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Spotlight Report

Church limits access to records on abuse

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 9/17/2003

Changes made to church policy
In the month after releasing its much-anticipated new child protection policy on May 30, officials of the Archdiocese of Boston quietly revised the document to curb access by alleged victims of abuse to records of church proceedings in cases of accused priests.

The revisions, which church officials say were necessary to correct ambiguous language in the published policy, have drawn criticism from advocates for abuse victims, who fear a backing away by the church from promises of greater openness in such matters.

The changes to the policy were apparently made without the knowledge of members of the commission appointed by Cardinal Bernard F. Law to help craft it or members of a second lay advisory committee charged with overseeing its implementation, members of both groups said yesterday.

Maureen Scannell Bateman, a Boston lawyer who was the chairwoman of the Cardinal's Commission for the Protection of Children, said the panel recommended full access for victims to the archdiocese's investigative files. She said the committee understood that canon lawyers for the church would have to later review their work.

"But there was no notice from the archdiocese that they were going to change the policy," said Bateman, whose committee disbanded last October. "We labored and labored over our report. Why would they then change it [the policy] without telling anyone? That is a very valid question."

Mary Jane Doherty, a special assistant to the president at Regis College and member of the Implementation and Oversight Advisory Committee now monitoring enforcement of the policy, said she was told that only editing and "streamlining" changes, not substantive ones, would be made in June.

Doherty said, however, that she hadn't yet studied the changes to determine whether they were significant or mere clarifications of ambiguous language, as church officials insisted.

Among the changes was the removal of language that appeared to grant abuse victims the right to view "information generated in connection with an investigation of alleged child abuse."

The Rev. Robert W. Oliver, the church canon law expert who oversaw the changes, said there was never any intent to give accusers full access to the church's investigative files.

"There was nothing created that was taken away," Oliver said.

Oliver said there was no need to seek outside input on the changes because the church didn't view them as more than technical revisions.

The revisions were made in the first three weeks of June, before new Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley was named, Oliver said.

An examination of the May 30 and June 30 versions of the document shows that most of the revisions were made for grammatical or organization purposes or to eliminate redundancies.

Three revisions that appear to change the policy, however, have angered attorneys and advocates for victims of abuse.

First, the June 30 document eliminates language in the earlier version that listed the "complainant" and the "accused person" and their lawyers as "persons who have access to information generated in connection with an investigation of alleged child abuse."

The second change eliminated a paragraph providing that "the protections of due process" would be given to both sides. In the third, the earlier version was changed from giving both the accuser and the accused "an opportunity to examine written records of proceedings and decisions." In the June 30 document, that right was reserved for the accused priest.

Robert Sherman, a lawyer for the Boston firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents at least 260 people alleging clergy abuse, accused the church of reneging on a promise to grant victims access to the investigative files.

"Once again, the rights of victims are being diminished here, their ability to access information that is relevant to their claims," Sherman said.

Oliver said the church never intended to give alleged victims of abuse more rights than those given to someone making a criminal accusation in state court. In state courts, crime victims are not given full access to a district attorney's investigative files, he said.

"The person is really not a party to the case, but is a witness in the case," Oliver said. "When we are adjudicating a criminal action against a priest under canon law, we do communicate to them [the alleged victims] appropriate and timely information."

The new child protection policy was designed to revise church procedures in cases of complaints about misconduct by priests. It not only contains elaborate provisions designed to deal aggressively with such complaints, but also to safeguard the due process rights of accused clergy. Such policies were developed in dioceses across the country, in many cases with the input of commissions like the ones Law appointed. Law named the 15-member, volunteer Cardinal's Commission in January 2002. It disbanded in October after issuing its report suggesting new policies to prevent the abuse of children. Its successor, the 11-member Implementation and Oversight Advisory Committee, was to suggest further changes, as needed, to the church policy and monitor efforts to enforce it.

One former member of the cardinal's commission said he fears the church is backsliding into an insular approach that helped exacerbate the clergy abuse scandal.

"My concern now is that the church has reverted to making decisions about the child protection policy without any outside input," said David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire sociology professor. "The question is whether the archdiocese is going to have continued input on these issues or are they going to repeat the mistakes of the past?"

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