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Spotlight Report

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New bill targets supervisor culpability

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 6/21/2002

A bill that would punish supervisors who knowingly expose children to the risk of physical or sexual abuse, which was initially opposed by private industry as being too sweeping, has been rewritten and appears likely to become law, its sponsor said yesterday.

On Wednesday, the state Senate voted 38-0 in favor of the bill, which would create the crime of ''reckless endangerment to children.'' It now heads to the House and state Senator Marian Walsh, who filed the bill, said she is optimistic that it will be endorsed.

Walsh, a Democrat from West Roxbury, filed the bill in response to the crisis of priests sexually abusing minors, citing widespread public sentiment that Cardinal Bernard F. Law and other church supervisors bear some responsibility for shuttling predatory priests from parish to parish.

Ironically, Walsh had been Law's most steadfast legislative ally on Beacon Hill, siding with him against abortion and the death penalty, and on a host of social justice issues. But Walsh fell out with the cardinal over his handling of the crisis and was the first state lawmaker to call for his resignation.

Walsh said the cardinal and other church supervisors would have been subject to criminal prosecution and would have faced jail time had the law been in place. The new law would apply only to offenses that occur after its passage. ''My staff found out that 31 other states have enacted statutes that criminalize general reckless endangerment, so we're really just catching up with the rest of the country,'' Walsh said yesterday.

Walsh said she believes the reckless endangerment law is a greater deterrent than the mandatory reporting law, which was amended in May to include clergy among those required to report suspected child abuse. Failure to comply with the reporting law is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, while the reckless endangerment statute, if passed, would carry a penalty of up to a year in jail. ''A person recklessly engages in such conduct when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that serious physical injury or sexual abuse to a child will result,'' said Walsh. ''The risk itself must be of such a nature and degree that disregard of the risk constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.''

Walsh said the state's penal code already had a reckless endangerment offense, but that only applies to physical danger while her bill ''contains the additional element of sexual abuse.''

''This language is necessary because of the current inability to prosecute persons who create the risk of sexual abuse to children by recklessly placing unfit persons in positions of trust and authority with children,'' she said.

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly has convened a grand jury to decide whether Law and other church supervisors will face criminal charges, but prosecutors privately acknowledge the chances of them filing charges are remote.

It is not known when the bill will go to the House for a vote. Even before it was rewritten, tightening its scope to appease industry lobbyists who complained that it was too wide in casting its net, the bill had been reported out favorably by the Criminal Justice Committee headed by Representative A. Stephen Tobin, a Quincy Democrat, who will play a key role in steering it through the House.

Tobin could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Walsh said she had been in constant contact with Tobin and has tried ''to be responsive to his concerns.''

''Representative Tobin has been with this bill every step of the way,'' she said.

The bill has bipartisan support. Senate Minority Leader Brian P. Lees, an East Longmeadow Republican, called for a roll call vote on it so it would be recorded as a unanimous vote.

This story ran on page A22 of the Boston Globe on 6/21/2002.
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