Malpractice Verdict May Affect Abuse Cases in Boston
Brooklyn Diocese Lifts Ban on Lay Group; Newark Prelate Rebukes Head of Child Protection Office

By NCR and Wire Services
National Catholic Reporter
May 16, 2003

In a case closely watched by church officials, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts threw out a $4.1 million malpractice verdict against a Boston hospital, invoking a state law that no charitable institution can be sued for more than $20,000.

The Boston archdiocese has been trying to reach an out-of-court settlement of more than 400 clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. Other Catholic dioceses and several religious orders in the state -- all qualifying as charitable institutions -- also face sex abuse lawsuits that could be affected by the high court ruling.

The court ruled that unless Brigham and Women's Hospital agreed to waive the $20,000 cap, it could not be forced to pay more than that for the severe brain damage suffered there by Dylan Keene shortly after his birth in 1986.

Damages being sought in most, if not all, of the sexual abuse cases against church entities in Massachusetts are far above the charity cap. The possibility that the law would be applied to those cases if they go to trial could have a significant impact on settlement negotiations.

In Southern California, where Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony is attempting to deal with an escalating number of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by archdiocesan priests, a Los Angeles County grand jury recently subpoenaed the personnel files of 14 more Los Angeles priests. In Santa Barbara April 24, attorney Timothy Hale filed an amended complaint of childhood sexual abuse on behalf of a client against a group of local Franciscan friars, the Los Angeles archdiocese and the Santa Barbara Boys Choir.

In the first case, the Los Angeles Times reported April 25 that the subpoenas followed testimony from detectives in several departments.

The subpoenas widen "the investigation and [set] the stage for another confrontation between the archdiocese and prosecutors over evidence in the clergy sex scandal."

Although files on 17 priests have been subpoenaed altogether, neither prosecutors nor police have been able to examine the 2,000 pages of contested documents.

The archdiocese's attorney, J. Michael Hennigan, who argues that priest-bishop conversations are constitutionally protected, was quoted in the Times saying the prosecutors "are playing for time."

The Times said prosecutors "believe information in the files will support allegations by more than a dozen adults that they were molested as children by priests."

In Santa Barbara, the plaintiff alleged that as a 10-year-old he was sexually abused by the friars, including in the shower, and that the friars took nude photographs of him. The lawsuit charges that the Franciscan province, the archdiocese and the Boys Choir knew the men were "pedophilic clergy."

Another former Southern California priest, Fr. Siegfried Widera, wanted on 42 molestation charges, is now the subject of a "manhunt" in Texas. Widera is not the first priest to flee law enforcement: Last October, police diverted a cruise ship in Alaskan water to arrest a priest, Fr. G. Neville Rucker, accused of sexual molestation.

According to The Associated Press, there is a price on Widera's head -- a cash reward for information leading to his arrest.

An El Paso county sheriff's office spokesman said Widera "may be trying to conduct himself as a member of the clergy in smaller northern Mexico villages." According to the Los Angeles Times, the region's Deputy U.S. Marshal Doug Bachert said of Widera, "Where he is now, there are some unwitting families that have no idea what he is about."

On the East Coast, two influential bishops expressed vastly different views about church reform group Voice of the Faithful, which claims more than 25,000 members nationwide and contends it is mainstream and loyal to church teachings.

In an April 29 letter, Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y., lifted his ban on the use of church property for meetings of the Voice of the Faithful and called meetings between diocesans personnel and group members "fruitful."

He said he made the decision based on the recommendations of a diocesan committee, headed by Auxiliary Bishop Ignatius A. Catanello, which met with Voice of the Faithful leaders. The diocesan presbyteral council also recommended a relaxation of the ban.

"I am happy to report that the meetings that the committee has held with the leaders of VOTF in the diocese of Brooklyn have been most fruitful," Daily said.

He said he has found "that a number of good and dedicated members of the diocese, who were members of VOTF, were truly desirous to prayerfully reflect on our present ecclesial concerns and collaborate in strengthening the unity of our church."

The bishop said he initially had concerns "about the purpose of the group, and the danger that individuals with other agendas -- some of them contrary to the teachings and discipline of the church -- might use these well-intended members of our loyal faithful as unsuspecting vehicles for the promotion of their plans."

While pastors are now free to allow the use of parish facilities, Daily asked that they familiarize themselves with agenda items and that they or a representative attend all meetings.

The bishop's liaison committee with Voice of the Faithful will continue to meet with the group "to oversee the progress of any meetings held in the diocese, and to keep the channels of communication open and clear" between the lay group and himself, Daily said.

Melissa Gradel, a parishioner at the Oratory Church of St. Boniface in downtown Brooklyn and Voice of the Faithful regional coordinator for Brooklyn and Queens, said the action "demonstrates that VOTF is strong, that we are loyal members of the church, not dissidents.

"We are pleased that Bishop Daily has recognized that we are seeking only to assume the responsibilities that are ours as baptized Catholics, and especially gratified that he has acknowledged the need for new forms of collaboration in carrying out the mission of the church -- a mission that lay people, religious men and women, priests, deacons and bishops all share by virtue of our baptism," she added.

In contrast to Daily, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., said Voice of the Faithful appeared to be "counter" to the church's teachings. He made the criticism of the group along with a stern rebuke to Kathleen McChesney, the former FBI official hired by U.S. Catholic bishops to assess church reform in the wake of the priest sex-abuse scandal, saying her decisions have perplexed a number of church leaders.

Myers' criticisms came in a letter declining an invitation to attend an upcoming meeting of Voice of the Faithful. McChesney, executive director of the Bishops' Office of Youth and Child Protection in Washington, was scheduled to speak at the group's meeting May 13 in Little Falls, N.J. McChesney, once the third-highest official in the FBI, was hired in November by a national panel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"I have met with Dr. Kathleen McChesney," Myers wrote to a member of Voice of the Faithful April 21. "I can only say that her decisions and the conduct of her office leave more than a few bishops for whom she technically works in a state of perplexity."

McChesney's main role is to assess and audit bishops' efforts to comply with policies instituted last year to prevent future instances of sex abuse by members of the clergy. Last year, the Catholic church admitted that bishops had covered up incidents involving priests and children. At least 325 priests have since resigned.

Myers' spokesman, Jim Goodness, said the letter does not mean the archbishop rejects the role of McChesney's office. "Many of the bishops feel the office should be working toward certain ends," Goodness said. "They may not be seeing that happening yet."

Goodness would not say specifically which of McChesney's decisions distressed Myers, only that the archbishop's disappointment relates partially to her meeting with Voice of the Faithful.

Though not addressed to McChesney, Myers' letter seemed aimed as much at her as at Voice of the Faithful, which originated in Boston in response to the scandal and seeks a restructuring of the church to increase lay involvement. Myers has rejected its mission and is one of several bishops nationwide who bar Voice of the Faithful from meeting on church property.

Voice of the Faithful has attracted many liberal Catholics open to far-reaching changes that Myers has condemned. In his letter, Myers wrote that he has been investigating the group and has determined "it is aligned or being aligned with groups in the church which are clearly in dissent from formal church teaching. I think it would be a serious mistake for the church to promote in any way an organization which is counter to its own teachings."

NCR editor at large Arthur Jones contributed to this report.


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