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Letter By Boston's Cardinal Law Marks Departure From Defensive Posture

May 20, 2002 | AP

Cardinal Bernard Law's open letter detailing what and when he knew of allegations against a priest accused of sexually abusing children marks a big shift from his previous silence. It could also place Law in an awkward legal position.

The letter released over the weekend emphatically denied any knowledge of allegations against the Rev. Paul Shanley before 1993. It was released just two weeks before Law is scheduled to answer questions under oath in a civil case filed by one of Shanley's alleged victims.

Documents released in the case, including a 1985 letter apparently viewed by Law describing Shanley's views on sex between men and boys, indicate that while Law's missive may indicate a renewed openness, they could also open him to new legal problems.

"I feel now we're in a very good position to depose him," said Courtney Pillsbury, a lawyer for the plaintiff.

J. Owen Todd, Law's attorney, said he was not involved in preparing the letter, and said it probably ran "counter to a legal strategy."

But he said the letter was part of Law's role as a spiritual leader.

"He must primarily address his constituency, the Roman Catholics, and explain himself and the situation to them first and foremost," Todd said.

In the letter, sent to Boston Archdiocese parishes and released to the media late Sunday, Law bemoaned the fact the sexual abuse cases were "being tried in the press ... rather than being more appropriately tried later in court."

More than 1,600 pages of church documents have been released in the lawsuit brought by Gregory Ford, 24, who claims he was repeatedly raped as a child by Shanley. The lawsuit charges Law and other church officials with negligence in failing to protect them.

Shanley faces criminal charges of raping another boy in the same parish.

The documents in Ford's civil lawsuit have included allegations of abuse dating back to 1966 and reports of Shanley's advocacy of sex between men and boys dating back to 1979.

"Before God I assure you that my first knowledge of an allegation of sexual abuse against this priest was in 1993," Law wrote in the letter.

Law said he then rescinded Shanley's authorization to be a parish priest in San Bernardino, Calif.

The release of the letter was an unusual move for Law, who has become isolated during the months-long crisis and has resisted calls for his resignation.

Seth Taube, a New Jersey lawyer who has defended Catholic orders in abuse cases, called the letter an act of courage.

"There is always the risk that the testimony could be at slight variance to what is said in the letter," Taube said. "Discrepancies suggest credibility issues."

With so many documents in the public domain and so much attention given to the allegations, it's important for the church get out its own facts, Taube said.

While the letter may help Law win back some public support, some say the openness came far too late.

"What Law has been abysmally bad at is, if you will, constituent relations," said Patrick Schiltz, dean of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, and a former defense lawyer who represented dioceses in sex abuse cases.

"He should have been making statements like this certainly a year ago," said Schiltz, who has called for Law's resignation.

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