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Abuse specialists challenge church defense tactic

Assert depositions will betray victims

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/22/2003

Calling the deposition of therapists ''an act of reabuse,'' 83 mental health professionals from around the nation are denouncing Bishop Richard G. Lennon's decision to allow church lawyers to question counselors treating alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse.

The direct challenge to Lennon, led by a New York psychoanalyst who had been hand-picked by US bishops as an expert on sexual abuse, comes as plaintiffs' attorneys and victims increasingly are complaining that Lennon has not made significant changes since assuming the post of administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston upon the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law. The church has taken a series of tough legal steps, including resisting a subpoena from the state attorney general and pressing an argument that the First Amendment protects it from litigation by victims, as Lennon pushes to resolve abuse-related claims by more than 500 people.

Attorneys for alleged victims say settlement talks, which Lennon promised to intensify, have all but broken down. And some victims say the sense of hope they felt with Lennon's appointment has swiftly ebbed.

''The church's priorities have been very evident - reaching out to parishes, reaching out to its law firms - but there has yet to be any effort to reach out to the victims as a whole,'' said Olan Horne of Lowell, who said he and other members of a victims' group called Survivors of Joseph Birmingham had placed nearly a dozen phone calls before finally hearing yesterday that Lennon would meet with them.

The archdiocese has justified its decision to depose therapists by saying that it is standard legal practice and that the church is entitled to defend against parties who choose to press litigation that claims emotional harm. Yesterday, a Lennon spokesman continued to defend the church's legal strategy, but acknowledged that it sometimes conflicts with the church's effort to reach out to victims.

''There is a tension between the pastoral work of the Office of Healing and Assistance Ministry and the litigation that's involved,'' said Rev. Christopher J. Coyne. ''You have people that the archdiocese is trying to help on a pastoral level, but these same people are bringing lawsuits against priests, bishops, and the archdiocese, and as long as we remain in litigation, that tension is going to remain.''

Coyne said Lennon has been meeting with victims and their families, but has not had time during his first five weeks as administrator to meet with everyone who is seeking time with him.

He said he does not expect the church to rethink the deposition of therapists, which lawyers acknowledge is common when a victim alleges psychological damage.

''There hasn't been any reconsideration of whether we should be doing this - it's part of the legal process the archdiocese and other defendants must go through in order to bring forward a defense against people who are bringing suit,'' he said. ''The archdiocese is committed to mediation and does not want to go through litigation, but if forced to do so, the defendants and the archdiocese will mount the defense anybody else would.''

Therapists, including faculty members from Boston College, Boston University, Simmons College, and the University of Massachusetts, and a variety of clinicians who work with trauma survivors denounced the move, saying that even if legally permissible it is morally unacceptable. Clinicians, authors, and researchers made up the overwhelming majority of those who signed the letter to Lennon, which was also signed by a handful of abuse victims and non-Catholic clergy.

''While the Archdiocese of Boston has a legal right to pursue the depositions of therapists treating abuse survivors in litigation with the Church, it is crucial for Church officials to remember that these suits have emerged from the sexual abuse of minors by priests and, often, only after years of stonewalling efforts by the hierarchy,'' the letter said. ''We hope that you will reconsider your decision to retraumatize the already broken members of your flock and will choose to pursue a pastoral rather than corporate and counter-litigious path.''

The letter was spearheaded by Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, the executive director of the Trauma Treatment Center at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, who was the only therapist invited by the bishops to testify at the June meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas.

''I am not a hysteric; I don't think suing is the best way for survivors to go. I have a lot of empathy for the bishops who are trying to make things right, and I don't consider the church my enemy,'' said Frawley-O'Dea, a Chelmsford native who attended Academy of Notre Dame in Tyngsborough and Emmanuel College in Boston. ''But I think that this is very despicable and deceitful. To say `the church loves you' and `we want to help you' and then to invade your treatment is really just wrong. It may be legally OK, but it's wrong.''

Lawyers handling abuse cases say the therapist depositions are part of a pattern of toughening legal strategy by the archdiocese.

Yesterday, victims' attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr. said he and lawyers for the church are not currently discussing settlement. ''Right now, there is no opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue,'' he said.

And plaintiffs' attorney Robert A. Sherman said that despite Lennon's public comments, there has been ''zero change'' since Lennon replaced Law. Lennon's statements, Sherman said, ''have certainly not been translated into any action by the archdiocesan lawyers.''

The archdiocese also continues to wage a fierce legal battle out of public view. The church's lawyers have sought to quash a subpoena issued by a criminal grand jury convened by Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, according to lawyers who are familiar with the issue. The subpoena demanded that the church produce any correspondence between the archdiocese and the Vatican regarding the sexual misbehavior of priests.

Victims are increasingly upset. Ann Hagan Webb, a psychologist who signed the letter and who also serves as coordinator of the local chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the depositions have damaged the credibility of the church's outreach to victims.

''The whole survivor community is upset about the deposing of therapists, and certainly the therapist community is upset about it,'' Webb said. ''By deposing a therapist they have quickly destroyed a lot of people's trust in the process and have frightened people about whether they should continue to be in therapy.''

Other therapists who signed the letter expressed similar sentiments.

''This might be legally OK, but it's ethically wrong, and that's what the archdiocese has continued to do - they always put form ahead of substance and policy ahead of people,'' said Linda T. Sanford, who teaches at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work. ''People should not have to sacrifice their privacy just because they are looking to be compensated for the pain and suffering they've endured.''

Marcie A. Mitler, a Cambridge counselor who specializes in child sexual abuse, called deposing therapists ''a way of revictimizing someone who has probably taken years and years to tell anybody.''

Kathleen Burge, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Walter V. Robinson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.Michael Paulson can be reached at [email protected].

Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests