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Legislator Says Prosecutors Were Lax

Lawlor: State Did Not Pursue Church Files

Dec 14, 2002 State Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee, was highly critical Friday of Connecticut prosecutors for never demanding church files on sexual abuse by priests.

"The remarkable thing about Connecticut is it appears prosecutors here have chosen not to investigate what other prosecutors in other states believe are extremely serious crimes," said Lawlor, D-East Haven.

Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of the Boston archdiocese, resigned in disgrace Friday. Reams of documents released by Massachusetts courts and, ultimately, by the church in recent months showed that Law knew of the sexual transgressions and crimes of a number of priests, yet kept those priests on active status.

The Boston scandal reverberated throughout the country, prompting prosecutors to seek information on past sexual abuse by priests and the responses by church hierarchy.

"Why Connecticut prosecutors are missing in action I couldn't tell you," Lawlor said. "But there is a well-documented reluctance of Connecticut prosecutors to get involved in this category of cases - prosecuting public corruption and people in power. It's a real shortcoming of our system."

Acting Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano emphasized Friday that disclosures and prosecutions in Boston were the result of massive documentation compiled in the court of civil lawsuits, not criminal investigations.

"The revelations in Massachusetts are certainly very upsetting," Morano said. "But it's my understanding they were the result of civil proceedings that gave prosecutors the necessary documentation to allow them to institute criminal actions. That is a key difference from what we have here in Connecticut."

Connecticut prosecutors were deferential to church leaders last spring, even after the church scandal in Boston grew to staggering proportions.

Then-Chief State's Attorney John M. Bailey exchanged cordial letters with Hartford Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin, with Bailey reminding Cronin of the church's duty to report known instances of child abuse.

Fairfield State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict, in whose jurisdiction 28 victims of sexual assaults involving priests successfully sued the Bridgeport diocese, said in March he would rely on church officials to abide by state law.

"There's no need for me to ask," Benedict said. Likewise, New London State's Attorney Kevin Kane expressed confidence in Norwich diocesan officials, saying they have been "extremely conscientious in dealing with this type of allegation."

Only Hartford State's Attorney James Thomas requested of Cronin any information the church had on cases that might fall within the five-year deadline for reporting such crimes. Church officials replied that they knew of no such cases. Thomas could not be reached for comment Friday.

The prosecutors said they would not request church files that date back decades on sexual abuse and priest pedophiles, saying there's no legitimate reason to review those.

Morano, who took over for an ailing Bailey in October, rebutted Lawlor's contention that Connecticut prosecutors have done nothing, citing Thomas' initiative.

"I am aware that Chief State's Attorney Bailey and the state's attorneys discussed these matters in great detail, and that certain state's attorneys have been in contact with the relevant archdiocese," Morano said. "The particulars of what each state's attorney has done, I do not know."

The 13 state's attorneys who oversee prosecutions in the various judicial districts are autonomous. Only in cases of abuse of discretion or a conflict of interest can the chief state's attorney intervene in their jurisdictions.

The chief state's attorney's office does, however, have investigative units and the power to initiate investigations. Morano declined to comment on whether there are any criminal investigations involving priests or church officials at this time.

Lawlor was dismissive of some prosecutors' contentions that they lack subpoena power and that a five-year statute of limitations bars them from making substantive use of church files of past sexual misconduct by priests.

"First of all, the clergy have always been mandated reporters [of child abuse]," Lawlor said. "Second, any deliberate attempt to cover up crimes would itself be a crime. The prosecutors have a whole assortment of tools at their disposal under the current law." He said those include applying for a search warrant to gain access to records.

"What we know from the Boston situation is that there were thousands and thousands of pages of tangible evidence about deliberate attempts to cover crimes they knew had been committed," Lawlor said. "Presumably, if there were any such records in Connecticut, they're still there."

Lawlor said he has spoken with Connecticut victims and their attorneys who allege that church officials were well aware of sexual abuse by priests, yet did nothing to protect the children and merely moved the priests around.

"The only reason we've gotten some knowledge and some justice is because of trial lawyers and not prosecutors, which is a shame," Lawlor said.

He said that as far as he knew, there had been no attempt by any state's attorney or by the chief state's attorney's office to investigate these crimes. He also said the statute of limitations is not an absolute bar.

"For example," Lawlor said, "if you've left the state to avoid prosecution, the period of time you're outside the state doesn't count."

Lawlor cited the case of Laurence Brett, a former priest who abused more than two dozen children and young men in Connecticut and New Mexico before he disappeared in 1993. The Courant earlier this year found him living on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. He has since fled from there and his whereabouts are unknown.

Another tool Connecticut prosecutors have not tried to use is the investigative grand jury, Lawlor said. A three-judge panel reviews applications for grand jury investigations, which do afford prosecutors the opportunity to subpoena witnesses and records. However, one condition of obtaining a grand jury investigation is that traditional means of investigation have been exhausted.

Lawlor said Connecticut prosecutors "absolutely" should pursue church files, as well as court files that formerly were sealed because the lawsuits were settled, conditioned on confidentiality agreements. In response to the priests scandal, the legislature passed a law that effectively opens those files, and is retroactive, meaning it applies to cases that may have been settled years ago.

"Courts cannot abide by a confidentiality agreement when the allegations were the sexual abuse of children," Lawlor said. "So all the depositions, all the investigations that took place in civil suits should be available to prosecutors. As far as I know, they never looked through that stuff."

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