Experts: criminal charges against
Law possible, but unlikely
Associated Press, 04/09/02
BOSTON -- Cardinal Bernard Law claimed ignorance
earlier this year when he explained why he moved a known pedophile
priest between churches. The best science at the time taught
pedophilia could be cured, he said.
But after revelations that Law handled a second priest accused
of child molestation the same way -- even after the old science
had been debunked -- Law faces questions over whether his
professed ignorance was criminal.
The prospect of criminal prosecution of Boston archdiocese
officials was raised Monday when the chief of the attorney
general's criminal bureau attended a press conference in which
allegations against Law and the Rev. Paul Shanley were detailed.
Attorney General Thomas Reilly said his office would examine
the evidence in the case.
"What has happened is reprehensible, it's beyond belief,"
Reilly said. "We have an obligation to look and see if
any criminal statutes apply."
But he cautioned that there may not be a criminal solution
to the case.
Legal experts say criminal charges against Law and other
church officials, though possible, are unlikely because they
would be so hard to prove.
Prosecutors would have to produce hard evidence -- such as
documents or witness testimony -- that explicitly showed Law
actually meant for harm to come to the children. It's a tall
order, said retired Superior Court Judge Robert Barton said.
"You'd have to show that he didn't give a damn about
the kids and all he wanted to do was protect the priests,"
Barton said. "I think they'd ..., frankly, be reaching."
Jeffrey Newman, an attorney who represents victims of priest
sex abuse, said absent a "smoking gun," federal
racketeering statutes allow prosecutors to cite patterns of
behavior to prove criminal intent.
But even a couple cases in which church officials appear
to be covering up for pedophile priests likely isn't enough,
"I think it's a stretch, myself," Newman said.
Racketeering charges must be brought by federal authorities.
A call to the U.S. Attorney's office wasn't immediately returned.
Law has apologized for shuttling former priest John Geoghan
between parishes in the mid-1980s, even after Law learned
Geoghan molested children. Geoghan has been accused of abusing
more than 130 children, and is serving a nine- to 10-year
prison sentence for abuse.
Documents released Monday showed Law was also aware of Shanley's
past, including child sex abuse charges, his favorable views
of sex between men and boys, and the opinions of his own advisers
that Shanley was "a sick person."
Still, Law wrote Shanley a positive 1996 retirement letter,
thanking him for his "zealous and generous care"
of parishioners, and in 1990 the archdiocese recommended Shanley
for a post at a California church where he could come into
contact with children.
To Shanley's alleged victims, Law's actions makes him an
accessory to crime.
"If the Catholic Church in America does not fit the
definition of organized crime, then Americans need to seriously
reconsider their concept of justice," said alleged victim
The archdiocese of Boston, though never directly addressing
the Shanley case, did release a statement addressing the church's
intent in handling the priests.
"Whatever may have occurred in the past, there were
no deliberate decisions to put children at risk," Morrissey
Without an admission by church officials that they deliberately
moved priests to protect the church, knowing the priests would
molest children, a criminal case will go nowhere, said Paul
Martinek, an attorney and editor of Lawyers Weekly USA.
"What we've seen so far amounts to extreme stupidity,"
Several attorneys have tried to use the federal racketeering
statute known as RICO, to bring civil cases against the church,
including a St. Louis attorney who charged last month that
the church tries to hide allegations of abuse from police.
But the RICO statute has never worked in a civil sex abuse
case against the church, even though the burden of proof is
To prove a criminal church-wide conspiracy, overwhelming
circumstantial evidence would be needed, Martinek said.
"It's certainly worth investigating," he said.
Martinek added that even copious circumstantial evidence
probably wouldn't be enough, given the political heat any
law enforcement body faces if they criminally charged church
"I would not indict the Catholic Church unless I was
99.9 percent sure I was going to win," Martinek said.
"It's not the kind of loss you want on your record."