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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

In the name of the victims


THE REV. D. George Spagnolia, the first priest to challenge publicly his suspension under the new sexual abuse policy of the Archdiocese of Boston, vigorously denies allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor. Ironically, Spagnolia's supporters raise the specter of a witch hunt just as the archdiocese begins to emerge from a long period of secrecy during which abusive priests were coddled by their superiors at the expense of child victims.

In fact, the Archdiocese of Boston holds in its hands the keys both to the successful prosecution of abusive priests and vindication for the falsely accused. It is the names of the alleged victims of dozens of suspect priests who have been suspended by the archdiocese. Without such identifications, there can be no prosecution -- nor much hope to clear one's name. So far, church officials have given prosecutors only dusty assignment cards and sketchy descriptions of victims. The archdiocese has agreed to provide the names of some victims to investigators, but it is unclear when.

Yesterday the House passed a bill that would amend state law to require that clergy report both past and future complaints of sexual abuse of children to the Department of Social Services. But the bill doesn't address the cases of victims who have become adults.

Such victims are free to decide whether or not to press charges. But all deserve to hear about their options directly from prosecutors. Some victims have signed confidentiality agreements as part of civil suit settlements, but such agreements cannot prohibit them from reporting the crime to authorities. Others are reluctant to come forward for emotional reasons. It's easy to say adults can make their own decisions. But sex abuse victims need information from law enforcement to make good decisions.

Some false accusations may be leveled against clergy for reasons both mercenary and psychological. Victims' names are essential there as well. Inconsistencies in a victim's account could be a lifeline for a falsely accused priest.

In 1993 the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago stood accused of sexual abuse of a child some 20 years earlier. Bernardin, the author of comprehensive guidelines for processing sexual abuse charges against priests, endured 100 days of humiliation before it became clear that the original accusation was bogus.

Bernardin asserted his inocence vigorously but rejected what he called a "scorched earth" defense. "The reason is that I did not want to deter persons who had really been abused from coming forward," he wrote in 1996 in a book of reflections, "The Gift of Peace." Bernardin forgave his accuser and even celebrated Mass on his behalf.

Compassionate means exist to resolve these cases, but only if the Archdiocese of Boston provides the names of victims to law enforcement officials.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 2/27/2002.
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