Friday, May 23, 2003

Lawyers in the pulpit

The records of abuse


It's getting to be an old story. Investigations into complaints of sexual abuse by priests result in official mea culpas, followed by a legal defense that it would take an act of God to penetrate. Or at least an act of the Court of Appeals.

Wednesday the Ohio First District Court of Appeals ordered the lawyers for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to turn over files they have regarding abuse allegations against priests to a special master, appointed by the court. The special master, attorney Glenn Whitaker, will then review the records to determine if they should be sealed under attorney-client privilege, or turned over to the Hamilton County Prosecutor.

Accusations of such abuse go back decades. It used to be that the church kept such complaints to itself, sometimes quietly transferring offending priests to other, unsuspecting parishes, and sometimes not doing anything at all except to tell the victims and their parents to keep quiet. Such scandals have been plaguing the church nationally for the past year, ever since stories broke in Boston about priests who made careers of molesting in parish after parish while church leaders looked the other way.

The Boston publicity led to revelations in many other dioceses, including Cincinnati.

Laws about reporting sexual abuse have become stricter in the past 15 years, requiring members of the clergy to inform the police whenever they hear an allegation of abuse. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati says it does that now. It has suspended priests involved in abuse, even if that abuse occurred too long ago to criminally prosecute. It says the police and prosecutors know about any, more recent, abuse cases that have come to its attention.

But Prosecutor Mike Allen wants to comb through the church records to make sure. Allen is determined to go after any priests who have not yet obtained legal absolution through the statute of limitations. He doesn't think the Church and its lawyers share his zeal. Last year he and the archdiocese agreed to the appointment of Whitaker to screen all church records relating to abuse. That agreement covered both church records and records kept by the law firm of Dinsmore & Shohl. There were boxes and boxes of records reviewed by the special master. According to the archdiocese, Whitaker determined that 80 percent of them were covered by privilege and could be kept from the prosecutors.

But Allen thinks there may still be records of allegations he doesn't know about, records for which the claim of attorney-client privilege is just a dodge.

"We believe that when the church gets a complaint of abuse, the first thing they do is call their lawyers," Allen said. Once the lawyers are involved, the discussions may fall under attorney-client privilege, then again, they may not.

In briefs filed with the Court of Appeals, Allen claimed the law firm deliberately misled Whitaker into thinking he had seen all the records, when he had not. Whitaker said he thought any relevant Dinsmore & Shohl files he had not seen, were just copies of church records he had reviewed. They weren't.

Dinsmore & Shohl attorney Mark VanderLaan said Whitaker could have had the files anytime he wanted, but he didn't look at them, apparently because of a miscommunication.

For months the archdiocese has been preaching to the public that it abhors the sins of wayward priests who sexually molested children. The official line has been one of total cooperation with police, parents and victims to root out the abusers, counsel the victims and make sure such complaints are dealt with openly in the future. Yet the archdiocese, and Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, have all the same rights to legal protection as say, your average newspaper reporter. Reporters, of course, usually fight like hell to keep communications with their lawyers confidential.

So why are we surprised, offended even, that the Catholic Church avails itself of the same legal rights the rest of us fight to uphold?

Maybe it is because we expect men of God to be better than anyone else. We expect that when the church says it will cooperate, that it will cooperate fully and not look for loopholes. We expect, for instance, that when the archdiocese and its lawyers realized that the special master hadn't seen all the records he was supposed to, that they would have called it to his attention.

Pilarczyk says the archdiocese has dealt appropriately with every priest that has been accused of sexual misconduct. I'd like to believe that, but at this point he shouldn't expect anyone to be willing to take it on faith.

Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: dwells@enquirer.com. Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.

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