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Where's the ACLU?
09/27/2002

Hopefully, the Bristol, MA, county district attorney's releasing names of accused priests won't prove to be a new trend among (quote) law enforcement professionals. (end quote)

Twenty-one priests have been accused of some undisclosed form of sexual misconduct in the Fall River diocese in the past fifty years. This doesn't just mean that the alleged acts occurred within the past fifty years; it means that the accusations were made as far back as that, as well, and have been "gleaned from church records." The Providence Journal explains why only one of the priests has actually been charged with a crime:

In some cases, the priests named were accused by only one person with no interest in pressing charges. In two others instances, the priests are deceased. None are currently in priestly ministry, and several of the priests named have settled out of court with the victims.

The release of the list comes shortly after the announcement that Bishop Sean O'Malley would soon transfer to Palm Beach, FL, to help that diocese recover from several sexual abuse scandals. He began in Fall River a decade ago under similar circumstances and is widely applauded for his effectiveness, ministry, and compassion.

Regarding O'Malley and the diocese working with civil authorities, DA Walsh claims, "There was some cooperation, but it came like pulling teeth." The diocese disputes this, saying that "at no time did the District Attorney have to threaten or cajole." His actions, in my opinion, suggest that the DA is not extremely concerned about creating an environment that would facilitate future cooperation:

Diocese spokesman John Kearns said no one from the district attorney's office had told the church that the names of the accused would be released. He learned from reading the Herald News yesterday morning.

I'd say that the publication of the names sets a dangerous precedent and marks a shift away from the presumption of innocence in the eyes of the law. This belief is based not only on the action taken, but on the admitted motivation of the District Attorney:

Walsh said he knew his decision to release the names would bring him under fire, but said it was the only way to strike back at these alleged offenders.

Then there's this from the Fall River Herald News:

"The shroud of secrecy has gone on long enough," Walsh said. "We can't pretend we don't know that the acts occurred and know their names."

He said if it was only one or two isolated incidents, his office would not have released the names. But since there were 21 priests accused, he said he could not stand by and condone the secrecy that has protected the accused from the possibility of prosecution. Walsh reiterated that he hopes the release of the list of names will give still more possible victims a chance to come forward.

Indeed, "we don't know that the acts occurred." Furthermore, if the priests are dead, the accusers don't want to pursue the issue, or the statute of limitations has ended, withholding names doesn't protect anybody from "the possibility of prosecution." Death, the accuser, or the law has already done that. Walsh's action can't even be intended to prevent these men from misusing the priestly posts in the future because none of them are still in ministry.

Jeffrey A. Newman, one of two lawyers representing "numerous alleged victims" of the only six priests (as far as I can tell) who would be prosecuted if possible, predictably applauds Walsh, saying that his "action demonstrates his commitment to use the criminal justice process to bring perpetrators to justice."

The problem is that the DA isn't using "the criminal justice process." He's seeking to go around it to achieve "street justice," giving the lawyers some free publicity in the bargain.

You can tell the district attorney's office what you think of their decision here.

ADDENDUM:
I've been a little surprised at the response to this story, or lack thereof. Law professor and Instapundit Glenn Reynolds explained it to me in email: "When people are accused of crimes it's public. If the accusation is false, of course, they can sue their accusers."

I understand this, but what does it do to the legal balance that at least some of the accusations weren't made to law enforcement, but to the diocese? Does that mean that a priest can sue the person who makes an accusation solely to the bishop? (Would there be a statute of limitations on that?) Or does that mean that the priests (or former priests) can sue the diocese for releasing the names to the DA? If so, it seems exceedingly imprudent of the DA to denounce the diocese for hesitance.

Consider this hypothetical scenario: a parishioner angry that a priest commented on his teenage daughter's inappropriate poodle skirt in the late 1950s complains to the bishop that the priest touched the child "lasciviously" on the leg. The bishop makes a note (which ends up in diocesan files) to speak with the priest. The priest denies the charge, and the father backs down the moment his account is questioned. Nearly 50 years later, the local DA goes to the city newspaper with the priest's name in order to "strike back."

Sure, it's only hypothetical, but it's entirely possible. That's not the kind of "justice system" under which I'd like to live!

Posted by Justin Katz @ 09:42 AM EST