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Spotlight Report

Church seeks exemption in suit

Says its records are protected in molestation case

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 3/12/2002

Citing constitutional protections, the Archdiocese of Boston argued yesterday that it need not produce documents about whether Cardinal Bernard F. Law knowingly allowed a Newton pastor who had allegedly sexually molested children to remain in his parish.

The legal argument is contained in a church motion seeking a protective order against a subpoena for records in a lawsuit. The suit alleges that Law was warned in the mid-1980s that the Rev. Paul R. Shanley was a child molester, but permitted him to remain as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Newton.

The archdiocesan legal position, which has been used before in civil lawsuits accusing priests of sexual abuse of minors, holds that the Roman Catholic Church is exempt from civil scrutiny that applies to secular organizations because it has special protections under the First Amendment and the Massachusetts Constitution.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., the attorney for a Newton man who was allegedly molested as a child by Shanley, said he believes the legal argument contradicts Law's recent promises to reach out to victims of clergy sexual abuse.

''This legal claim is an argument that the cardinal can arrange to have priests who molest children placed in charge of schools, churches, and youth groups without any accountability on his part,'' MacLeish asserted in an interview last night.

''The Church is saying that they have no duty to children under civil laws.''

In two recent cases, involving sexual abuse lawsuits against former priests John J. Geoghan and Paul J. Mahan, judges have rejected the archdiocese's request for protective orders. While the judges have not ruled on the constitutional claims, they have ruled that those claims do not prevent plaintiffs from obtaining church records.

Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said last night that the Church's motion is a ''standard filing'' and ''has little bearing on our commitment and determination to settle these cases as expeditiously as possible.''

The motion is likely to delay MacLeish's access to Shanley's documents for weeks until a judge can examine and rule on the competing claims.

Wilson Rogers Jr., the Church's lead attorney, argued in his motion for the order that the courts can make no rulings on the Church's personnel actions about Shanley ''without direct involvement in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.''

Because of the presumed constitutional protections, Rogers wrote, ''clergy members cannot be treated in the law as though they were common law employees.'' He asserted that the documents sought by MacLeish ''all pertain to the inner workings'' of the Church, and are protected by the First Amendment.

Shanley, who resigned from the Newton parish in 1989 and has lived in California and Massachusetts since then, has been accused of sexually molesting numerous boys, most of them teens, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The archdiocese has settled at least four sexual abuse claims against him. In the last six weeks, several more people have also accused Shanley of molesting them.

This story ran on page B3 of the Boston Globe on 3/12/2002.
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