One Prosecutor Is Praised, Another Criticized in Priest Abuse Cases

By Elissa Gootman
New York Times
February 15, 2003

hey are both district attorneys on Long Island, home of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, where allegations of sexually abusive priests started circulating last year in the early stages of what became a national scandal. They are both also practicing Roman Catholics.

But while Thomas J. Spota, the Suffolk County district attorney, became the first district attorney in the country to announce that he would impanel a special grand jury to investigate how the diocese handled such allegations, his counterpart in Nassau County, Denis E. Dillon, made a different announcement. Mr. Dillon said that after reviewing files that the diocese had handed over, his investigators had found that all of the abuse allegations were past the criminal statute of limitations, which is five years after a victim's 18th birthday.

On Monday, Mr. Spota held a news conference releasing the fruits of the grand jury's efforts: a 180-page report detailing 23 cases in which priests are accused of violating children, and concluding that the a diocese had a policy whereby church officials steered victims away from court while transferring offending priests from parish to parish. The grand jury, he announced, had also concluded that it was too late to indict anyone on abuse charges.

The report, which was lauded as a startling account of what went wrong and the beginnings of a blueprint for change, initially focused the attention of lawyers, public officials and victim advocates on Mr. Spota. But the spotlight is slowly shifting to Mr. Dillon, whose strikingly different approach has drawn criticism in light of the report's findings.

What has emerged is a heated public debate. Mr. Spota's supporters say that the report's significance reflects poorly on Mr. Dillon's decision not to pursue a grand jury investigation.

Mr. Dillon's supporters, on the other hand, say that without the time and expense of a grand jury, he had reached the same conclusions: that there were no prosecutable cases, and that the law should be changed to further protect victims. And they say he did what district attorneys around the country have done and wonder why he is being demonized for it.

Still, because the diocese covers both counties, Mr. Dillon is taking plenty of criticism.

"District Attorney Spota recognized that in his position, even though the statute of limitations may have been up, he would have rather allowed the system to do what it should do, and let the grand jury make that decision themselves," said Laura A. Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law. "I think that District Attorney Dillon was being protective of the Diocese of Rockville Centre."

Some critics have raised the question of Mr. Dillon's religious affiliation - for about 10 years, he was a member of Opus Dei, a deeply conservative Catholic lay group - and have charged that his strong ties to the church made him the wrong person to decide how to investigate it.

"One's a spokesman for the church, and one investigates the church," said Michael G. Dowd, a Manhattan lawyer who said he represented about 100 clients who claimed to have been abused by priests, including more than a dozen whose claims involve priests in the Rockville Centre Diocese.

But supporters of Mr. Dillon point out that Mr. Spota is the exception, and that Mr. Dillon, in declining to impanel a special grand jury, is in the company of most other district attorneys in New York State.

"Spota is atypical," said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "I resent the fact that Dillon's being demonized while Spota is being awarded medals for engaging in a wild goose chase."

Both district attorneys say that it was an understanding of their responsibility to uphold the law - and not their religion - that led them to pursue different routes on the matter of a grand jury. To suggest otherwise, Mr. Dillon said, is an insult.

"To say because I'm a Catholic I can't investigate matters involving the Catholic Church is ridiculous," Mr. Dillon said in an interview in his office yesterday. "I think it's an infringement on my rights."

Mr. Dillon noted that early last year, it was a Nassau grand jury that first subpoenaed documents regarding abuse cases from the diocese. About eight investigators and assistant district attorneys were assigned to the case, he said. After poring over the documents and conducting interviews, they concluded that everything in the files related to cases that were too old to prosecute.

"We came to the conclusion that based on looking at everything available at that time, there were no prosecutable cases," Mr. Dillon said. "A grand jury is not impaneled in order to reveal salacious details to the public."

Mr. Dillon said investigators from his office were also looking into allegations of embezzlement within the diocese. He noted that as early as last spring, he had recommended legal changes similar to what the grand jury eventually called for months later, including increasing the statute of limitations to 15 years after a victim's 18th birthday.

Mr. Spota has said that the absence of prosecutable cases did not detract from the report's value.

"This document tells all of us what was really happening in the Diocese of Rockville Centre for years and years and years," he said. His supporters agree and say that providing a report like the one that Suffolk put together and Nassau did not is one of the functions of grand juries.

"I think it will play a very significant role in instituting change not only here in Rockville Centre but in dioceses around the nation," Ms. Ahearn said of the report.

In an instance like this one, in which the evidence appears to indicate an absence of prosecutable cases, there is no simple answer on whether to impanel a grand jury to investigate further, said H. Richard Uviller, a professor emeritus of law at Columbia Law School.

"At the outset of an investigation, all you really have is suspicion, and, maybe in a case like this, public outcry," he said. "Whether or not a prosecutor decides to devote resources, which are scarce resources, to pursuing this hunch is what we elect prosecutors to decide."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.