| Charges against
clergy are elusive
Monday, April 19, 2004
By STEPHANIE BARRY - Springfield, MA Republican
SPRINGFIELD - Facing a virtual graveyard of failed clergy
abuse prosecutions nationwide, the county's top prosecutor
was unusually expansive recently as he announced plans for
a grand jury probe into ex-Bishop Thomas L. Dupre.
Though the last two years of pedophile priest allegations
unfolded in the shadow of the Catholic calamity in Boston,
Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett is poised
for a national first. If he is able to bring abuse-related
charges against Dupre for alleged molestation of two boys
more than 25 years ago, Bennett will achieve what no other
A string of intense criminal investigations of top clergy
have not produced indictments - most notably in Boston - despite
startling evidence of widespread child molestation and apparent
cover-ups. An examination of cases in those cities shows that
Bennett will face a number of obstacles, not the least of
which is statutes of limitations and the difficulty of convincing
a grand jury - in this case a heavily Catholic one - of the
probability of a religious leader's guilt.
In Palm Beach, Fla., two bishops from the same diocese resigned
in succession in the late 1990's after admitting they molested
boys many years earlier.
But prosecutors were unable to put either behind bars, largely
because the alleged crimes were too old to prosecute under
the statute of limitations.
"There's no magic way around it," said Bernie McCabe,
Florida's Pinellas-Pasco County state attorney.
His office successfully prosecuted a small number of priests
whose victims were under 12. There is no statute of limitations
for sex crimes against those under 12 in Florida.
Prosecutors in Boston, Long Island and New Hampshire convened
grand juries but were unable or unwilling to hold leaders
of the dioceses criminally accountable for failing to stop
abuse, either because statutes of limitations had expired
or the penalties associated with lesser charges amounted to
little more than a slap on the wrist.
After a 16-month grand jury probe during which advisers said
Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly researched many "creative"
prosecution tactics in Massachusetts, Reilly did not seek
indictments and instead released a 91-page report. The document
lambasted former Cardinal Bernard F. Law and others for "massive
and prolonged mistreatment of children by priests," prompting
what Reilly called "the greatest tragedies to befall
children in this Commonwealth."
The investigation found there were probably close to 1,000
clergy abuse victims in the archdiocese over 60 years.
In Rockville Centre, N.Y., a grand jury failed to return
indictments against church leaders there, despite uncovering
a legion of victims and a disturbingly familiar pattern of
shuffling abusive priests. Again, the panel's primary stumbling
block was the amount of time that elapsed between the abuse
and the investigation. Prosecutors there released a 180-page
report detailing the church's misdeeds. Unlike Dupre, no church
official was accused of abuse, but instead were accused of
covering it up.
Bennett announced in February that he would investigate whether
Dupre committed sexual abuse and tried to cover it up. Earlier
this month, state police attached to Bennett's office raided
the home of convicted child molester Richard R. Lavigne of
Chicopee, a defrocked priest accused over the years of sexually
abusing more than 30 boys.
In Manchester, N.H., attorneys general prosecuted three priests,
but a grand jury stopped short of indicting the bishop as
the head of a "corporation" found to have committed
criminal acts, though he was not accused personally of any
wrongdoing. Prosecutors opted instead to reach a settlement
with the diocese, waive grand jury secrecy and release 9,000
pages of evidence that told of pervasive abuse and questionable
"One of the reasons we opted to settle was a recognition
that even with a conviction, it was pretty limited in terms
of what we could accomplish in the courts," said Will
Delker, senior Assistant Attorney General in Manchester, of
the child endangerment charges against the diocese he believes
they likely would have successfully prosecuted. "We wanted
to get the whole story out there."
In Palm Beach, McCabe only briefly considered prosecuting
one of the accused bishops, the Rev. J. Keith Symons, who
resigned from his post in 1998 after admitting to abusing
altar boys early in his ministry. Symons' successor, the Rev.
Anthony J. O'Connell, then quit in 2002 after he admitted
repeatedly abusing underage seminary students many years ago.
Neither were ever charged, partly because their victims were
over the age of 12.
Statutes of limitations have thwarted clergy abuse prosecutions
across the country. In Massachusetts, the law generally dictates
that child molestation charges may be brought within 15 years
after a victim turns 16.
For Bennett's part, acknowledging the statute challenge was
his first concession during a very public announcement that
he would nonetheless investigate Dupre, accused of abusing
two minor boys (now 40) more than 25 years ago when Dupre
was a parish priest. Dupre abandoned his post Feb. 11, one
day after The Republican confronted him with the accusations.
Nonetheless, Bennett announced in front of a phalanx of news
media March 5 that he was preparing to explore an array of
charges against Dupre, including child rape, explaining that
limitations may be tolled or extended under extremely limited
One possible argument to extend the law involves whether
the accused made efforts to conceal or stifle the victims.
The accusers' lawyer, Roderick MacLeish Jr. of Boston, has
said the men had recent contact with Dupre, who asked them
to remain quiet about the alleged abuse. Other potential charges
include obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, conspiracy
and others under federal and international law, since Dupre's
accusers said he took them on trips over state lines and into
One legal analyst in Massachusetts who advised the state
attorney general said if there was ever a time for reticent
prosecutors to take risks, it is now.
"My pitch from day one was that there had to be a crime
because of the monumental nature of the harm, even if it took
a sort of push of the envelope," said Wendy J. Murphy,
former sex crimes prosecutor and professor at Boston's New
England School of Law, of the probe in that city.
"Most of the traditional crimes they were considering
- obstruction, accessory before and after (a crime) - really
didn't apply. My feeling was they should do something out
of the ordinary and risk the possibility of a reversal on
But many in the local legal community feel Bennett has already
taken risks. The very public announcement from the usually
close-mouthed prosecutor surprised many, though none were
willing to speculate publicly about its significance to the
"I'm just saying that I found (the announcement) highly
unusual for this district attorney," said Dupre's lawyer,
Michael O. Jennings of Springfield.
Jennings, a former law partner of Bennett, refused further
comment on the potential success of the investigation or Dupre's
reaction to the accusations against him.
The former prelate retained Jennings after Dupre retreated
to St. Luke Institute, a Maryland facility renowned for treating
clergy with emotional problems, including sexual predilections
for children and teens.
Though he is not the first prosecutor to consider indictments
against a high-ranking clergy member, Bennett said recently
that he duly satisfied both ethical and legal standards before
bringing the case to a grand jury. But less-than-successful
efforts before his were not among his considerations.
"I'm not worried about that," Bennett said. Nor
is he worried about the heavily Catholic pool from which he
pulls grand juries and trial juries, he added.
The most recent U.S. Census statistics show Hampden County's
population at just over 483,000. A spokesman for the Roman
Catholic Diocese of Springfield - which covers the state's
four western counties - said there are close to 154,000 in
Hampden County alone reporting affiliation with a parish.
That's 32 percent of the local population, and there are likely
thousands more Catholics unaffiliated with a particular church.
Bennett said he feels the vast majority of jurors regard
their civic obligation with grave sincerity and do not let
personal beliefs, religious or otherwise, impede their judgment.
But both trial consultants and prosecutors say there was a
time not so long ago when Catholicism was too ingrained to
Springfield Assistant U.S. Attorney Ariane D. Vuono was a
state prosecutor assigned to Hampshire and Franklin counties
in 1991 when Lavigne was the first Catholic cleric to be charged
locally with child rape. He pleaded guilty to two counts of
molestation before the formal jury selection phase, but Vuono
said they had begun to cull a potential pool of jurors when
the plea came.
The number of jurors (in eastern Massachusetts after a change
of venue) who opted out for religious reasons was high.
"I expected a lot, and there were a lot," Vuono
said during a recent interview. "But today, to pick that
jury ... I wouldn't have one qualm."
She was referring to a changed climate in which men of the
cloth are no longer believed to be above committing crimes.
During the Lavigne hearings, which were packed with his supporters,
prosecutors unsuccessfully asked the judge to order the priest
to remove his collar during court proceedings.
Lavigne was laicized by the Vatican last year after Dupre
applied for his defrocking following months of criticism that
the bishop was too slow to act. Lavigne, who has faced dozens
of sexual abuse claims in lawsuits, is barred from presenting
himself publicly as a priest.
He was the prime suspect in the unsolved 1972 slaying of
a Springfield altar boy, though no charges were ever filed
after DNA tests failed to conclusively link him to the crime.
Bennett insists the investigation is still active, and is
fighting the release of documents along with Lavigne's lawyer.
The Republican and Greenfield lawyer John Stobierski are arguing
a case before the state's Supreme Judicial Court that the
documents be unsealed.
Maryland-based trial consultant Jeffrey Frederick was hired
by local federal prosecutors for advice during the trial of
convicted nurse-serial killer Kristen H. Gilbert of Northampton
in 1999. Frederick, who also assisted prosecutors in pursuing
Oliver North, said that while he agrees Catholics are a generally
more cynical lot today, religion cannot be dismissed in a
"There's a good possibility (being Catholic) could influence
a jury facing a Catholic defendant. People are influenced
by their experience in life," Frederick said. "But
I think the pendulum has swung over to the other side. Many
people, Catholic or not, would be accepting of the notion
that (sex abuse) has happened."
Frederick and other jury experts say a juror's beliefs about
sexual abuse are more pertinent when considering who should
sit on a clergy abuse jury.
"I think it would depend more on people's attitudes
toward sexual abuse and who do they find responsible for sexual
abuse. It's like asking do you want smokers or non-smokers
on a tobacco case. They still may differ on whom they hold
responsible," said Diane Y. Levesque, of New England
Trial Consulting in Dover, N.H.
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