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Spotlight Report

Abuse panel says it will seek change

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 3/17/2002

Pledging to pull no punches in their effort to protect children in the Catholic Church, members of a 15-person commission chosen by Cardinal Bernard F. Law yesterday began work on what they promise will be a public report recommending immediate changes in how the church responds to allegations of sexual abuse.

The commission's chairwoman, Maureen S. Bateman, executive vice president and general counsel for State Street Corp., said she hopes the panel will find some groundbreaking ways to prevent child sexual abuse. But one of the other commissioners, Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley, said she believes the group's first task is to get the church to implement child protection procedures that other parts of society have already put into place.

''In some ways, this is catch-up,'' Coakley said. ''We have a pretty good system in place for protecting kids. I think we need to bring the church in step with what the rest of the world is doing right now.''

Law established the commission as part of his response to a clergy sexual abuse crisis that is roiling the Archdiocese of Boston and the Catholic Church nationwide. Law has acknowledged that at least 80 Boston priests have been accused of sexually abusing minors during the last five decades, and has apologized for the church's past practice of allowing priests accused of abuse to continue to work in parishes.

At the commission's initial meeting, which took place behind closed doors at the cardinal's residence in Brighton, the group chose Bateman as chairwoman and set up a schedule of meetings. The members also agreed that the group's charter will be to review and recommend improvements to the church's policies for responding to abuse allegations, to advise the church on how to talk with parishes and schools about abuse, to explore ways to prevent abuse through screening of employees and other measures, and to advise the church on how to respond to alleged abusers.

The commission is not planning to examine the archdiocese's past conduct in any detail, and it is not planning to make a recommendation on Law's suggestion for the establishment of a national research center on child abuse until after issuing its report.

''The charter is to create guidelines for going forward, so that anything negative that happened in the past will never happen again,'' Bateman said at a news conference after the three-hour meeting. ''Clearly, what was in place was not sufficient ... We believe that we can come up with a report that will improve the situation to prevent this type of thing from happening again.''

Another commissioner, Massachusetts Children's Trust Fund executive director Suzin Bartley, said the panel will demand change from the church.

''We're really convinced and concerned that there needs to be permanent, systemic change in the way that the archdiocese does business in protecting children,'' Bartley said.

The Cardinal's Commission for the Protection of Children was assembled by Dr. Michael F. Collins, president and chief executive officer of Caritas Christi Health Care System, the Archdiocese of Boston's hospital network.

The panelists said they are confident they will be able to operate independently of the cardinal, and said they hope within ''not too many months'' to issue a candid report, and they expect the cardinal to follow its recommendations.

''We're very confident that we can work autonomously,'' Bateman said. ''At the end, when we have finished our meetings and prepared our report, we will present it to the cardinal. We have every confidence that he will approve of everything in that report.''

Law issued a statement pledging to support the independence of the commission, saying this is ''a critical moment for the archdiocese and for society.''

''We are dealing with a problem far more pervasive in society than originally thought,'' he said. ''It is my hope that we can be more effective and responsive to the painful issue of sexual abuse of children.''

The panel is made up of eight women and seven men, and Bateman said some of them had experienced abuse.

And, she said, ''there's probably nobody on that commission whose heart wasn't broken in reading the stories'' about clergy sexual abuse, Bateman said.

Bateman said victims of abuse attended yesterday's meeting. She also said that the panel, which includes specialists on psychology and law, will also meet with nationally recognized experts on child sexual abuse.

The commission also plans to examine how other dioceses and institutions have handled the issue of sexual abuse.

''There will be an attempt ... to find out what others have done so that we can learn from their experiences, and then to try to build upon that so that the recommendations that are made here can hopefully help others as time goes along,'' said another member, Dr. Fred Berlin, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University who is an expert on pedophilia.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 3/17/2002.
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