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Spotlight Report

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Calif. diocese sues Boston Archdiocese

Alleges officials hid Shanley's past

By Larry B. Stammer, Los Angeles Times, 4/2/2003

The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., sued the Archdiocese of Boston yesterday, alleging that Boston officials hid the history of sexual molestation by former priest Paul Shanley when he moved to California.

The lawsuit, filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court, is believed to mark the first time that one US Catholic diocese has sued another in civil court, according to both dioceses. As such it is a further indication of how the sex-abuse scandal has moved through the Catholic Church, overturning long-established customs.

A spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington called the lawsuit, at the least, a historic ''rarity.''

The lawsuit accuses Catholic officials in Boston of engaging in ''misrepresentations and suppression of information'' as well as ''active misconduct and negligence'' in hiding the background of Shanley, who has been accused of molesting boys since 1967. He moved to San Bernardino in 1990 and has been accused in a civil lawsuit of assaulting at least one teenager while there.

In that lawsuit, Kevin English has sought damages from both dioceses, contending he was abused starting when he was 17. San Bernardino officials say that they have not turned up evidence to corroborate English's claims so far, but that a settlement could nonetheless cost upward of $12 million. That would be enough to push the diocese ''to the brink of bankruptcy,'' said the Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the diocese.

The lawsuit aims to ensure that whatever amount English is paid comes from Boston, not San Bernardino.

''We should not have to pay for Boston's mistake,'' Lincoln said.

Although the Roman Catholic Church is a worldwide organization with an international hierarchy, each diocese is treated as a separate entity with its own assets and income.

In Boston, Donna M. Morrissey, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said officials had not seen the lawsuit and would not comment.

Others said the case shows that internal fractures among the nation's bishops, which have until now been confined to closed-door meetings, increasingly are becoming public.

The lawsuit ''shows how deeply the church has been affected'' by the sex-abuse scandal, said the Rev. Thomas Rausch, chairman of the theology department at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The scandal is eroding ''the communion that unites the dioceses together as one church in the United States,'' he said.

Under the church's internal rules, known as canon law, a diocese has recourse to church courts to resolve disputes with other dioceses. Those proceedings would be private. The decision to file a lawsuit in civil court makes a public statement, said lawyer William Light, who represents English.

''I tend to think . . . the reason they chose this one [was] to put them in a better light publicly,'' Light said. The abuse English suffered was ''extremely reprehensible,'' he said.

If the case goes to trial, ''we think a jury would agree with us and award substantial sums to compensate Kevin for the things he had to endure, literally, at the hands of Father Shanley and those Father Shanley put in the way to harm Kevin,'' Light said.

Lincoln said the lawsuit was ''intended to be a serious message'' by San Bernardino Bishop Gerald R. Barnes to the Boston Archdiocese.

''We feel our position is very strong, and we hope that Boston resolves this matter and indemnifies us,'' he said.

''The church teaches us to treat each other with love, dignity, and respect,'' Lincoln said. ''That means allowing members of the church to take responsibility for their actions.''

Documents that have been released in other lawsuits against the Boston Archdiocese show that church officials there knew that Shanley had a history of sexual abuse and, at one point, he had advocated sex between men and boys. The revelation that the archdiocese withheld information about Shanley's sexual history was a key factor that led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston in December. Before he resigned, Law personally apologized to the San Bernardino bishop.

The San Bernardino Diocese would not have permitted Shanley to serve had it known the truth about him, officials of the diocese said.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/2/2003.
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