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Rights of priests at issue in probes

Church is accused of overreacting

By Sacha Pfeiffer and Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 9/1/2002

The Rev. William Butler says he was given "no details, no names, no explanation" after an abuse allegation was leveled against him.

 Related stories
Excerpts of Rev. Butler interview

Accused of abuse and absolved, Msgr. Michael Smith Foster returned to parish work sobered by his experience.  
Coverage of the Foster case

Last Monday, the Rev. William L. Butler received an unexpected phone call at his South Dennis vacation home from an aide to Cardinal Bernard F. Law, summoning him to a Tuesday meeting at the Chancery: An allegation of sexual misconduct had been made against him.

''There were no details, no names, no explanation,'' the 67-year-old pastor recalled. ''I was stunned. I had no idea who made the accusation.''

Tuesday's meeting, Butler said, did little to answer his questions. In just 30 minutes, he was read - but not shown - an accusation that he molested a 13-year-old boy in 1966, told there would be an investigation, and asked to sign a document agreeing not to wear clerical garb or say Mass in public. Finally, he was placed on administrative leave and told to vacate his Revere rectory.

Butler is not alone in feeling that he is being treated unfairly. Leading canon law specialists agree. After decades in which victims were given short shrift by the church, now it is accused priests whose rights and reputations are being trampled, they say. In its zeal to rectify its past failures to discipline abusers, critics argue, the American Catholic Church has tilted too far in the other direction.

Indeed, the Boston Archdiocese admits it has no formal process for assessing such allegations, places priests on leave without vetting complaints against them, and has scant resources to conduct investigations. It has yet to determine the guilt or innocence of any of the 22 priests who have been removed since February because of abuse allegations.

''My perception now is that bishops are acting on accusations without giving the priests accused any opportunity to refute the charges against them,'' said the Rev. John P. Beal, a professor of canon law at Catholic University who represents three priests facing abuse complaints and gets daily calls from others seeking his advice on handling allegations. The church's treatment of accused priests, he said, makes him ''furious.''

The end result, critics say, is a system as out of balance now as it was before the abuse crisis exploded in January.

''There doesn't seem to be any kind of due process,'' said Butler, who emphatically denies the allegation against him. ''We're guilty until we're proven innocent.''

Despite pledges that allegations will be investigated and efforts will be made to restore the reputations of any priests falsely accused, the archdiocese has made public virtually no information about its investigative procedures. Archdiocesan officials have not responded to several requests by the Globe to do so.

Ironically, the process has even ensnared Monsignor Michael Smith Foster, the archdiocese's chief canon lawyer. And in Foster's case, there is substantial evidence that the abuse charges against him may be baseless. Yet the archdiocese did not take even minimal steps to gauge the credibility of the allegations before casting Foster into the same category as the other 21. The day after he began his leave, a round of initial interviews by Globe reporters raised serious questions about the veracity of Foster's accuser.

''The abuse of children by clerics is absolutely dreadful, and I think everybody is shocked and appalled by it and believes a lot of work needs to be done to correct it,'' said Charles M. Wilson, executive director of the San Antonio-based St. Joseph Foundation, which advises people who believe their rights have been violated by the Catholic Church. ''But, at the same time, we need to recognize that there are rights in the church like there are rights in civil society, and you can't just run roughshod over people.''

The criticism has come from many corners. In a letter to Law last month, the Boston Priests Forum, which represents 250 of the 900 priests in the archdiocese, demanded due process for priests accused of sexually abusing minors and expressed concerns about false charges.

Even victim advocates have called for caution. David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that while he believes only a tiny fraction of allegations are false, he considers the current review method badly flawed.

''Regardless of the number'' of falsified allegations, Clohessy said, ''we are dealing with an ill-defined, secretive, and lengthy process that is hurting everyone concerned.''

Archdiocesan officials concede that their handling of accused priests may have violated canonical procedure. The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said on Friday that the archdiocese is investigating whether it provided the 22 priests adequate information about their rights before placing them on administrative leave.

Specifically, Coyne said, the review is being done to determine if the priests should have been offered the option of agreeing to be placed on administrative leave or having their cases handled through canonical ''decree,'' which would allow them to offer a defense to the charges before being placed on leave. The review was prompted by the church's handling of Foster's case, Coyne said,

''Having erred so egregiously in pampering pedophile priests, the church now sees the necessity of bolstering its public image by going overboard in the other direction,'' said Harvey Silverglate, a prominent Boston civil liberties attorney. ''But the church has to be very cautious about doing more to a priest at the early stage of an inquiry than is absolutely necessary.''

Silverglate noted, however, that in other professions - because of the safety issues involved - accusations of wrongdoing often prompt the immediate removal of the accused, even before a preliminary investigation begins. He cited as examples schoolteachers accused of sexual abuse and police officers who discharge their weapons while on duty.

In judging whether there is evidence that abuse took place, Coyne said, the archdiocese uses the same criteria that law enforcement, child welfare advocates, and social workers use when interviewing alleged victims. Coyne, however, said he was uncertain what those criteria are. He also said that when church officials first interview the accusers, they seek to determine if the allegation is ''substantive'' - a charge that on its face is not immediately refutable - rather than ''credible.''

Whether the accused are innocent or guilty is not the central issue in the debate over priests' rights. Even some of the church's staunchest defenders concede that most abuse complaints lodged against priests are believed to be true.

To be sure, some of the priests who have recently been placed on leave, Foster among them, are facing their first accusation, and from a single alleged victim. But among the 22, most are believed to have more than one accuser.

The more immediate concern is that as church officials struggle to manage a groundswell of abuse complaints, accused priests are flung into limbo, their careers derailed and reputations sullied until their cases are resolved.

Nationwide, more than 300 priests have been removed from ministry this year due to abuse allegations.

James F. O'Brien, a Boston lawyer who represents two suspended priests, decried the process being used by the archdiocese to determine if abuse allegations are valid.

''There is no due process here,'' O'Brien said. ''Priests are called in, told there has been a credible allegation made against them, and, after being asked if they know the accuser and whether the allegation is true, told they are being suspended.''

The priests are given no opportunity to face their accusers, offer a defense before they are placed on leave, or learn on what basis the accusation was found credible, O'Brien said. In fact, in the cases of Boston Archdiocese priests who've been relieved of duty in the last three months, church officials have stopped using the word ''credible'' to describe the accusations.

Although O'Brien's clients were placed on leave in February and March, the archdiocese has not told either man the status of his investigation.

O'Brien said the cardinal, embarassed by disclosures that he failed to remove abusive priests in the past, has instituted a disciplinary process that is ''effectively destroying the careers, reputations, and lives'' of some priests.

''The archdiocese's suspensions and eviction of these priests and the release of their names to the media have violated their rights to due process and privacy, and the right to residence in their own rectories - all as guaranteed by canon law,'' he said.

For his part, Butler, who had been pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Revere since 1986, plans to live in South Dennis while his case wends its way through church channels.

In the meantime, he has agreed to take a lie detector test administered by the lawyer he has retained, though the archdiocese has been unable to tell him whether it will pay his legal bills. And he has asked his 93-year-old mother to help look through old photographs to see whether they show his accuser at Butler's family's home in Canada, where the alleged incident is said to have taken place. Butler said he remembers his accuser, but said he has no memory of ever taking the boy to Canada.

''It feels like being in a dark room, and you're reaching out and you don't know what you're reaching for,'' Butler said. ''I don't have any clear-cut notion of what I'm doing other than trying to clear my name and get back my priestly faculties. And I don't know exactly how you address this issue other than by denial, which I have firmly done.''

Butler said he believes the church's adoption of zero-tolerance and its desire to restore its image have put church leaders in an untenable position, one that forces them to protect the institution at the expense of the accused.

Indeed, in a tacit acknowledgement of how public opinion influences church decision-making, archdiocesan officials have said in interviews with the Globe that they are fearful of offending victims as they grapple with handling complaints.

''A lot of priests feel that we are expendable when it comes to these matters,'' Butler said. ''Nobody wants to think that somebody's going around as a predator trying to chase kids. But we need a fair way to deal with both sides - the victim and the people accused.''

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/1/2002.
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