Through months of criticism about how they handled priests accused of sexually abusing children, Cardinal Bernard Law and other church officials often blamed poor record-keeping and a lack of knowledge about abuse allegations made against particular priests.
But when questioned by lawyers for people who are suing the church, a top aide to Law said the cardinal and his top deputies had unfettered access to priests’ records.
The Rev. Charles Higgins said Law and others could have looked at personnel and confidential records, where allegations of sexual abuse were described in detail.
Higgins answered questions in a civil deposition taken by lawyers who are representing people suing the archdiocese over its handling of sexual abuse allegations against the Rev. Paul Shanley.
During the second day of his deposition, made public Wednesday, attorney David Thomas questioned Higgins about who had access to internal church records on Shanley.
Higgins said Law had free access to the records.
“With regard to Paul Shanley’s file then, am I correct in stating that Cardinal Law could have asked for Father Shanley’s personnel file back in 1984?” Thomas asked.
“He could have,” replied Higgins.
During a deposition in June, Law testified that he never looked at Shanley’s personnel file before promoting him to pastor at St. Jean’s in 1985, a year after Law became archbishop. Shanley’s file contained sexual abuse complaints dating to 1966, but Law said he had no knowledge of allegations against Shanley until 1993.
Thomas’s law firm, Greenberg Traurig, represents people who say they were sexually abused by Shanley between 1979 and 1989 while he worked at St. Jean’s Parish in Newton, Mass.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers are trying to show a pattern of negligence by Law and other church officials who transferred accused priests from parish to parish instead of removing them from positions where they continued to have access to children.
In response to questions from Thomas, Higgins also acknowledged that Law’s top assistants had open access to Shanley’s file, as well as the files of other priests who had been accused of sexually abusing children.
Those top assistants included the Rev. Thomas Daily, now bishop in Brooklyn, N.Y.; the Rev. Robert J. Banks, now bishop in Green Bay, Wis.; and the Rev. John McCormack, now bishop in Mancester, N.H.
Since 1999, Higgins has been responsible for overseeing priests accused of sexual misconduct.
In his deposition, he said that since the scandal first erupted in Boston in January 2002, he has turned over files for about 70 priests to five Massachusetts district attorneys in response to court orders and subpoenas.
He said he had also handed over priest files to state Attorney General Thomas Reilly, who has convened a grand jury to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing on the part of church officials.
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Higgins’s deposition.
Shanley, 71, is currently awaiting trial on child rape and indecent assault charges. He has pleaded innocent to the charges.