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As Furor Rises In Boston, Law Goes To Meet With Pope

Dec 13, 2002 | Washington Post Cardinal Bernard F. Law is scheduled to meet with Pope John Paul II on Friday as growing numbers of priests and lay leaders call for Law's removal from the Boston archdiocese, which faces possible bankruptcy and a widening grand jury investigation into child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Vatican officials declined to discuss the agenda or predict the outcome of the meeting. But they said only the pope could remove Law, 71, the senior Roman Catholic prelate in the United States.

Massachusetts prosecutors confirmed today that a grand jury has issued subpoenas to Law, several priests and seven bishops, including five of Law's former subordinates who now head other dioceses around the country.

Law's subpoena arrived at his Brighton residence last Friday, the day he left on an unannounced trip to Washington. A day later, he flew from Washington to Rome. The date of Law's grand jury appearance was not disclosed, but Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly said today that the cardinal's leaving town was "not a concern to me at this point."

Speaking at a news conference, Reilly said that prosecutors must complete their investigation before determining whether criminal charges can be brought against church leaders for failing to protect children from known abusers. But he said the probe already has uncovered a decades-long pattern of concealment of sexual abuse.

"There was a cover-up. There was an elaborate scheme to keep it from law enforcement, and keep it quiet," Reilly said. "The church cared more about itself than it cared about kids."

Although church officials have been tight-lipped about the purpose of Law's trip to Rome, Vatican watchers say they believe he is discussing both his own future and the possibility that the archdiocese of Boston might file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the face of hundreds of civil lawsuits over alleged abuse by priests.

According to Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman, Law's agenda is likely to include a meeting with Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Dario Hoyos Castrillon, head of the Congregation for the Clergy. Any plans to move to a new position would include consultations with those departments.

Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, did not return calls. Christopher Coyne, Law's personal spokesman, declined comment.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., an attorney for dozens of alleged victims of sexual abuse by Boston-area priests, said Law's resignation could clear the way for a settlement of the lawsuits. "This is very sudden, but it's very significant, and it could end up being positive for the archdiocese," MacLeish said. "If this occurs, it will be the start of the healing process."

Thousands of pages of church documents concerning allegations of sexual misconduct have been made public in the past 10 days under a judge's orders, undermining Law's remaining support among Boston Catholics. Dozens of priests and the fast-growing lay group Voice of the Faithful have called for his resignation, and the 250-member Boston Priests Forum is scheduled to vote on a resolution Friday expressing lack of confidence in his leadership.

The latest documents show that not only did officials transfer abusive priests to other parishes something that was already known they also were aware of alleged sexual relationships with adults, violence and drug use among priests, none of which was reported to authorities. In many cases, the documents show that Law and other church supervisors praised individual priests' work despite serious allegations of wrongdoing against them.

Subpoenas also were issued by the Massachusetts grand jury to Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y., the nation's fifth-largest Catholic diocese; Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H.; Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans; Bishop Robert J. Banks of Green Bay, Wis.; and Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y.

In a statement, Brian Tucker, legal counsel for McCormack, said the bishop "has cooperated with civil authorities in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and will continue to do so." McCormack averted criminal charges against his diocese by formally acknowledging this week that the New Hampshire attorney general's office had sufficient evidence for a conviction of child endangerment.

Law previously has been deposed on at least 10 occasions in civil lawsuits related to clergy sexual abuse, and he is scheduled for two days of pretrial depositions, starting Tuesday, in a lawsuit brought by alleged victims of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, who was released on bail this week pending trial on charges of raping and sexually assaulting four boys.

Grand jury testimony, by comparison, is generally more intense and focused, and it is not clear how Law's attorneys would advise him to proceed, legal specialists said. Daniel I. Small, a former federal prosecutor who is now a Boston defense lawyer, said he saw no grounds for church attorneys to block the cardinal's appearance.

"The question is, what does he do when he gets there?" Small said. "For the cardinal to testify at this stage would involve serious risks to him. On the other hand, the issue of the moral leader of the Catholic church taking the Fifth Amendment in a child abuse investigation would be pretty extraordinary."

Reilly and several district attorneys in Massachusetts have pressured the Boston archdiocese for records on clergy sexual abuse since the scandal broke in January. Saying they get little cooperation from church officials, they have resorted to obtaining most documents through court orders or grand jury subpoenas.

Legal experts said it was unclear what criminal laws, if any, could be applied to archdiocesan officials who did not themselves commit child abuse, but failed to prevent it. In September, the Massachusetts legislature enacted a child endangerment law making it a crime to create a risk of serious physical injury or sexual abuse, but it is not retroactive, Reilly said.

Instead, prosecutors have discussed the possibility of indicting church officials as accessories after the fact of a crime, or charging them with obstruction of justice, civil rights violations or criminal negligence.

New Hampshire prosecutors were able to rely on a long-standing child endangerment law.

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