Battle of the Legal Gladiators

By Paul Vitello
Newsday [Long Island NY]
November 4, 2003

The sexual abuse of children by priests of the Diocese of Rockville Centre was for many years what people in the crime world might call a "freebie" - a criminal act for which there was little chance of getting punished.

Priests lured children to secret places, touched them, raped them, ruined them and warned them, on pain of eternal damnation, never to tell.

If they were somehow caught, the priests still had nothing to worry about: The Diocese of Rockville Centre, like many dioceses all over the United States, would walk through hell itself rather than tell.

The diocese wouldn't tell the cops. They wouldn't tell other priests. They wouldn't even tell the parents in the next parish to which their problem priest - a known sexual predator - was being dispatched to pastor a new flock.

Scandal was avoided at all costs - and along with scandal the possibility of civil suits that could drain the coffers of an already financially ailing church.

If you were a person with a sexual appetite for child abuse and sadism, the priesthood was a good bet for you. This is a harsh thing to say, perhaps. Most priests are not sexual predators. And there are sexual predators in other lines of work besides the priesthood.

But for many years, the hierarchy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre knew the names of just about every sexual predator who wore the collar in its parishes - and never once turned one over to the law.

Never once.

This is why, when Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota released a 180-page grand jury report early this year detailing the evidence of abuses by the priests and bishops of Rockville Centre going back 25 years, it needed no legal explanation.

The crimes unearthed in his six-month investigation were all past the statute of limitations. But Spota's report was that rare bird of prosecutorial expos?s: a voice for the voiceless.

It gave details about incidents in which grown men priests forced children into sexual servitude. And it described how "priests and diocesan officials lied about what they knew ..."

But now, almost nine months after Spota's report was issued, his counterpart in Nassau County, District Attorney Denis Dillon, has labeled it "that salacious report," and declared that its release was illegal.

It is a mysterious venting of a disagreement - its timing warped by almost a year's passing. But yesterday, in answering the question, Dillon said he had never voiced his opinion before because "no one ever asked me."

This time, he said, a reporter asked him. The question was asked after Dillon gave a speech at a church meeting Sunday: Why had Dillon never issued a grand jury report, as Spota had? His reply: because to do so was illegal under the criminal statute defining the rules of grand juries when no one is indicted.

This is a lawyer's quarrel about whether the criminal statute governing grand jury reports covers private institutions such as the church, or whether it applies only to public misconduct. In separate interviews yesterday, Spota and Dillon made the case for their two differing interpretations.

But why argue this now?

Civil lawsuits against the Diocese of Rockville Centre are scheduled for hearings in State Supreme Court this month. One of the key issues is whether Spota's grand jury report can be used as evidence in the case brought by victims of priests.

Did Dillon intend to influence the court's decision on that by his comments Sunday?

"That's reading an awful lot into it," he said yesterday. "I'm not following that case."

Did Dillon disagree with the findings of the Suffolk grand jury?

The grand jury report "reflected the evidence," he said. There is no doubt the church let its parishioners down. "I don't disagree with its basic conclusions."

Then why are we talking about this now?

Because Spota's grand jury report, Dillon said, "never gave the accused a chance to respond. It gives the bishop less protection under the law than a crooked politician would get."

So there you have it. I can't explain it. It's one district attorney's opinion against another's - a battle of legal gladiators used to getting the bad guy locked up.

I can only say I'm glad one of these gladiators is on the side of the kids.


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