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Deposing Therapists: An abuse of the law

January 30, 2003

'RIGHTS IMPLY corresponding duties,'' Pope John Paul II told a group of journalists in 1987. The Boston Archdiocese ought to remember these words as it exercises its right to depose the therapists of people who allege sexual abuse by priests. The prime obligation of church leaders is not to contest the suits but to settle all legitimate claims of abuse.

Bishop Richard G. Lennon, administrator of the archdiocese, is pursuing a two-track strategy in the suits, which involve hundreds of people claiming abuse. Lennon is continuing the outreach to victims begun by his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, while employing legal tactics to minimize the financial consequences of the scandal.

Many people who have filed suit allege long-term psychological damage. Because the plaintiffs' mental state is at issue, church lawyers have a right to question the plaintiffs' therapists. But this legal tactic undercuts Lennon's commitment to offer therapy and support to victims. The hard work of therapy is best done when confidentiality is assured.

The archdiocese is asserting its rights in a more sweeping manner as well. It seeks to dismiss the suit filed by 14 men allegedly abused by the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham on the grounds that the case would entangle the court in archdiocesan disciplinary policy, a violation of the First Amendment. Birmingham died in 1989, but if what his accusers say is true, he was repeatedly involved in crimes. The attempt to dismiss the suit may be only an effort to show insurance companies that the archdiocese is exploring all legal avenues to limit liability. The courts, however, would be wise to reject that argument. The First Amendment should not be used to protect individuals or institutions from being held liable for committing or covering up criminal offenses.

The US news media are also protected by the First Amendment. Pope John Paul, when he addressed media representatives in Los Angeles, reminded them of their duties.

''Precisely because your responsibility is so great and your accountability to the community is not easily rendered juridically, society relies so much on your good will,'' he said. ''In a sense, the world is at your mercy.''

Catholic parents entrusted their children to the care of the church for generations in the belief that they were safe from harm. These youngsters deserved a secure spiritual upbringing, yet some found themselves at the mercy of abusive priests.

Rather than brandishing the First Amendment or forcing therapists to be deposed, Lennon needs to get the money required to settle the lawsuits - first by obtaining the maximum from insurance policies protecting the archdiocese, then generating the rest from the sale of church property.

Pope John Paul told the journalists: ''You find a real meaning in your work when you exercise your role as collaborators of truth - collaborators of truth in the service of justice, fairness, and love.'' Lennon needs to do what is just for the victims.

This story ran on page A12 of the Boston Globe on 1/30/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests