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Spotlight Report

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Senate agrees to widen abuse bill

Clergy would be required to report past evidence

By Walter V. Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 1/23/2002

The Massachusetts Senate yesterday approved amendments to legislation so that clergy, including the Archdiocese of Boston, would be required to report past evidence of sexual abuse of children and not just future abuse, as proposed by Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

If the legislation becomes law, it could lead to the prosecution of priests whose cases were almost always handled internally when allegations of sexual abuse arose.

"There is no good reason for clergy not to report abuse, regardless of when it happened," Senator Cheryl A. Jacques, a Needham Democrat who cosponsored the amendment, said last night. "We shouldn't look the other way on past incidents."

Senator Susan Tucker (D-Andover), the other sponsor, said she believes "it is clearly possible" that other priests who have abused children remain in positions that put them in contact with children. For that reason, she said, the retroactivity amendment "increases protections for children."

The Senate is expected to pass the legislation today and send it to the House.

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

In toughening the legislation by adding clergy members to the list of caregivers who have long been required to report abuse of minors, the Senate was responding to Law's Jan. 9 announcement that priests and other archdiocesan officials will also begin reporting sexual abuse to authorities.

But Law said the reports would be limited to future cases only, prompting two of the state's leading prosecutors, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and Essex District Attorney Kevin M. Burke, to challenge the cardinal. Both men said in separate interviews last week that the church should let authorities decide whether past cases merit prosecution.

Last night, one legislative leader noted that other "mandated reporters" are expected to notify authorities of evidence of past abuse. The leader, who requested anonymity, said the retroactivity provision was added out of concern that the archdiocese "would not embrace the spirit of the law."

Indeed, legislative officials, pointing to the legal battle mounted by the church to keep secret the records of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, said they believe the archdiocese will try to have the provision removed in the House.

Donna M. Morrissey, the cardinal's spokeswoman, did not return telephone calls seeking comment last night. But last week, Morrissey said retroactive reporting would be inappropriate because the church gave assurances of confidentiality to victims.

Referring to disclosures that Law and other officials knew about Geoghan's sexual abuse but allowed him to continue serving in parishes, Tucker said, "Given the recent events, it would be my hope that Cardinal Law will support this amendment."

Phil Saviano, an advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse and a victim himself, said he was delighted by legislative efforts to make mandated reporting retroactive.

"I'm very pleased that finally the people from the Legislature are waking up to this and realizing that they can play a part in putting a stop to this problem," said Saviano, who heads the New England chapter of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests.

The amendment would give clergy of any denomination just 30 days after the legislation becomes law to report past instances of abuse, regardless of when it occurred.

The legislation, which the archdiocese had successfully opposed since the mid-1980s, would add clergy to the list of mandated reporters, like doctors, teachers, and social workers, who are required to report suspected abuse of minors to the Department of Social Services.

Last night, Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat and the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Services and Elderly Affairs, said he welcomes the retroactivity provision. But Cabral repeated his concern that the Senate version excuses clergy from some provisions of the law because it contains an exclusion from reporting allegations that clergy learn during counseling, as well as Catholic confession.

"What we should be concerned with is protection for children of the Commonwealth," Cabral said, "and if that [exemption] stays as it is, even with the additional language, clearly it just creates an illusion of protection."

But the Tucker-Jacques amendment also includes language designed to address Cabral's concern. It limits the counseling exclusion to what the abuser confides, either in confession or counseling. There would be no exclusion for what a third party might tell a clergy member.

Jacques, a former prosecutor who specialized in child abuse cases, said many past cases of abuse that would be reported are likely to be beyond the criminal statute of limitations.

But, she said, "That is not to say we cannot take action to ensure that any child abusers no longer have access to children, whether the abusers are sitting in retirement homes or working in some capacity that puts them in contact with children."

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 1/23/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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