Legal Issues

 Legal Headlines



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, he said.

"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 Arthur Austin.

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 said.

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," he said.

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 much lower.

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 officials.

"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."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests