Church Exposed to Rackets Law?

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Springfield MA]
May 3, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - As law enforcement officials consider criminal charges against the former bishop and the Springfield Diocese regarding sexual abuse and a possible cover-up, federal charges, including racketeer-influenced and corrupt organization (RICO) charges, could be explored.

Although no U.S. prosecutor has ever filed criminal RICO charges against the church, various legal experts have written that it should be considered.

Stephen H. Galebach, a one-time Reagan administration staff lawyer, suggests in a Washington Post column that the Springfield Diocese scandal may meet all the criteria to pursue RICO violations. He is not alone.

And local federal prosecutors have not ruled it out either, according to two alleged clergy sexual abuse victims from Springfield.

At their request, Stephen J. Block and Thomas M. Martin of Springfield will meet soon with Springfield Assistant U.S. Attorney Ariane D. Vuono, who was the state prosecutor assigned to Hampshire and Franklin counties in 1991 when the now defrocked priest Richard R. Lavigne was the first Catholic cleric to be charged locally with child rape. He pleaded guilty to two counts of molestation.

Vuono refused comment, but Block said she told him "she would like to explain what the RICO statute means and how it applies," said Block.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Regan, who oversees the Springfield office, refused to discuss any possible investigation by federal authorities.

"We are in contact with the district attorney's office and aware of his investigation and offered help. At this point in time, District Attorney (William M.) Bennett is the one investigating allegations relating to the Diocese of Springfield. If he asks for our assistance, we will be happy to cooperate with him," O'Regan said.

Saying there is "probable cause," Bennett in March gave a grand jury allegations of abuse by former bishop the Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre and a variety of other possible charges, including failure to report sexual misconduct to proper authorities, concealment of sexual abuse, and other matters regarding the reporting of abuse by the diocese while Dupre was in a position to influence reporting.

Dupre resigned Feb. 10, the day after The Republican confronted him with the allegations he sexually abused two boys beginning more than 25 years ago.

Galebach, a private practice lawyer from Andover who is not involved in any clergy sexual abuse litigation, wrote, "If sexual abuse is systematic within a diocese, and the harboring of predators follows a pattern from the top, there are laws that can apply, namely RICO laws, which have been on the books for more than 30 years."

"Until now, it was hard to conceive of applying them to the church. But consider Springfield. If a group of clergy actually operated on the understanding that sex with boys was okay - as one of their colleagues recently stated - and if they acted in concert, protecting each other and destroying records as has been alleged by another of their colleagues, and if members of such network committed two or more offenses such as sexual exploitation, fraud or obstruction of justice, then criminal RICO laws would indeed apply to that network of clerics and persons collaborating with them," said Galebach.

While serving as acting administrator after Dupre left, Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk said a good-old-boy network protected abusive priests and that some priests believed having sex with boys was all right.

Last September, the Rev. James J. Scahill, pastor of St. Michael's Parish in East Longmeadow, said Dupre told advisers that former Bishop Christopher J. Weldon destroyed records that could have involved details about accusations of clergy sexual abuse. Dupre denied making the statement and repeated his denial under oath several weeks later in a deposition that was never concluded.

Marci Hamilton, columnist for National Review, agrees that the Springfield Diocese meets the criteria for possible RICO charges.

"All it needs to be is what it is: An organization that has repeatedly been used to perpetrate and cover up serious crimes, including obstruction of justice," she said.

Dupre's past various positions overseeing diocesan records adds weight to RICO considerations, she said.

Dupre would have had motive to possibly conceal or destroy records, she said.

RICO charges give prosecutors another legal strategy when the statute of limitations prevents charges from being filed, she said.

But John H. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, which is dedicated to defense of civil liberties and human rights, isn't sure RICO charges could stick against the church.

RICO charges "must involve at least one of a list of specified state and federal criminal acts, historically linked to the mob, such as extortion, money laundering. ... Charges of child molestation, coupled with allegations that a priest paid his victim to remain silent, may not be an easy fit for the statute," Whitehead wrote in a column entitled "Should the Catholic Church be sued as racketeers?"

RICO charges were considered and abandoned in places like Boston and elsewhere during the current crisis.

RICO laws are not limited to criminal complaints. Several individuals who have accused clerics of sexually abusing them have filed individual RICO civil suits against the church. No known case has been fully litigated, according to research.

"It's just a matter of time that some prosecutor pursues RICO charges against the church," Hamilton said.

"Today, with media watching everything that is occurring in this crisis, it is impossible (for prosecutors) to look at the facts and do nothing," she said.

She said RICO laws have been used to prosecute organizations other than the Mafia. Corrupt labor unions have been prosecuted under these laws, she said.

"Springfield, in particular, appears to have the right set of facts and at the right time for something to happen," Hamilton said.


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