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Spotlight Report

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DA calls N.Y. diocese policy on abuse 'disturbing'

By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff, 4/5/2002

NEW YORK -- Cardinal Edward Egan, head of the New York Archdiocese, took a step toward greater openness this week when he gave the Manhattan district attorney a list of priests who have been accused of child abuse, but at least one New York prosecutor said he did not go far enough.

On Wednesday, the archdiocese announced it had turned over the list, after weeks of refusing to do so. Later in the day, however, it released an "addendum" to its policy on sexual misconduct, indicating it would name only those accused in the past.

The addendum stated that, in future instances, two archdiocesan officials will interview the priest and his accuser and then make a report to a church "advisory committee," which "shall determine whether or not the allegation is to be reported to the district attorney."

Jeanine Pirro, the district attorney of suburban Westchester County, said yesterday that she finds this policy "disturbing."

"As one who has prosecuted sex-abuse cases for 20 years," she said in a telephone interview, "I think it is problematic whenever we delay a report of child abuse to law enforcement authorities."

Pirro has arranged a meeting with archdiocesan lawyers for Tuesday to discuss the new policy statement. "I am hopeful that they will have a chance to reflect on our concerns and reconsider their policy," she said.

Asked about this criticism, Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, said its policy does not require congregants who complain of abuse to go through the church.

"We have said we strongly encourage anyone who has any allegations or information concerning abuse to go immediately and directly to civil authorities," he said.

"If they do come to us and do not go to the civil authorities, then this is how we will handle the situation," he added, referring to the process involving two archdiocesan officials and an advisory committee.

However, in a letter sent Tuesday to Egan on behalf of seven district attorneys in the area of his archdiocese, Pirro wrote, "It is the duty and responsibility of the criminal justice system ... to determine the reliability of a complaint of sex abuse, not the church."

Yesterday, Pirro said that letting church officials decide whether to report allegations "is certainly not consistent with the way that abuse cases should be reported."

Delay can "affect the quality of prosecutions," she said, because it makes evidence harder to preserve.

Egan frustrated several district attorneys two weeks ago when he stated, in a letter to the 2.5 million Catholics of his archdiocese, that he will notify civil authorities of allegations only if a church panel finds "reasonable cause to suspect abuse and the victim does not oppose the reporting."

Pirro said she was gratified that the archdiocese has dropped its requirement of the alleged victim's consent but was disturbed that the archdiocese still would not report allegations without a finding of reasonable cause. She was also pleased that he turned over a list of priests accused of past abuses.

The New York Times, citing a law enforcement official, reported yesterday that the list contained "about three dozen" cases.

This story ran on page A20 of the Boston Globe on 4/5/2002.
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