Two weeks after state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly accused the Archdiocese of Boston of dragging its feet on efforts to protect children from sexual abuse by clergy, archdiocesan officials said yesterday Cardinal Bernard F. Law will hire a lay person to oversee implementation of new child protection policies.
The officials also said the archdiocese would begin in January to teach children in parochial schools about guarding themselves from sexual abuse, and would introduce the curriculum to Catholic children in religious education classes overseen by the archdiocese’s 362 parishes in the fall of 2003.
In addition, the archdiocese agreed to meet next week with prosecutors and officials from the Department of Social Services to develop what it called a comprehensive training program for priests, who became mandated reporters of suspected child abuse almost three months ago.
The archdiocese also said it would create, by the end of August, a mostly lay advisory board to oversee a victim’s advocacy center, and establish a new internal review board to handle allegations against priests and lay workers.
The archdiocese’s pledges seemed aimed at allaying withering criticism directed at it two weeks ago by Reilly and Alice E. Moore, chief of the attorney general’s public protection bureau. Reilly had complained that, despite the magnitude of the scandal that has shaken the archdiocese since January, it had failed to produce meaningful education programs for either children or clergy, and that implementation of any overall policy change was taking too long, with no one accountable for the delay.
Moore had pointedly called for the creation of a team ”that would have the authority, expertise, and financing to implement interim measures and supervise the implementation of policies, training and educational efforts that will ultimately be recommended to the archdiocese.”
Yesterday, two priests who are among the cardinal’s closest aides, the Revs. John Connolly and Charles Higgins, briefed the Cardinal’s Commission for the Protection of Children on the archdiocese’s plan to hire someone to oversee implementation by the end of August.
Maureen S. Bateman, who heads the commission that is expected to deliver recommendations to Law next month, said the archdiocese has already selected a person to direct the new policy and enforce it, but would not provide a name.
She said the commission members were ”impressed with Father Connolly’s resolve, the archdiocese’s commitment to identify resources, and the results to date.”
Bateman, however, was less willing to credit the attorney general’s office for getting the archdiocese to move.
”The attorney general’s comments were excellent, but I think the archdiocese was well on the way to doing this anyway,” she said.
But Philip Saviano, the New England coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, credited Reilly and other groups, including his own, with sending Bateman’s commission suggestions for creating the pressure that prompted the archdiocese to respond more forcefully to the abuse threat.
”If the archdiocese was well on their way to doing all these things, no one knew about it. And besides, they should have implemented these things that the attorney general and SNAP have been talking about a long time ago,” said Saviano.
Some legal observers had seen Reilly’s remarks as the first step toward seeking a court order to force the archdiocese to move more comprehensively and more quickly to address what he and children’s advocates say are gaps in the safety net for children who might be abused by clergy or lay workers.
Reilly has been noncommittal on whether he would seek an injunction under the state’s civil rights act if he decided the archdiocese was not doing all it could in a reasonable amount of time to implement a comprehensive child protection policy.
While he described yesterday’s pledges by the archdiocese as a step forward, Reilly said in a telephone interview that he would reserve final judgment until he sees the archdiocese do what it says it will. ”These are positive developments, and these are some things that we have been looking for. But it can’t be just words. They’ve got to prove it, and frankly their track record in these matters is not good,” Reilly said. ”We’re glad to see that the archdiocese agrees with us that there is a need for some independent oversight. The key is, will this be truly independent oversight? And will there be an openness we haven’t seen in the past?”
Reilly said he could not understand why the archdiocese is waiting until January to begin teaching parochial school students, and 13 months before teaching religious education students about sexual abuse.
”This has been the problem with the archdiocese. The word `slow’ doesn’t describe it,” said Reilly. ”This has been done in public schools. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Saviano agreed, calling the delay ”ridiculous.”
A leading child advocacy group, the Massachusetts Citizens for Children, said that by involving itself in a victims’ center and a new internal review board, the archdiocese was ”needlessly complicating” the mandated process for reporting abuse.
Jetta Bernier, the group’s executive director, said the archdiocese is keeping its hands in a matter that should be the purview of secular, civil authorities.
”They are duplicating and triplicating a reporting process that should be very straightforward. The more complicated the reporting system, the more mistakes can happen, the more cases can fall through the cracks,” Bernier said. ”We have a mandated system for reporting, to either DSS or the police. The church should not be involved, period. Given their history of complicity in the commission of sexual abuse and covering it up, this is not a role they should take.”
In addition, Bernier said the archdiocese’s plans to have parish councils handle complaints is a conflict of interest. He said lay members cannot be expected to be objective when a complaint involving either a child or a cleric they know comes before them.
Both Bernier’s group and SNAP questioned how independent the ”independent review board” the cardinal promises to create can be if he picks the members and they report to him.
Donna M. Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said she would not respond to specific criticisms, limiting the archdiocese’s comment yesterday to a statement from Law.
”I remain most grateful and tremendously encouraged by the work of the commission,” Law said.