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Spotlight Report

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Spotlight Report   FOLLOW-UP

AG wants church to report past sex abuse

By Sacha Pfeiffer and Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 1/17/2002

Cardinal Bernard F. Law did not go far enough when he ordered priests and other church officials last week to report future instances of abuse to authorities, according to Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly. He should also have mandated reporting of past sexual abuse by priests, Reilly said.

Reilly and Essex District Attorney Kevin M. Burke, in separate interviews, both openly questioned the archdiocese's policy and said retroactive reporting of sexual molestation might prompt prosecutions of some priests, given the lengthy statute of limitations for child molestation.

''When it comes to any evidence, they should report any priest or member of the church. Let prosecutors make decisions on whether they are actionable,'' said Reilly. ''Given what's happened here, the church should err on the side of complete disclosure on the issue of the abuse of children. There shouldn't be a free pass on anything when it comes to the sexual abuse of children.''

Cases of child rape can now be prosecuted for up to 15 years after the victim reaches age 16, or 15 years after they are reported to police.

Donna M. Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Law, said last night that it would be ''inappropriate'' for the church to go to authorities with evidence of past abuse by priests because it would violate assurances of confidentiality that the archdiocese had given to victims who came forward.

Meanwhile, the state Senate last week quietly amended legislation requiring clergy to report instances of abuse to authorities, inserting language that would exempt clerics from reporting ''any communication'' by anyone ''seeking religious or spiritual advice or counseling.'' Critics said the change would substantially weaken the requirement.

The amendment, added the day before Law made his own proposal for mandatory reporting, reflects the cardinal's own wishes. Senate officials acknowledged that the church's lobbyist at the State House was consulted about the amendment.

Senate officials said the amendment would not impede the reporting of abuse, and that they were compelled to add it for constitutional reasons. But Burke said he was ''concerned'' about the language.

''That is an exception through which someone, if they chose, may drive a truck,'' he said.

Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat who is House chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Services and Elderly Affairs, said in an interview that the change, if adopted, would ''create the illusion that we are protecting children without really protecting them.''

Cabral, who noted that he is a ''practicing Catholic,'' said he would fight to remove the counseling exemption, adding, ''I hope Cardinal Law will support me in this, since what we are trying to do is protect children.''

Law announced the new reporting policy last week after the Globe Spotlight Team reported that former priest John J. Geoghan, who is now standing trial on charges that he sexually molested a young boy, was assigned to parishes throughout the 1980s even though Law and other ranking church officials knew he had abused children in at least three parishes.

The policy requires priests and other archdiocesan employees, as well as church volunteers, to abide by the state's ''mandated reporter'' law - even though members of the clergy are not yet required by state law to do so.

Massachusetts is one of about 20 states that exempt clergy from laws requiring people who work with children - including doctors, teachers, day-care workers, and guidance counselors - to report alleged abuse to the Department of Social Services. DSS, in turn, refers cases to prosecutors.

Since the mid-1980s, attempts to include clergy among the ''mandated reporters'' have been stymied by the archdiocese's opposition.

The cardinal's turnabout, however, applied only to future instances of abuse, prompting some prosecutors to say that the archdiocese should alert them to past instances of sexual abuse that, under church policy, were never reported to authorities.

Burke, the Essex district attorney, said any archdiocesan reporting deadline should conform with the 15-year window allowed by state law or ''some sensible period of time that would be subject to discussion or negotiation, and should be retroactive.''

''I don't think you can put a deadline date on this, or draw a line in the sand and say that people victimized before a certain date shouldn't receive proper treatment by the system and by health care professionals,'' he said.

Added Roderick MacLeish Jr., an attorney who has represented more than 150 victims of sexual abuse by priests: ''The archdiocese now needs to act cooperatively with law enforcement to identify others who, like Geoghan, committed unspeakable acts of child molestation.''

State Senator Cheryl A. Jacques, a Needham Democrat and former prosecutor who specialized in child abuse cases, said yesterday that the archdiocese ''ought to be totally on the side of the children. Any knowledge that the archdiocese has of any priest, who at any time molested children, regardless of when it happened, should be reported to authorities.''

The archdiocese jettisoned its opposition to the reporting requirement last summer, after Law's admission in court documents that he was aware of past abuse by Geoghan when he assigned him to a parish in 1984. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which represents the archdiocese's interests on Beacon Hill, said it would support mandatory reporting that preserved ''the sanctity of the Sacrament of Penance as well as the confidentiality of spiritual counseling.''

Last Tuesday, Senator Susan Tucker, an Andover Democrat and Cabral's cochairwoman on the committee, offered the amendment that exempted counseling, as well as anything said in the confessional to a Catholic priest, from the reporting mandate.

Tucker and David E. Sullivan, the Senate counsel, said the Senate had no choice but to broaden the amendment. To exempt only confessions made by Catholics, and not give similar protection to private counseling available to other denominations, would violate equal protection provisions.

Cabral disagreed, noting that the separate dispensation for confessions by Catholics has long been a part of state law.

Jacques, who agreed with Sullivan's view, said she anticipates that the archdiocese will adhere to the spirit of the legislation.

Morrissey, the cardinal's spokeswoman, said last night that since implementing a new policy toward sex abuse in 1993, the church has told victims that it would support them if they chose to go to authorities.

''It was our intent in 1993, when we instituted the policy, to be available to all victims, including those that did not want to go to the authorities,'' she said. ''This policy was put in place to encourage all victims to come forward.''

Asked about Reilly's and Burke's comments, Morrissey said it would be ''inappropriate today to breach the confidentiality agreement that victims relied upon before making their decisions to seek help from the archdiocese.'' But the 1993 policy, reviewed by the Globe, contains no mention of any confidentiality pledge for victims.

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

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