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Subpoena Issue:
Worcester Diocese must accept that perception is reality to many

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

By Kenneth J. Moynihan
Telegram & Gazette Political Columnist

The first time I wrote today's column, I called it “puzzeling” that “lawyers for Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of Worcester are pursuing a strategy that seems designed to raise suspicions about the victims group known as the Survival Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).”

“What comes out from the bishops,” I wrote, “is occasionally so bizarre as to make us wonder whether members of the hierarchy even understand that they are engaged in a crisis that, in addition to being moral and organizational and legal, is also profoundly political. The outcome of the crisis will in large part depend on how soon many people can regain what has patently been lost, confidence in the leaders of the church, whether it be the current leaders or those who will take their places.”

It now turns out that the lawyers going after SNAP may not have been Bishop Reilly's lawyers after all ... sort of. Bishop Reilly said on Monday that he had been “dismayed to learn in news reports on Sunday that our liability insurance company found it necessary to seek records of alleged victims from the support group SNAP.” He said, “This was the first time I or my chancery staff were made aware of this request.”

The bishop also said he had contacted the lawyer for Travelers Insurance as well as the diocesan lawyer and asked that the subpoena for the records be withdrawn, and it reportedly was withdrawn on Monday afternoon.

Even if we believe, as I do, that Bishop Reilly was not directly responsible for the issuing of the subpoena, a great deal of personal and political damage was caused within a 48-hour period. The original Sunday Telegram story reported that it was “Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, through his lawyers,” who was seeking to force revelation of the names of all persons who ever told SNAP that they had been sexually abused by a priest of the Worcester diocese. The subpoena, issued by the defense in the civil suit brought by five women against the Rev. Robert E. Kelley, also asked for whatever documents might exist showing the association of the five with SNAP, including any meetings or conferences they might have attended and any correspondence they might have had with the organization. It also called for the revelation of the names of any other persons who might have said they suffered abuse at the hands of Rev. Kelley.

Not surprisingly, in the Sunday story leaders of SNAP characterized the demand for confidential records as a move designed to intimidate victims who might be thinking about revealing what abusive priests did to them. They pointed to SNAP as one of the few sources victims can turn to for free counseling and other services. Regional SNAP director Philip J. Saviano called the supposed diocesan legal maneuver “reprehensible;” a Boston spokeswoman said it was “despicable;” the national executive director called it “the lowest of the low.”

On Monday SNAP and some of its supporters held a press conference at Harvard Square to denounce the effort to seize the records, even though the effort had been called off. At least one Boston television station reported the protest and the original reason behind it without mentioning that the request for the records had already been rescinded.

The Boston Globe yesterday reported that, “faced with a barrage of criticism from victims of clergy sexual abuse,” Bishop Reilly had ordered “church lawyers” to withdraw the subpoena. In a subsequent paragraph it told readers who read that far of the bishop's statements that he had been dismayed to read of the legal action and that neither he nor his chancery staff had known about it. Readers were left to decide for themselves whether the bishop, when he learned about the problem, simply did the right thing, or whether he moved only because “a barrage of criticism had erupted.”

It is not terribly surprising that no one was answering the phone at the chancery when a Telegram & Gazette reporter called on Saturday night for a comment. But it is more than surprising that whoever thinks about public relations and politics in the chancery did not know the subpoena, dated Sept. 9, had been issued and thus could not anticipate that this story would break once SNAP leaders began to be ordered to appear for depositions.

It is more than surprising that no one in a position of responsibility anticipated that when the story broke the average reader might wonder why church authorities seemed to be going after SNAP; did not anticipate that this might come across as a crude and cruel act of intimidation aimed at current accusers and those who might be thinking of joining them; did not anticipate that this might, shall we say, not look too good.

When people don't explain themselves on a matter of public interest, they almost invite the rest of us to fill in the blanks through speculation. In this instance, the political field was initially left entirely to the SNAP representatives, and they provided a plausible and disturbing interpretation of what was happening.

The original version of this column said, “The situation appears to provide evidence of real negligence on the part of diocesan officials, but we should perhaps balance even that tentative conclusion by taking one more excursion into speculation.

Perhaps there was a good reason no one came forward to explain the bishop's legal strategy, a reason we will all hear and understand in due time.”

The reason we now have is that the bishop and the chancery staff did not know what the lawyers were doing. That remarkable claim seems to permit this version of the column to end as the original one did:

“Perhaps there are people exercising leadership in this extended crisis who still have not figured out that it may be moral, it may be organizational, it may be legal, but it sure as ... heck ... is political. How things look to the public really matters.”

Kenneth J. Moynihan's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.

Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests