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Spotlight Report

Concerns voiced on accord with archdiocese

Evidence flow might dry up during truce

By Sacha Pfeiffer and Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 6/21/2002

While several lawyers for victims of clergy sexual abuse trumpeted their 30-day truce with the Boston Archdiocese, some alleged victims and their advocates fear the detente could end the legal discovery process that has yielded thousands of pages of documents showing that Cardinal Bernard F. Law and other top church officials kept abusive priests in active ministry.

The month-long pause in new legal action, announced Wednesday night, is aimed at exploring possible financial settlements in scores of lawsuits against Law and several of his deputies.

But while settling the cases is the ultimate goal of many victims and their lawyers, settlements would also halt the ongoing depositions of Law and other ranking church officials criticized for failing to adequately supervise abusive priests.

And settling would stop the document-unearthing process that has revealed the alleged complicity of church leaders in covering up past abuses, leaving unanswered other questions about the hierarchy's role in the crisis.

''The great thing about discovery is that it gives victims access to the records and ultimately, the truth,'' said Phil Saviano, director of the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. ''It is the one and only opportunity to find out who is responsible, question them under oath, and hold them accountable.

''While settling early may bring a measure of satisfaction to some victims,'' he added, ''it may also mean that the true dimensions of the archdiocese's cover-up will never be known.''

Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney for 86 alleged victims of former priest John J. Geoghan, who in February was sentenced to a 9- to 10-year prison term for molesting a ten-year-old boy, was dismissive of the truce, saying that he negotiated with church officials for nearly a year and reached a settlement, only to have church officials back away from the deal, citing insufficient funds.

Other attorneys lauded the decision to postpone further legal proceedings, saying that reaching a settlement would be a desirable resolution to the cases, and noting that plaintiff attorneys are responsible first and foremost to their clients.

''Litigation is a destructive process toward everyone's resources, both financial and emotional,'' said Boston attorney J. Owen Todd, who has been working as Law's personal attorney. Working toward a settlement, he said, ''is a constructive process, and I think the public is interested in resolving this thing and seeing justice done.''

''The goal of the attorney is to do what's best for his client,'' said Michael Gillis, president of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys. ''If in doing so the attorney reveals issues that will protect people in the future, then that's an added benefit.''

If settlements are reached, the burden would shift to prosecutors and law enforcement officials to continue to determine the role of the church hierarchy in the scandal, several legal experts said. But records subpoenaed by prosecutors are unlikely to become public if no indictments are brought, they added.

Indeed, although law enforcement sources have confirmed that Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly has convened a grand jury to consider whether there is enough evidence to bring criminal charges against Law and other church officials for their involvement in the scandal, the same sources say that prosecutions appear remote.

Attorneys assigned to the civil rights unit of Reilly's office are carrying out a separate investigation to determine whether they can use the state's civil rights law to seek an injunction against the archdiocese on the grounds that it is not doing enough to protect children.

Jeffrey A. Newman, one of four plaintiff attorneys involved in the truce, said it was important to question whether halting discovery and depositions would prevent full disclosure of the involvement of church officials in cases of priestly misconduct. But he refused to comment on how settling might affect that process, saying to do so would be ''antithetical to the interests of my clients.''

Another plaintiff attorney, Roderick MacLeish Jr., who has sought church records on about 85 priests against whom there are accusations of abuse, said it is too soon to know whether documents gained through the discovery process would be shielded from public view by any settlement agreements.

He also said that while his principal goal is to represent the needs of his clients, he is aware of the potential consequences of cutting off legal discovery.

''I can assure you that I am fully mindful of the role I and other lawyers have in bringing this problem to the public's attention and making sure needed reforms get done,'' he said.

At a news conference yesterday where he was joined by four alleged Geoghan victims, Garabedian brushed aside the significance of the truce, cautioning lawyers negotiating with the archdiocese and their clients about trusting church officials.

''I've been through this already. We had 111/2 months of discussions with the archdiocese,'' Garabedian said. ''It's not something I'd get involved with.''

In March, Garabedian announced a $15 million to $30 million financial settlement with the church on behalf of 86 plaintiffs. But church officials backed away from the agreement last month, saying the archdiocese did not have enough money to meet its terms and pay additional alleged victims who have come forward without compromising church operations.

''What is to prevent the Archdiocese of Boston from doing in these new settlement discussions exactly what they did in the Geoghan settlement discussions?'' Garabedian said.

Instead of joining the truce, Garabedian said he will proceed with an evidentiary hearing scheduled for July 31 where he will ask Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney to enforce the terms of the $15 million to $30 million deal. Garabedian also said he has subpoenaed Law to testify at the hearing.

The objectives of the 30-day truce were reinforced yesterday when a Supreme Judicial Court justice denied a motion by several news organizations requesting the immediate release of transcripts and videotapes of pretrial testimony by Law and Bishop John J. McCormack. In his one-paragraph ruling, Justice John M. Greaney noted that the process of gathering evidence in all clergy sexual abuse cases in the state has been consolidated under Sweeney, adding that Sweeney ''should make the initial determination on a uniform basis'' about when depositions should be made public.

Sacha Pfeiffer's e-mail address is Michael Rezendes of the Globe Staff contributed to this story.

This story ran on page A22 of the Boston Globe on 6/21/2002.
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