Church's Litigation Strategy Is Backed
By Michael Paulson
January 25, 2003
The former FBI official hired by US Catholic bishops to oversee the church's response to the clergy sex abuse crisis yesterday backed the Archdiocese of Boston in its decision to depose therapists and praised the Boston church for its new abuse-prevention training programs at Catholic schools and parishes.
Kathleen L. McChesney, making her first official visit to the city where the sex abuse crisis exploded, disappointed victims and victim advocates by suggesting that the archdiocese's decision to depose the therapists of alleged victims who have sued the church, although ''sad,'' was justifiable on legal grounds. Some were also upset that McChesney, who is the executive director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, did not meet with victims during her visit to town.
Church officials were delighted by McChesney's strong endorsement of two training programs they have launched, one aimed at schools and the other at parishes, that are intended to help prevent future abuse and ensure that if minors are abused, it is caught early and reported to legal authorities. McChesney also praised the archdiocese's efforts to reach out to victims.
Voice of the Faithful leaders, who met with McChesney Thursday night, were also impressed, particularly with her expressed commitment to the role of laypeople in resolving the church crisis.
McChesney, meeting with reporters yesterday morning, made a plea for victims to come forward, so that offenders can be prosecuted and the full scope of the problem understood.
''What is very important is that all victims come forward now,'' McChesney said. ''I know it is very, very difficult. I understand that and appreciate that. But there are processes in place to provide aid and therapy. This is a chance to prevent future acts of abuse. This is a chance to hold offenders responsible, as they should be. It is a chance to ensure that our churches are places of comfort and safety and peace.''
McChesney, speaking after a full day of meetings with archdiocesan leaders, said the local church would prefer to mediate cases than to litigate them. She expressed sympathy for the church's argument that it must depose therapists in cases when victims are alleging psychological harm.
''I understand how they [victims] feel, and it's a very tragic set of circumstances,'' she said. ''But when you get to the litigation stage, there are certain things lawyers insist on doing to protect their clients.''
''It's very sad that it has come to this point,'' she said.
Victims were unhappy with McChesney's comments, and by her failure to ask them for their own assessment of the archdiocese's programs.
''It seems to me, once again, that the church is writing its own report card, and reporting to her that everything is wonderful, and I am disturbed and dismayed that she hasn't reached out to survivors to get a report card from us about how they're doing,'' said Ann Hagan Webb, a coordinator of the state chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Webb, a psychologist, sided with other therapists and plaintiffs' attorneys in arguing that although the archdiocese is legally entitled to depose therapists, it could choose not to do so.
''The lawyers work for the church, and at any time the hierarchy can say, `No, we won't do that','' Webb said.
Lawyers for alleged victims also insist that it is the church, not the victims, that is blocking efforts to mediate cases.
''It's the archdiocese that is doing the stuff getting in the way of settling these cases,'' said attorney Carmen L. Durso, who represents about 70 alleged victims of abuse by priests. ''The church has a favored place in society - it's treated better than other entities because it's supposedly a moral organization guided by moral principles. So if they want to litigate like anybody else, fine, let's treat them like anybody else - no charitable immunity, no kissing of rings. But don't say `we're going to heal' and then set the dogs loose.''
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents about 110 alleged victims, said ''I'd like to invite her to call me and meet with me so I can explain the delicate situation involving the victims.''
Archdiocesan spokeswoman Donna M. Morrissey defended the church's conduct, saying, ''Our hope remains to settle these cases, but we recognize how painful and difficult litigation is.'' The church's lead liaison to victims, Barbara Thorp, has emphasized that point, writing in a letter to victims last Saturday that, ''it is our greatest hope that all parties will open themselves to true paths for healing by doing everything possible to `disarm' and come to the table for a just and fair mediated settlement.''
McChesney was invited to Boston by Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who has been serving as administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston since last month's resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law as archbishop of Boston. Law quit after a year of disclosures in the news media and the courts showed that he had repeatedly allowed sexually abusive priests to remain in ministry.
During her two-day visit to Boston, McChesney met with a variety of archdiocesan officials, including Lennon, as well as with the leaders of Law's Commission for the Protection of Children. At her own initiative, she also met with James E. Post, the president of Voice of the Faithful, and spoke briefly to the group's governing council.
''I did have the impression of someone who is a smart person, and I think that although ... she's not banging on the table, I think there's a toughness there that has not yet been tested, but will be,'' Post said. ''I sense that the archdiocese wanted to control who she saw, and what she saw, and it's to her credit that she decided she wanted to do something a little beyond that. I don't know why she didn't meet with survivors - I asked her, and she said, `Not this time'.''
Church officials used the occasion of McChesney's visit to publicly describe their ambitious efforts to train 400,000 school and parish workers, volunteers, and students in the archdiocese in child abuse prevention. They said the school program is aimed at teaching pupils in kindergarten through fourth grade how to say `no,' if someone tries to touch them inappropriately, and to encourage those pupils to report any inappropriate touching to a trusted adult at home or at school.
The parish program, they said, is aimed at helping clergy, staff, and volunteers to recognize signs of trouble.
Deacon Anthony P. Rizzuto, who directs abuse prevention efforts in the Boston Archdiocese, said he hopes the first phase of the two training programs will be complete by mid-summer. He said the church will then turn its attention to developing programs for children in grades 5 through 8, and for training teachers and staff at after-school and weekend religious education programs.
''I've been very impressed with the programs ... these are the kinds of things that are very important for archdioceses all around the country,'' McChesney said.
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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