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Role of Bishops Is Now a Focus of Grand Juries

By SAM DILLON - The New York Times

Prosecutors across the nation have taken investigations of clerical sexual abuse before more than a dozen grand juries in recent weeks, stepping up their inquiries into whether Roman Catholic bishops endangered children by ignoring the crimes, prosecutors and church officials said.

District attorneys from Phoenix to St. Louis to Long Island are using the secret grand juries to obtain subpoenas for personnel records and other records from Catholic dioceses and to compel the testimony of bishops and priests.

The number of dioceses facing grand jury inquiries appears to have doubled since the American bishops met last month in Dallas, where they adopted a policy of zero tolerance against abusive priests but took no steps to punish bishops and cardinals who have transferred sexual predators from parish to parish.

Some Catholic legal scholars say the prosecutors are merely responding to public pressure for action.

The latest escalation came on Monday, when Cincinnati prosecutors convened a special grand jury whose only responsibility will be to search for crimes in the church, with no limit on its tenure, an official familiar with the Ohio inquiry said. The regular grand juries that have heard accusations against priests and issued subpoenas for church records in some other cities have been temporary, less-focused bodies, sitting for only a few weeks and also hearing evidence on many crimes unrelated to the church.

Legal analysts said the judicial system has never before directed such a broad and intensive inquiry against the Catholic Church. "Nothing like this has happened before, nothing close to this," said Patrick J. Schiltz, dean of the law school at St. Thomas University in Minnesota, who has defended the church in sex abuse cases in the past. He said some prosecutors were using the grand juries to grandstand.

"That tells what a hot political issue this is right now," he said.

But Jennifer Joyce, the St. Louis circuit attorney, said the grand jury there was an overdue effort to penetrate the secrecy with which the church has shrouded its abusive priests. Ms. Joyce said the panel was investigating many accusations that church officials never reported to the authorities and that came to her attention only when she publicly asked for victims to come forward.

The St. Louis grand jury recently indicted a former priest on felony abuse charges. But Ms. Joyce called it "frustrating that statutes of limitations have expired and some of these men are out of my grasp."

Frank Keating, the Oklahoma governor whom the bishops named to oversee a national church-sponsored inquiry into the crisis, applauded prosecutors for using the grand juries to investigate those who have besmirched the church's name. In a recent interview, he said that grand juries should share information with church investigators and vice versa.

Some prominent Catholics and some legal scholars, though, say that prosecutors are fishing for votes. Several recent surveys have shown that Americans are fed up with clerical abuse and are eager to see bishops held accountable.

"I think we're getting into a trend where we're investigating an entire faith," said Patrick Scully of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation's largest Catholic anti-defamation group.

A. W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk who has written books about priests and sexuality, said Philadelphia prosecutors phoned him last week to invite him to offer expert testimony before the grand jury there. He said that in April the Massachusetts attorney general's office interviewed him before convening a special statewide grand jury to investigate the Boston Archdiocese.

"This is very positive for America and for the church itself," Mr. Sipe said of the grand juries.

In addition to Phoenix; St. Louis; Suffolk County, N.Y.; Cincinnati; Philadelphia; and Boston, grand juries in Los Angeles; Dayton, Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; Cleveland; suburban Baltimore; and York County, S.C., have also heard evidence and in some cases issued indictments.

In Westchester County, N.Y., a grand jury concluded an inquiry last month by accusing churches of cover-ups and urging state lawmakers to eliminate the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases that the panel said had prevented them from handing up any indictments.

Prosecutors who have convened grand juries to hold bishops accountable for their lenient handling of abusive priests are being forced to explore the law books for applicable statutes. Mr. Keating has said some bishops may be guilty of obstruction of justice. Some prosecutors appear to be seeking to build conspiracy cases. Others said they were exploring charges of endangering the welfare of a child.

In the debate about whether grand juries should be investigating the church, Prof. G. Robert Blakey of Notre Dame Law School, said, "I have one foot in both camps."

"No bishop is above the law, and I'd prosecute him for reckless driving or D.W.I.," he said. But after considerable study, Mr. Blakey said, he had concluded that bishops who have ignored priests' sexual crimes and transferred them from parish to parish acted immorally but broke no laws, and that some prosecutors are playing to public opinion.

"I have three explanations for these grand juries: politics, politics, politics," Mr. Blakey said.

But prosecutors in several cities appear to have convened grand juries to compel the testimony of churchmen. That seems to be the case in Cincinnati, where the prosecutor, Michael Allen, has been investigating the Archdiocese of Cincinnati for three months. Mr. Allen declined to comment yesterday on the new special grand jury there, but in May he expressed irritation with the church's attitude.

"We were promised cooperation from the archdiocese in this investigation and to date we haven't gotten it," Mr. Allen said after the archdiocesan chancellor testified before a grand jury. "What we're getting is an army of lawyers trying to come up with ways not to cooperate."

Dan Andriacco, a spokesman, said that the Archdiocese of Cincinnati had been cooperating "as fully as we believe that we can."

"We don't want to quarrel with the prosecutor's need to do his job," Mr. Andriacco added. "And the grand jury seems to be the tool he thinks is necessary."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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