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Spotlight Report

  Mary Jane England, left, president of Regis College, and Maureen Bateman, chairwoman of the Cardinal's Commission for the Protection of Children, after a press conference at Regis. (Globe Staff Photo / John Blanding)

Report on abuse backed by Law

By Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 5/18/2002

WESTON - Cardinal Bernard F. Law expressed support yesterday for a draft report prepared by his commission on clergy sexual abuse that would dramatically heighten the laity's role in efforts to protect children, assist victims and remove predatory priests from the ministry.

The commission's final report is due in early June and Law said he will take it to a meeting next month of US bishops in Dallas. Commission members hope it could serve as a template for a national policy to curb abuse by priests.

The draft report calls for ''child protection'' teams in every parish, for boards of lay experts to review child abuse reports and monitor the actions of offending clergy members, and for lay advocates for victims and their families.

A statement issued late yesterday by Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said Law ''reacted favorably'' to the commission's recommendations.

''We sensed no reluctance on the part of the cardinal or anybody in the archdiocese on the role of the laity,'' said Maureen Bateman, the commission's chairwoman. ''And, in fact, I think they will welcome it.''

Law, according to the statement, said the commission's work ''underscores the value and significance of involvement by laity.''

Formed following the church scandal that broke in January, the 15 members of the Cardinal's Commission for the Protection of Children were recruited by the state's leading medical school deans to critique and improve archdiocesan policies and streamline the way the church deals with abuse victims and their families.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the early recommendations from Law's panel ''nothing terribly revolutionary or groundbreaking.''

''I hope that it's clear from this document that people need to call law enforcement first before any church individual,'' he said. ''In other words, 911 is the first call you make.''

In fact, the panel incorporates among its recommendations a new state law that requires priests to report to authorities information about sexual abuse. And it would codify the new policy Law has adopted that calls for the immediate removal of any priest who is the target of a credible charge of sexual abuse.

''[There will be] no return to any assignment of a priest or permanent deacon who engages in sexual activities with a minor,'' said Bateman, executive vice president and general counsel of State Street Corp. ''No exceptions to this rule would be allowed.''

Bateman said the definition of ''credible'' is still being formulated, but it will be designed, she said, so it is ''tilted toward the victim most assuredly.''

The commission is also calling for education programs, such as those designed to teach children the difference between a ''good touch'' and a bad one. It also is recommending more stringent screening of candidates for the seminary, including stronger psychological examinations.

Lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr., who has represented hundreds of clergy-abuse victims, said the commission's preliminary report contains ''some very good, very solid recommendations that I've been recommending for years.''

But MacLeish said he hopes the final report addresses what he calls a short-term crisis among victims who need mental health treatment. ''They are totally understaffed at the archdiocese right now,'' he said. ''People are literally falling apart and can't get access to help. I'm afraid there could be some real tragedies.''

Some advocates expressed surprise at panel recommendations that would amplify the voice of the laity. In late April, Law ordered archdiocesan priests not to cooperate with an evolving coalition of parish leaders, a move that stunned many loyal lay activists. When the US cardinals met with Pope John Paul II in Rome last month, they articulated no role for the laity in their communique, an omission some cardinals called simply an oversight.

''Certainly the more the parishioners know about what's going on, the better,'' said Phil Saviano, regional director for the New England chapter of Clohessy's national survivors' group. ''But I'm relying on the prosecutors at this point to be the most effective group of people to put a stop to this problem.''

Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley had been a member of the commission until her resignation earlier this month. Coakley said that with her office poised to prosecute the Rev. Paul Shanley, she should no longer serve.

''We're being advised by other prosecutors who are not on the commission,'' said Bateman. ''So that body of knowledge is at our disposal and we're using it.''

Asked how commission members can be sure their work will not be ignored, Bateman said: ''Certainly any board worth their salt wouldn't allow themselves to be stonewalled for any length of time. I mean, why would anybody serve on something like that?''

Dr. Mary Jane England, a child psychiatrist and president of Regis College, where the commission delivered its early report to Law, said an important part of the panel's work will focus on prevention.

''We want to train youngsters in school, in CCD [Confraternity of Christian Doctrine], about how to protect themselves,'' she said. ''We know this is an issue in society at large. Eighty percent of the perpetrators of sexual abuse [are] intimate family members.''

England said the commission has examined policies in place in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Dallas and those cities have requested information about the work under way in Boston.

''What we're hoping is that it will be such a good [policy] that they'll say, `This is good. Let's use the Boston one,''' Bateman said, referring to the upcoming bishops' conference in Dallas. ''That's what we're hoping for.''

She said the policy will include language to protect the reputation and rights of priests who are unjustly accused.

''We're going to try to address it and make it so they are protected,'' she said. ''So that, particularly if the accusation was false, their life isn't ruined. Think of that poor priest who committed suicide [in Maryland Thursday].''

She referred to the Rev. Alfred J. Biegtighofer who hanged himself in a Catholic psychiatric facility after he was accused of molesting several boys two decades ago.

This story ran on page A9 of the Boston Globe on 5/18/2002.
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