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Canon law expert speaks on abuse

The Rev. William J. King detailed how the church deals with clergy accused of misconduct.


Staff writer

SPRINGFIELD - In light of the national scandal of clergy sexual abuse that has rocked the Roman Catholic church, an expert in canon law came to the city yesterday for a detailed presentation on church law.

The Rev. William J. King, judicial vicar for the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., spoke on "Criminal Law in the Catholic Church" before about 70 people at the Bishop John Marshall Center. Among those in attendance was the Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre, bishop of the Springfield diocese.

King said most church laws deal with the "internal conduct" of ministries.

"Most of the laws of the church don't really affect the people in the pews," said King, who during a presentation that lasted a little more than an hour, detailed how the church deals with clergy accused of misconduct in ways both strikingly similar to and radically different from the civil courts familiar to most people.

For example, the finding in a case against a priest accused of sexual misconduct could be guilty, not guilty or not proven, he said. In addition, protection from double jeopardy does not apply, meaning that a finding of not guilty does not preclude the reopening of a case years later if compelling new evidence comes to light.

King said there is no right to cross-examination under church law, but that opportunity is provided to rebut accusations in writing.

"Church courts operate mostly in writing," he said.

In addition, King said church law is such that the accused is always entitled to a defense and cannot simply be summarily removed.

"Priesthood ... is not a disposable commodity," King said. "You cannot hire and fire a priest at will."

"Sinner or not, he is a priest and will carry that with him into eternity," King added.

Yesterday's event was sponsored by the Saint Thomas More Society of Western Massachusetts and the Hampden, Berkshire and Franklin County bar associations. The society is made up of Catholics involved in the practice of law and includes lawyers and judges.

King also said that as a result of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the church has taken corrective action and pledged not to let such a thing happen again, and that bishops who ignore or are dilatory in following church law will be held accountable.

"I don't believe the people in the pews will ... forget this very quickly, and I truly believe accountability does exist," he said.

King was ordained in 1983 and studied canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He has given the presentation he made yesterday about 10 other times, starting in Manchester, N.H., in September. Michael McAuliffe can be reached at



Church's 1st Amendment appeal denied in sex abuse suits
Bid to dismiss cited separation of church, state

By Wendy Davis, Globe Correspondent, 4/2/2003

The state Appeals Court yesterday refused to consider the church's argument that negligence lawsuits stemming from the clergy abuse scandal should be dismissed before trial on religious freedom grounds.

Appeals Court Justice Scott L. Kafker ruled that hearing arguments on the religious freedom issue would be premature until more details about individual cases come to light at trial.

''On a matter of such importance, raising concerns as fundamental as the protection of children from sexual abuse and the separation of church and state,'' wrote Kafker, ''any appellate review . . . would surely be enhanced, and the legal issues refined, by the full development of the facts in particular cases.''

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for the church, said the archdiocese had not yet decided whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court. ''There is a need for consultation between attorneys and the administration of the archdiocese to determine which direction to go,'' said Coyne.

He anticipated the church would decide about an appeal this week, although a decision might be postponed until the end of a 90-day ''time-out'' in the litigation, to which the church and many plaintiffs agreed in February.

The Boston archdiocese and its leaders are facing lawsuits from some 500 people, many of whom claim they were sexually abused as children by clergy members. Alleged victims say the church was negligent in transferring abusive priests to new parishes without warning the parishioners; the church has argued it has a First Amendment right to make decisions about priests without being second-guessed by civil courts.

In February, Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney rejected the church's argument that the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state requires dismissal of the lawsuits.

Lawyers for those suing the church said Kafker's ruling heartened their clients. ''It encourages the plaintiffs in the sense that they feel the defendants cannot hide behind the misapplication of the First Amendment freedom of religion argument,'' said Mitchell Garabedian, who represents more than 100 people suing the church.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represents more than 200 alleged victims, said Kafker's ruling went a long way toward removing roadblocks to trial.

But Ian Crawford, one of the lawyers representing Cardinal Bernard Law, insisted yesterday that the religious freedom argument should not be put off until after trial. ''We thought that this was indeed an issue that could and should be decided before using up all the court's resources,'' said Crawford.

Legal specialists say that if the archdiocese still wishes to pursue that argument now, the church might ask a single judge of the SJC to grant an appeal.

Suffolk University Law School professor Michael Avery said such appeals are rarely granted but

''this is a big case and it involves a lot of people,'' which might spur the SJC to take the case.

This story ran on page B3 of the Boston Globe on 4/2/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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