Priest Abuse Victims' Lawyer Confronts Clergy
Vassar Speaker Calls for Honesty

By Nik Bonopartis
Poughkeepsie Journal [Poughkeepsie NY]
Downloaded May 4, 2003

More than a year and a half after the abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church first appeared, the church's problems have largely faded from the headlines as Americans have focused on the war on terrorism and operations in Iraq.

But a Boston lawyer who has represented more than 200 victims of sexual abuse in the clergy scandal says the stories could again grab the attention of Americans as more files are uncovered and more abuse cases play out in court.

"It's going to come right back," lawyer Eric MacLeish said in an interview Thursday with the Journal.

MacLeish, a 1975 graduate of Vassar College, was in Poughkeepsie to deliver the spring convocation address to Vassar's graduating seniors.

The church abuse scandal reached an apex in early 2002, sparking a summit of bishops and cardinals in Dallas and a second one in Washington, where uniform standards to deal with accusations against priests were adopted by church leaders. The Vatican rejected the first set of standards agreed on by leaders at the Dallas conference because of fears false allegations could tarnish innocent priests, resulting in what MacLeish said was a watered down policy that came out of the later Washington summit.

Law stepped down

In December, the Vatican accepted the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who had taken the most fire for transferring abusive priests to other parishes and dioceses instead of removing them from the priesthood.

MacLeish said some church leaders, like Archdiocese of Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daly and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin -- who himself was falsely accused of sexual abuse in 1993 -- have been forthcoming and "progressive" in the effort to uncover records of church abuse.

But others, he said, have fought the release of documents some believe will uncover more evidence of wrongdoing.

MacLeish said he believes the church could be on a path to destruction if Catholic leaders don't embrace transparency and step up efforts to cleanse their ranks.

"There has to be absolute, complete disclosure of what is happening," he said. "Unless that happens, there's a serious question as to whether the American Catholic Church will survive."

Lawyers working on behalf of sexual abuse victims were given "a glimpse" of files related to other cases, which MacLeish said were documents on priests who had raped adults or taken advantage of their positions as counselors to engage in sexual abuse.

He also said his research indicates "in excess of 10 percent" -- or more than 4,000 priests -- will ultimately be found to have sexually abused children and adults.

"It's a staggering and tragic figure," he said. "It's hard to talk about it in the abstract, but when you talk about sexual abuse victims, you just see the devastation."

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, pointed to studies by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Associated Press that estimate between two-thirds of a percent to 1.5 percent of priests have been under investigation for alleged abuse.

Donohue blasted MacLeish for projecting figures he said have no basis in reality.

"For someone to bandy about a figure of 10 percent suggests that it's more than inflation that's at work, there's maliciousness at work," he said. "This is not an area where people can afford to be off. You'd better be as close to exact as you possibly can. It sounds like the rantings of someone who has an agenda."

2,000 years of history

Donohue also disputed Mac-Leish's claim that the church would not survive, pointing to its history as one of the oldest religions.

"The Catholic Church has problems, there's no question about it ... but the Catholic Church has been around for 2,000 years," Donohue said. "It has been victimized externally as well as internally, and yet it always manages to land on its feet."

MacLeish is not new to church abuse cases. In the early 1990s, a smaller scandal made the news when more than 100 victims of defrocked priest James Porter were represented by MacLeish. In 2002, a widely televised press conference showed MacLeish revealing documents that relate to Paul Shanley, a former priest who was moved from parish to parish despite the Boston church's knowledge that he had abused children.

"I think it was a little bit safer after Porter," he said. "I think it's a lot safer now."

MacLeish insists he is not gunning for the Catholic Church -- several times in an interview, he spoke of the church's leadership, especially on charitable issues.

"There's still so many good priests," he said.

But the church leaders "weren't honest with their parishioners, and no one except the bishops had any idea of the magnitude of the problem."


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