A Grand Jury Report on Clergy Abuse Should Serve As a Message for New York's Legislature

Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
July 25, 2003

He may not be Frank Keating, the former Oklahoma governor who was pressured to step down last month after comparing some of America's Roman Catholic bishops to mobsters in their penchant for covering up cases of clergy sexual abuse of minors. But Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly comes awfully close. On Wednesday, Mr. Reilly, a practicing Catholic like Mr. Keating, released a scathing indictment of church leaders in the Archdiocese of Boston -- leaders, he says, who "sacrificed the children for many, many years."

It's not just the bishops who should be listening to Mr. Reilly, either. New York's legislative leaders need to pay attention, too.

Mr. Reilly's anger was based on a 76-page grand jury report that chronicled 60 years of abuse and cover-up in the Boston archdiocese. The report concluded that 789 children had been abused by priests during that period, but because the findings were based only on victims who came forward to report abuse, and not those who were unable or unwilling to do so, the actual number is, in Mr. Reilly's estimate, far greater.

Like Mr. Keating, Mr. Reilly harshly blamed church leaders for failing to confront the issue of abuse. Instead, Mr. Reilly said, there was an "institutional culture" in the archdiocese that sought to protect priests and the church rather than the children. These were "deliberate choices," Mr. Reilly said, and they resulted in "the greatest tragedy to children in the history of the commonwealth."

In seeking legal means to hold church leaders accountable, Mr. Reilly said he could not find evidence of their intent to assist in criminal acts.

Because Massachusetts had weak child protection laws at the time the abuse occurred, and because no reporting law was in place during the period, it would be difficult to mount any prosecutions. In many cases, too, the statute of limitations has passed -- all factors that Mr. Reilly can only lament.

But at least Massachusetts lawmakers passed a clergy reporting bill last year. That's more than can be said of New York, where the Legislature continues to stall on a measure that would add the clergy to the list of those required to report cases of child sexual abuse to law enforcement. Much of the delay has been caused by a pointless debate over the time frame for reports -- whether they should be limited to those cases that fall within the statute of limitations, or go as far back as 20 to 50 years.

It should be clear by now that a long span is preferable. Even if no criminal charges can be filed, at least there can be an accounting of what occurred, and closure for victims who suffered in silence for much of the lives. And to judge by a grand jury report last February in Suffolk County, there may be many victims who are entitled to that closure. The report found that officials of the Diocese of Rockville Centre "agreed to engage in conduct that resulted in the prevention, hindrance and delay in the discovery of criminal conduct by priests."

Suffolk County. Frank Keating. Boston. Thomas Reilly. How much more will it take before New York's Legislature acts?


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