight Advisory Committee, monitors efforts to enforce the new policies and recommends other possible changes. Both groups have been criticized by Reilly, advocates for victims, and child welfare specialists, because their membership is controlled by the archbishop and because all members are required to be in ''full communion'' with the church.

Church officials defend the boards. ''We already have a review board that looks at how we handle allegations of sexual abuse and an implementation and oversight committee that looks at how we are implementing our policies to protect children,'' Coyne said. ''The archdiocese does not see the need for an outside body.''

Ann E. Donlan, a spokeswoman for Reilly, said the attorney general's office supports the new committee's goals.

''Any effort to provide expert support and services to the victims is important,'' Donlan said. ''In our report, we identified several key areas where the archdiocese could improve support for victims by adopting changes to child-protection policies and procedures. We are hopeful that the archdiocese is in the process of making those changes, and we look forward to continuing our communication with Archbishop O'Malley.''

Although it was likely that the group's offer would be rejected, Frawley-O'Dea said yesterday, she hoped that O'Malley would change his mind. If he does not, group members said, the panel will independently review the church's handling of abuse complaints, probably making a first report sometime early next month. As many as four alleged victims of abuse have already contacted the group asking for their cases to be reviewed, Frawley-O'Dea said, including Paul Edwards, a Winchendon man who made, withdrew, and then repeated abuse allegations against the late Rev. William J. Cummings and the Rev. Michael Foster, a top canon lawyer for the archdiocese.

Other members of the new group include Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children; Thom Harrigan and Mikele Rauch, Brookline therapists who counsel sexual abuse victims; Wendy Murphy, a lawyer and advocate who specializes in representing victims of crime; and David Lisak, an associate professor of psychology at University of Massachusetts, Boston.


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