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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Broken faith, blind justice


It is no small challenge that confronts the criminal justice system, persuading a community that has lost its faith in the role of Law to place its trust in the rule of law.

Those who have watched Boston Cardinal Bernard F. Law employ the tactics of the mob to shield himself and his miscreant priests from prosecution can be forgiven for the temptation to fashion themselves into a mob of their own.

But the cause of justice is not served when the anger ignited by Law's suppression of sex abuse allegations inflames the court proceedings against those accused of the rape and molestation of children. The church circumvented the law to protect itself; its victims should not subvert it to punish the church.

The defendant's bulletproof vest and the courtroom's capacity crowd at the arraignment of the Rev. Paul Shanley yesterday were not the only signals of the combustible emotions engendered by the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The $750,000 bail suggested the outsized influence of those emotions.

Not without cause, Shanley is suspected of the serial rapes of scores of children during a 35-year crime spree as a priest. However, he is charged with the rape of one boy, a heinous crime that in the annals of Massachusetts jurisprudence has never prompted so high a bail. That there may be other Shanley victims who have no recourse in criminal court because the statute of limitations has expired is morally reprehensible but legally irrelevant. That there might be more victims still to be identified whose exploitation falls within the statute is a matter to be investigated, not a fact to be asserted.

''It is only this case that is before the court, not all those other things the state has alluded to,'' Frank Mondano, Shanley's defense counsel, noted in a failed effort to focus on the facts before the court rather than the whirlwind in which those facts are caught.

Given the written record of Shanley's boasts to archdiocesan officials that he had the means and the cunning to flee if his accusers ever caught up with him, Mondano could have had no reasonable expectation that his client would be released on personal recognizance. But given the other options available to the court - an electronic monitor and a surrendered passport - he also had no reason to think a 71-year-old client with no criminal record and family support would be denied a reasonable bail.

And it is reason that must govern these cases if faith in the justice system is to be preserved. That is why there was wisdom in the decision of Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley to withdraw from the Cardinal's Commission on the Protection of Children. Even if she could have kept separate her dual roles as victims' advocate and archbishop's adviser, her continued association with the panel would have raised doubts about her allegiance in the minds of a freshly skeptical public. That is why the decision of Superior Court Judge Thomas Connolly not to recuse himself from a case involving a priest with whom he attended the seminary fails to acknowledge the need to ensure that not even an appearance of a conflict of interest taints this judicial process.

Is it a miscarriage of justice that so many who have accused Shanley will never have their day in court because the church's conspiracy of silence outlasted the statute of limitations? Of course it is. But there are civil remedies that can and should be sought against those who harmed children and those who protected their abusers for so long.

Is it understandable that a prosecutor would argue for high bail when her office is still hearing from those who say that they, too, were abused by Shanley? Of course. But there are police who can investigate those claims and a grand jury that can issue indictments if there is cause.

The integrity of the justice system lies in the distinction between what we suspect and what we can prove. That standard must apply equally to those we respect and those we revile, or we will be left without faith in an institution as sacred to our civil life as the church is to our spiritual one.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/8/2002.
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