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  Victims Seek Grand Jury Action - DA Pressed to Find Truth on Clergy Abuse

By Richard Nangle
Worcester Telegram & Gazette
February 20, 2003

While praising the legislative recommendations included in a Long Island grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse, local victims and their advocates and lawyers are calling on Worcester District Attorney John J. Conte to undertake a similar effort aimed at the Catholic Diocese of Worcester.

They contend there is ample reason to do so, noting that a grand jury is already seated in Boston to investigate priest abuse and that a shroud of mystery surrounds the former House of Affirmation in Whitinsville, a clergy treatment center that housed several priests from Central Massachusetts and elsewhere who were accused of sexual abuse.Mr. Conte, however, has never indicated that he would convene a grand jury to look at the diocese's handling of sexual abuse claims. He did not return calls made to his office this week on the matter.

Victim advocate Mary T. Jean of Leominster, who operates the Web site www.worcestervoice.com, wants Mr. Conte to launch a grand jury probe "so the truth can be exposed."

"Without the extraction of truth from the Diocese of Worcester there will always be underlying questions (as) to the criminal responsibility of the church," she said.

The Suffolk County Supreme Court Special Grand Jury in New York noted that Monsignor Alan J. Placa, a civil lawyer, was counsel to the House of Affirmation and that other high-ranking priests in the Rockville Centre Diocese were unaware of that.

The grand jury asserted that the diocese secretly protected accused priests while pretending to minister to the alleged victims of sexual abuse. A lawyer involved in abuse cases there, Stephen C. Rubino, was quoted in The New York Times saying the sophistication of that effort was unparalleled elsewhere in the country.

Documents included in the report showed Monsignor Placa bragging about his ability to contain the costs of monetary settlements with abuse victims. He was suspended from the ministry last year after being accused of abusing children.

While the report does not mention names, it refers to a priest who is a lawyer dealing with victims. Lawyers for victims have identified him as a subject of the grand jury probe, and said he authored confidential memorandums cited by the grand jury.

Rev. Placa has not responded to requests for interviews.

Closer to home, the Boston Globe reported in December that former Cardinal Bernard F. Law and several bishops who worked for him have been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury convened by state Attorney General Thomas F.

Reilly investigating possible criminal violations by church officials who oversaw priests accused of sexual abuse.

Daniel Dick, a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo parish here and a founding member of Worcester Diocese Voice of the Faithful, said victims of priest abuse are looking for the kind of full disclosure that a grand jury investigation could provide.

"I can't speak for the others in the Voice of the Faithful," he said. "But it's apparent that our district attorney has his own view of his job or his own set of rules and he apparently doesn't feel he has to justify them to anybody. That's what's so disturbing."

Houston lawyer Daniel J. Shea, who represents some local people who allege they were sexually abused by priests, said he does not believe Mr. Conte is objective enough to follow through on the matter.

"He's clearly in league with the diocese," Mr. Shea said.

"I agree with the recommendation of the grand jury that the state of New York follow the lead of California in adopting the one-year holiday on the statute of limitations to allow these claims to come forward in the civil courts," Mr. Shea said, adding that he is pushing Texas officials to do the same.

"There is a domino effect in that what started in Massachusetts is going to spread to other states through their legislatures. The whole clergy abuse crisis started in Massachusetts because civil statutes of limitations operate under a very special judicially crafted discovery rule," he said. "The victims have to understand the conduct was harmful in order to trigger the running of the clock. That's why Massachusetts was the first place where this crisis has flowered fully."

Even though statutes of limitations had expired in New York, the Suffolk County grand jury cited a need for proceedings that would inform the public. Its report, released last week, made a number of recommendations to New York lawmakers.

"The Suffolk County DA accomplished his goal," Mr. Shea said.

"It's pretty clear that grand juries can still investigate a serious matter like this," he said. "Somebody's got to look at this stuff and make recommendations to the Legislature."

But Mr. Shea cautioned that he has little faith in Mr. Conte when it comes to matters related to priest sexual abuse.

As evidence, he cited an incident last spring when a Leominster man received a signed confession from the Rev. Gerard Walsh in which the priest admitted molesting him. The alleged victim turned over the letter to state police, who forwarded it to the district attorney's office. The next day the alleged victim said he received a telephone call from the bishop's office.

Mr. Shea called that an inexcusable act by Mr. Conte.

"That tells you what you're dealing with in Mr. Conte," Mr. Shea said. "So it's no surprise to me that he has not undertaken the kind of effort that the Suffolk County district attorney undertook."

Mr. Conte has said all information coming into his office about sexual abuse by priests goes to the chancery.

Last week, Mr. Conte said the Worcester Diocese several months ago turned over the names of priests accused of sexual abuse dating back to 1944. He said he issued a grand jury subpoena prior to receiving the list. Mr. Conte has resisted pressure to release both the number of priests and their names. He has said he will release the number after concluding his investigations.

Richard Nangle can be reached by e-mail at rnangle@telegram.com.

 
 

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