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  Archdioecese: Spagnolia Will Get Hearing
Accuser's Lawyer Claims to Have Solid Case

By Christine McConville
Lowell Sun (Lowell, MA)
February 27, 2002

While supporters of the Rev. D. George Spagnolia were heartened yesterday by word that the church intends to hold a hearing on the sexual abuse charges against the popular pastor, a lawyer for the alleged victim stepped forward to reiterate the accusations.

Attorney Wendy J. Murphy said the man, who claims he was sexually abused by Spagnolia 31 years ago, provided officials of the Archdiocese of Boston with "detailed information he would not likely know if molestation had not occurred."

Murphy did not elaborate on what those details may be, but told The Sun this morning that the incidents regard "conduct that is unequivically sexual abuse" and happened "on more than one occasion." The Boston Globe reported today that the Suffolk County District Attorney's office is investigating two separate incidents of alleged abuse.

"It is not the kind of thing Father Spagnolia referred to the other day, hugging a child or putting them on his lap," she said.

She said that although her client reported the alleged incidents only recently, and had not previously reported them to church or law enforcement officials, "it was not the first time he talked about it to anyone."

The accuser was a 14-year-old in St. Francis de Sales parish in Roxbury when the abuse is alleged to have occurred.

The allegation surfaced last week, when Spagnolia was told he was to immediately vacate the rectory at St. Patrick Church and stop performing all priestly duties.

On Monday, Spagnolia held an unprecedented news conference inside the church in the Acre section of Lowell and denied the allegations. He said he had sent a letter to Cardinal Bernard Law in which he refused to step down as pastor until given a fair hearing under canon law.

He blasted Law's handling of the matter, and said he was fighting not just for himself, but for all priests whose reputations have been stained in the ongoing sexual abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese.

His impassioned speech, and the rousing support from his parishioners, captured the attention of people across the country. Spagnolia was the 10th priest suspended under Law's new "zero-tolerance" policy toward priests accused of sexual abuse, but the first to publicly defend himself.

This morning, Spagnolia and his lawyer, former Lowell Mayor Eileen Donoghue, appeared on Good Morning America, where the priest reiterated his criticism of Law's policy.

"[Law] is now part of the feeding frenzy we find ourselves in," Spagnolia told host Charlie Gibson. "You don't cure one evil with another."

Tonight, Spagnolia and Donoghue are to appear on the Fox news show The O'Reilly Factor. They've also been contacted by 60 Minutes and Dateline.

Yesterday, Law's spokeswoman, Donna Morrissey, seemed to backtrack from the church's earlier position, insisting that Spagnolia is only temporarily suspended while the archdiocese further investigates the allegation. Spagnolia was also informed that he does not have to leave the rectory at St. Patrick.

"I'm very pleased," Donoghue said. "It's important that he has a place to stay and live.

"Based on what my client was told last Wednesday, this is a change of position on several fronts, for which I am grateful," she added.

Morrissey said that soon after the allegation surfaced, Law's secretary of personnel, the Rev. Charles Higgins, met with the alleged victim and Spagnolia separately.

Higgins found "reasonable cause" to believe that there may be substance to the allegations and called for a review, but that review hasn't happened yet, she said.

Morrissey likened the review process to those for police officers and teachers who have been accused of sexually abusing a minor.

"These steps should not be seen as a conviction of the accused cleric," she said.

The archdiocese plans to convene a review committee whose members include a mother whose child was molested by a priest, a clinical social worker, a psychologist, a psychotherapist, a retired Supreme Court judge, a parent, a priest, a civil lawyer and a canon lawyer.

The board won't meet with the alleged victim or Spagnolia. It will simply review material Higgins gathered in his interviews.

Donoghue was sharply critical of the review process.

"What kind of review is that? The committee should be reviewing the substance of the allegations, and they should not only look at what the alleged victim says, but what my client says, too," she said.

Morrissey said that the policy aims to protect the rights of both victims and the accused, as well as the privacy of review board members. She said the review committee uses much of the same criteria that the state's Department of Social Services uses to determine if sexual abuse occurred.

"After a proper investigation, if it's groundless or false, the cleric is reinstated and we will take whatever steps we can to try to repair the cleric's reputation," she said.

"That's good to hear, but I don't know how it's possible," Donoghue replied dryly.

Donoghue said the church should have had the district attorney investigate before they ousted Spagnolia, especially because it is the only allegation against him.

"Why not let the DA look into it before you throw someone into the street? Shouldn't they have exercised a greater degree of care and caution, when you have someone who has never had such an allegation made against them in all these years," she said.

Murphy, the attorney representing the alleged victim, said her client does not intend to file a civil suit against Spagnolia or the church but stepped forward only to ensure there would be no future victims.

"The most important thing he could do is tell the truth, and he did. There's no ulterior motive, no agenda. It's just about the truth," Murphy said.

Experts in canon law, the legal code of the Catholic Church, said Spagnolia can appeal both the way the case was handled and its outcome.

Sister Sharon Euart, a leading authority on canon law, based in Washington, D.C., said Spagnolia's appeal will likely be heard by a special gathering of bishops in Rome.

"There have been many appeals by priests in light of actions by diocesan bishops. Some have been upheld, others have been overturned. A great deal depends on the situation, on the facts of the case, and how it was handled, and right now, there's no way to say how it was handled," she said.

The Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests Council in Chicago, said Law is perfectly within his rights to temporarily remove Spagnolia.

"Even if there is an allegation at this point in time, the bishop can ask a priest to take some time, but that doesn't mean he loses his office. That only happens once there's been substantial evidence, and even then, there's a process to remove the pastor," Silva said.

 
 

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