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Spotlight Report

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AG praises O'Malley openness on abuse policy

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 8/16/2003

he last time the Catholic archbishop of Boston went to talk to the attorney general of Massachusetts, the catalyst for their tete-a-tete was a subpoena.

On Thursday, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley not only went willingly to see the attorney general, it was his idea.

And, according to Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, the contrast between O'Malley and his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, was dramatic and, Reilly says, very encouraging.

"He listened. He reached out," said Reilly. "He asked for comments and suggestions, and he was clearly open to them. There was an openness to him that was refreshing, and it was an openness that I have not seen before."

Specifically, Reilly said, O'Malley appeared willing to rethink parts of the archdiocese's recently revised policy on handling sexual abuse allegations against priests. Reilly contends the new plan is flawed by favoring the accused over alleged victims.

Meeting with Reilly, the state's most senior law enforcement official, and one of the archdiocese's harshest critics, is just the latest move by O'Malley to demonstrate how serious he is about tackling the scandal he inherited from Law. The day after becoming Boston's sixth archbishop, O'Malley removed Wilson D. Rogers Jr., the attorney who had handled Law's legal response to the scandal, and replaced him with Thomas H. Hannigan Jr., the lawyer who in 1992 helped O'Malley settle more than 100 claims of sexual abuse after he became bishop of Fall River. Last week, O'Malley offered $55 million to settle the claims of more than 500 people who say they were abused by archdiocesan priests.

Prior to his accession, O'Malley called Reilly's office and scheduled Thursday's meeting, a fact Reilly said underscores O'Malley's good-faith effort to address the archdiocese's critics.

"He's got a lot on his plate. We met two weeks and one day after his installation," said Reilly. "He's trying. There's no doubt he's trying."

Reilly's warm words for O'Malley is in marked contrast to his dim view of Law. Law had done his best to steer clear of Reilly, who had dogged him over the archdiocese's indifferent handling of abusive priests since the scandal exploded in January 2002. Reilly repeatedly accused Law of dragging his feet turning over records concerning abusive priests and in implementing a child-protection policy to reduce future abuse.

Aides to Law could barely contain their frustration over what they saw as Reilly strong arming the cardinal.

Law, however, could not ignore a subpoena from Reilly's office, ordering him to testify in February before a grand jury determining whether Law and other bishops should be held criminally responsible for enabling priests to sexually abuse minors. The grand jury concluded they could not issue indictments.

After testifying in a makeshift courtroom next to Reilly's 20th floor office in the McCormack State Office Building on Beacon Hill, Law had asked to speak to Reilly and spent about a half-hour giving his version of what went wrong. Reilly said little.

"It wasn't a conversation," Reilly recalled yesterday.

In contrast, he said, the 90-minute session with O'Malley was "a genuine conversation." The meeting took place at the offices of Ropes & Gray, Hannigan's law firm, at One International Place. Hannigan accompanied the archbishop, while Assistant Attorney General Alice E. Moore, chief of Reilly's public protection bureau, joined Reilly.

When the archdiocese unveiled the new policy on sexual abuse in late May, before O'Malley was selected to replace Law, Moore criticized it as relying too heavily on the church's canon, or internal, law.

Reilly said he and Moore explained that participation from his office was needed to create a state-of-the-art policy, citing the changes he recommended last month in a scathing report that said at least 237 priests and 13 other church employees molested a minimum of 789 minors over the last 60 years. The report said the new policy "protects priests at the expense of the victims" since investigaing complaints was left to the archbishop's discretion. Reilly also complained that the lay review board called for under the policy, is not independent, and that there is no provision to monitor priests who have been removed from ministry.

Reilly said O'Malley appears as open to changes in the policy as Law was not.

"My sense is he wants the very best policies and procedures in place to protect children," said Reilly. "He asked for our ideas, and we shared them with him. He is clearly appalled by the magnitude of what happened. He wants to change things, to reach out to others. That wasn't the case before. It's a fresh start. I want to look at it that way."

Hannigan agreed with Reilly's assessment that O'Malley is open to change.

"This was a very good meeting with an open exchange of information and ideas," he said.

O'Malley's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said the archdiocese would consider the attorney general's recommendations for changing the child protection policy.

"There's obviously room to move forward," said Coyne. "This was a very positive meeting."

Reilly said the meeting broke up with an unspoken agreement to meet again, though no date was set.

"If we need to meet, we'll meet," said Reilly. "I don't sense that will ever be a problem."

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