Church Fights Subpoena Power;
Position Threatens Passage of State's Measure at Capitol
By Edmund H. Mahony and Lynne Tuohy
June 3, 2003
The Catholic Church in Connecticut, still reeling from charges that it concealed evidence of child sexual abuse, is mounting a last-minute campaign at the state Capitol to kill legislation that would give state prosecutors a powerful new tool to investigate complicated crimes.
State prosecutors have lobbied unsuccessfully for decades to secure legal authority to subpoena people and documents in complex or stalled investigations. They appeared on the brink of success this year, but that success was threatened last week when the advocacy office of the state's Catholic bishops unexpectedly joined traditional opponents of the legislation, such as the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union and defense lawyers.
Church officials deny suggestions by some lawmakers that they oppose establishment of an investigative subpoena in Connecticut out of concern it might lead to a state investigation of allegations that church officials ignored years of sexual abuse by priests.
Rather, the church says it opposes the pending legislation because it threatens the confidential relationship between clergy and parishioners. And the church says the legislation could result in subpoenas for confidential records of relationships between church social workers and clients.
Marie Hilliard, lobbyist for the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said Monday the church is not concerned about an abuse investigation, but rather the massive disruption of church works that could result if church officials were forced to comply with wide-ranging subpoenas. She said the church already has disclosed its role in abuse cases -- although many attorneys representing self-described victims disagree.
"We are so transparent now," Hilliard said. "We have already disclosed."
Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano, the legislation's chief proponent, says state law already protects the confidential relationship between clergy and parishioners. He said it is further protected under the pending bill, which provides more protections for church social workers and their clients.
Morano said the bill would enable prosecutors, with judicial approval, to compel the production of evidence in complex investigations. Federal prosecutors can issue such subpoenas through grand juries, and about two-dozen other states have given their prosecutors similar authority.
"I believe the restrictions laid out in this bill protect the rights of the individual and provide the appropriate balance between those rights and the rights of government to investigate crime," Morano said. "This includes the concerns I've heard expressed on behalf of the Catholic Church."
But while Hilliard and Morano debated finer points of the legislation, other observers watching the clock run on the deadline for approving new legislation said the church's opposition appeared rooted in a desire to avoid a broadsexual abuse investigation.
Legislators said this is the first year the church has opposed what has become a perennially unsuccessful legislative initiative by state prosecutors. Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport quietly shared his opposition with legislators during a recent visit to the Capitol. A member of Gov. John Rowland's staff, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said lawmaker comments he has heard suggest the church wants to avoid a sexual abuse investigation.
"The most aggressive opposition at the moment is from the Connecticut Catholic Conference which is, to say the least, unusual," said state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven and co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee, Monday. "This is so bizarre in many ways."
"All of a sudden, to the Connecticut Catholic Conference, this is the big issue ... This is the number-one priority of the church, after making sure gay couples didn't get any recognition," he added.
Lawlor predicted church opposition will kill the bill. It passed in the Senate last week, 20-16, and is pending in the House. But, because as many as 30 amendments have been attached to the bill and lawmakers are faced with adopting a state budget, it is not clear whether it will be scheduled for a vote before Wednesday's midnight adjournment deadline.
Lawlor said the church's lobbying effort follows a pattern it established following the scandal that arose over abuse allegations last year -- fighting legislation that could be used to investigate priests or the protection the church afforded those priests after their behavior was revealed.
He said the Catholic Conference, the church's lobbying arm, defeated a bill several years ago that would have eliminated the statute of limitations for prosecuting child sex abuse.
"That was the first time they got involved on the topic of sex abuse of children issues," Lawlor said. "Always, without exception, it's to block any proposals to get tough."
The church also raised concerns over a bill last session that would have explicitly included clergy among those professionals who are required by law to report any evidence or admission of child abuse. Church lobbyists used the same argument then that they are using now to oppose investigative subpoenas: that the sanctity of the confessional, and privileged communications between clergy and their parishioners, is in jeopardy.
Lawlor, once an opponent of giving state prosecutors authority to issue investigative subpoenas, said he now supports the proposal, largely because of newly added checks on prosecutorial authority. But until now, he said, the church has been silent on the issue.
"There are plenty of safeguards in there now," Lawlor said. "It's focused on white-collar crime stuff, where people are involved in elaborate coverups, Enron ... that kind of stuff. But it has raised the concerns of the Catholic Conference, for reasons only they can explain."
Some proponents of the investigative subpoena thought church opposition would be avoided when the Senate added language to the bill that would have prohibited prosecutors from issuing subpoenas to investigate class A and B felonies, which include sexual assault and abuse crimes. Senators wanted to ensure prosecutors used the legal tool to pursue organized or institutional white-collar criminals who often thwart state prosecution.
But even if prosecutors are prohibited under the pending legislation from subpoening records of sex abuse, some legal observers -- including Lawlor -- said prosecutors would be allowed to investigate a coverup as a violation of racketeering laws.
Morano said he does not believe that is the case. He said the subpoena is designed as a means to investigate financial crimes and corruption.
The church's lobbying effort has been discreet but intense, Lawlor said.
"It's been beneath the radar screen," he said. "It's been a very interesting phenomenon. They certainly have people all fired up. Some of the pro-law enforcement legislators are now opposed to an investigative subpoena."
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