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Spotlight Report

Priest was moved so he could start afresh, Law says

By Wendy Davis, Globe Correspondent, 3/14/2003

Transcript of the Law deposition
Cardinal Bernard F. Law defended his decision to allow a priest convicted of raping an altar boy to transfer from one parish to another, saying ''at the heart of our faith is a belief in the power of resurrection of new life, of starting again,'' according to a transcript of the testimony made public yesterday.

The statements made under oath by Law in January appear to be the first time he publicly invoked the religious belief in redemption to justify sending sexually abusive priests from one parish to another.

Law spoke of ''resurrection'' in response to questioning about why he allowed the Rev. Eugene O'Sullivan to transfer from an Arlington parish to the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., in 1985, less than one year after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old boy in Massachusetts.

Last year, in an earlier deposition, Law testified that he approved the transfer partially to avoid a scandal. In his more recent deposition this January, Law attempted to characterize ''scandal'' as publicity that would interfere with the priest's ability to carry out his job.

''Obviously, if someone is going to start out fresh, it would be advantageous for that to be in a new place. But ... scandal is involved in the fact that if a person is known for having acted in a certain way, that knowledge could be detrimental to being effective in performing duties,'' Law said.

Lawsuits filed against the Archdiocese of Boston by alleged victims accuse top church officials of negligence for moving sexually abusive priests around without warning to new parishioners or pastors about the histories of those priests.

The church has raised a First Amendment defense to the lawsuits, arguing that the doctrine of separation of church and state prohibits civil courts from passing judgment on the assignment of priests because those decisions were religious in nature.

Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney rejected the church's argument last month. Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Morrissey said she did not yet know whether the church would appeal.

Morrissey and plaintiffs' lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr. both declined to comment on Law's testimony, which appears to bolster the church's First Amendment defense.

But some religious specialists expressed doubt that the teachings of Catholicism justified the church's handling of allegedly abusive clergy. Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, said Law's emphasis on providing a fresh start did not take into account the seriousness of O'Sullivan's conduct. Law's justification, said Groome, was based on a ''mistaken church perspective that they were dealing with sins, not crimes.''

After his transfer from Massachusetts to the New Jersey diocese in 1985, O'Sullivan served in four different parishes over the next seven years. Pastors in three of the four parishes told the Globe in 1993 that they were never informed of his conviction or that he was on probation. He was recalled to Boston in 1992 after the church learned of another allegation against him dating back to his time in Massachusetts.

A. W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest, said the religion places limits on granting second chances. ''Forgiveness and redemption is different from reformation,'' said Sipe, adding that the church should have demanded more proof that the priest had changed before granting him a second chance.

Rodney Ford, currently suing the church for the alleged abuse of his son Gregory by the Rev. Paul Shanley, also found it difficult to believe transferring priests was mandated by church doctrine.

''That's not part of the religion by any means,'' said Ford. ''That's part of a culture of a cover-up.''

Other advocates for victims reacted with skepticism to Law's stated rationale for the transfer. ''It sounds like fairly shrewd spin on his part,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, noting that it ''contradicts all the evidence we've seen'' suggesting that the church transferred the priests to protect itself from bad publicity.

SNAP founder Barbara Blaine added that Law's comments, if a true reflection of his beliefs, show that he was more concerned with O'Sullivan's career than the well-being of children. ''What's more important,'' she asked, ''giving a sex offender a chance for a new life or protecting children?''

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents a large number of alleged victims suing the church, agreed that Law's attempted justification for the transfers supported his clients' position that church leaders ''care more about pedophile priests than the victims of pedophile priests.''

But even if the transfers were justified by religious doctrine, this does not necessarily mean that the church will ultimately prevail on a First Amendment argument. Attorney Kelly Clark, who handles clergy sex abuse cases in Portland, Ore., says plaintiffs can still prevail even if the church's motive was primarily religious.

''Even if Cardinal Law is correct that religious theology requires a fresh start,'' said Clark, ''there are limits to how far the church can go in exercising its religious beliefs.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/14/2003.
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