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Spotlight Report

Openness vowed on clergy abuse policy

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 9/22/2003

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley has pledged that any future changes to the Archdiocese of Boston's child protection policies will be put through a thorough, open process designed to head off accusations that the church is slipping back into excessive secrecy in handling accusations of clergy abuse, a spokesman said yesterday.

O'Malley's assurance followed the revelation last week that church officials had quietly modified the archdiocese's Policies and Procedures for the Protection of Children in a way that curbed access to records of church proceedings in cases of accused priests.

News of the changes upset members of both the Cardinal's Commission for the Protection of Children, a lay board that was appointed by Cardinal Bernard F. Law to help craft the original policy, and the Implementation and Oversight Advisory Committee, which took over the task of advising the archdiocese on the policy after the commission was disbanded last October. Members of both lay groups said they believe they should have been consulted on the changes by church officials.

The modifications, which church officials say were made before O'Malley was named archibishop on July 1, also angered advocates for abuse victims, who charged that the church was backing away from promises of greater openness in such matters.

O'Malley celebrated an open-air Mass at Immaculate Conception Parish in Marlborough yesterday, but made no public statements about either the abuse policy or the recent $85 million settlement agreement reached between the archdiocese and lawyers for more than 560 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse, church officials said.

But the Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said O'Malley has said privately that he will make sure that any future change in the policy, no matter how small, will be reviewed both by the Implementation and Oversight Committee and the archdiocese's Review Board, a separate group that evaluates actual allegations against individual priests.

"We've definitely learned our lesson there," Coyne said. "[O'Malley] believes that any changes must be done in the open . . . so there's no suggestion that we're doing anything in a secretive way.

"We are going to let people know exactly what changes were made and why."

Members of both lay groups yesterday offered cautious praise for O'Malley's pledge.

"I think it is a very hopeful sign," said Suzin M. Bartley, the executive director of the Massachusetts Children's Trust Fund and a member of the Implementation and Oversight Committee. "For those of us who had given hundreds of hours to making sure that this [sexual abuse] wouldn't happen again to another child, this has been very painful, to see changes made in the policy with no communication."

Bartley, who was also a member of the Cardinal's Commission, said that "permanent and systemic change" in the archdiocese will depend on O'Malley's long-term willingness to keep working with lay advisory groups. Maureen Scannell Bateman, a Boston lawyer who was the chairwoman of the Cardinal's Commission, called O'Malley's pledge "appropriate." Any other approach, she said, could endanger the good will the archbishop has created by reaching a relatively swift resolution to the clergy abuse litigation.When they issued their final report last October, Bateman, Bartley, and the other members of the commission recommended "full access for victims to the archdiocese's investigative file." The first version of the policy that was released on May 30 granted victims that access, but that sentence was removed from a more formal, bound version of the policy that was distributed by the archdiocese a month later.

The Rev. Robert W. Oliver, the church canon law expert who oversaw the changes, said last week that while there were some modifications made to protect the rights of accused priests, most of the changes were technical and there was never any intent to give accusers full access to the church's investigative files.

"There was nothing created that was taken away," Oliver said.

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