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Spotlight Report

An alleged victim is called negligent

Term is ascribed to Law in lawyer's response to suit

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 4/29/2002

Cardinal Bernard F. Law at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross. (Globe Pool Photo)

Greg Ford, left, and his mother, Paula Ford, presenting evidence against the Rev. Paul Shanley at a news conference. (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)

In his first legal response to charges that the Rev. Paul R. Shanley began molesting a Newton boy when he was 6 years old, Cardinal Bernard F. Law has asserted that ''negligence'' by the boy and his parents contributed to the alleged abuse.

The cardinal's claim, filed in court by his attorneys, is boilerplate legal defense language. But a lawyer who is not involved in the case and has handled other cases involving allegations of clergy sex abuse said last night that the decision to use such a claim in so sensitive a case showed poor judgment.

Carmen Durso, a Boston lawyer who represents others who say they are victims of abuse, said he found no legal fault with the language. But for Law to make use of it, Durso said, ''is dumb beyond belief. It is a stupid argument to make when you know that Catholics are already angry at you.''

Added Durso: ''From the start, the archdiocese has been incredibly stupid in the way they have handled this crisis. And as hard as it was to do, they have managed to make things worse.''

Last night, the parents of the boy, who was allegedly abused by Shanley between 1983 and 1989, said they are furious.

''To say my son is legally responsible for his own abuse at the hands of this monster Shanley when my son was only 6 years old is horrific,'' Rodney Ford, the father of Gregory Ford, said in an interview. In the lawsuit, the Fords charge that Law was negligent in overseeing Shanley, who he knew, or should have known, was a danger to children.

A. W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and a psychotherapist who has treated both pedophile priests and their victims, said the language chosen by Law's attorney ''is absolutely reprehensible, as reprehensible as any defense I have ever seen in one of these cases.'' Sipe said the message that Catholics will take from Law's claim is that ''the cardinal is saying that every Catholic child and every Catholic parent should have been watching out for every Catholic priest.''

Donna M. Morrissey, the spokeswoman for the archdiocese, did not return telephone calls last night seeking comment on Law's claim. But a lawyer familiar with the church's legal strategy said last night that the cardinal would likely not have been consulted about the negligence claim against the plaintiffs. The attorney, who asked that he not be identified, said Law's lawyer, Wilson Rogers Jr., would have been ''derelict'' had he not included every possible legal defense in his response.

The cardinal's response involves the same lawsuit that forced the archdiocese to release more than 800 pages of Shanley's records earlier this month. They indicate Law and his predecessor, Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros, were aware of Shanley's longtime advocacy for sex between men and boys. His records also contain allegations that he molested teenage boys in 1966.

Last week, the case further embarrassed the archdiocese, when the church's lawyers released an additional 800 pages of Shanley's records to the Fords' attorney, explaining that they had turned up in another priest's files. Those records contained additional damaging information.

The cardinal's six-page response to the lawsuit against him by Gregory Ford and his parents, Rodney and Paula Ford of Newton, was filed in Middlesex Superior Court earlier this month. A copy of it was provided to the Globe by Roderick MacLeish Jr., who is representing the Fords.

As one of the defenses against the lawsuit, Law declares: ''The defendant says that the Plaintiffs were not in the exercise of due care, but rather the negligence of the Plaintiffs contributed to cause the injury or damage complained of ... '' The response adds that any damages assessed against Law ''should be reduced in proportion to the said negligence of the Plaintiffs ... ''

MacLeish, who is scheduled to take Law's deposition on June 5, said he found the claim by the cardinal to be ''appalling.''

''There is no set of circumstances under which a 6-year-old child could be blamed for something like this,'' MacLeish said.

In almost any other context, said Durso, the use of the language would raise no eyebrows. In fighting a negligence complaint, he said, any good lawyer would include every possible defense that might be employed if the case reaches trial. But in this case, he said, suggesting the plaintiff is at fault is ''not sensitive.''

MacLeish, however, argued that while such a claim might be an appropriate defense in a lawsuit involving an automobile accident, it is not justified when the claim is one of sexual abuse. Under the rules of civil procedure, he said, parties in a lawsuit cannot make claims for which there is not a ''good faith'' basis.

''How could you possibly ever argue to a jury that a 6-year-old is responsible for his own sexual abuse,'' MacLeish said. Gregory Ford's abuse allegedly began when he was 6 and ended when he was 13 - when Shanley resigned as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Newton in early 1990 and moved to California.

The same issue has arisen before in recent months, though it received little public attention. Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney who represented scores of victims of former priest John J. Geoghan, pointed out that Rogers, the cardinal's attorney, used the same claim, that the victims were negligent, in responding to lawsuits that charged Law with negligence for Geoghan's serial molestations.

In a response in the July 27, 2001, edition of the Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, Rogers argued that the use of that defense is ''standard, even universal practice'' in defending civil lawsuits.

Whether or not Rogers was legally justified in using the defense again, Sipe, the psychotherapist, said it is a nonsensical argument to make now that the extent of the abuse, and the awareness of it by church leaders, is so clear to the public. Even in technical legal papers, Sipe said, ''this is not the time for the church to be blaming the victims and their families.''

Walter Robinson's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/29/2002.
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