In Church Lawsuits, High Bar for Conviction ; Diocese Officials - Not Just Priests - Face Growing Threat, but Making a Case Is Hard

Article excerpt

Should the leaders of America's Roman Catholic church be held criminally liable for enabling or abetting the sex abuse by priests that occurred in their parishes and dioceses?

That's the central question behind a growing effort to probe criminal misconduct among top church officals. The moves come amid mounting public pressure for accountability - of the sort imposed on Enron and Arthur Andersen this year, when top leaders or entire organizations were punished for their connections to some employees' misdeeds.

For many legal and cultural reasons, simply indicting top church leaders - let alone convicting them - is difficult. It's complicated by everything from statutes of limitations to ethnic politics.

Still, the legal threats are escalating.

* In Boston, Cardinal Ber-nard Law has reportedly been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating possible criminal misconduct by officials.

* Under threat of indictment on child-engangerment charges, New Hampshire's diocese this week became the first in the nation to admit it may have violated criminal law. It agreed to a settlement with state prosecutors.

* In Phoenix, lawyers for Archbishop Thomas O'Brien have said their client will not testify before a grand jury unless he's given immunity from criminal prosecution - a sign of concern he might be charged with obstructing justice.

In Massachusetts and elsewhere, prosecutors "are under a great deal of pressure" to respond to the scandal, says Richard Bloom, a Boston College law professor. And because they're elected officials, "they are always responsive" to such pressure. Yet while there's growing evidence church leaders were involved in the scandal, he says, prosecutors have a long way to go to prove criminal intent.

'Indifference is not enough'

Indeed, despite many civil lawsuits - and criminal charges against individual priests - no US Catholic leader has been charged with committing a crime related to the scandal.

One reason: The legal bar is very high.

Laws differ in the 50 states, but legal experts say the most logical charges might include: aiding and abetting a crime, conspiracy to commit a crime, reckless endangerment, child endangerment, or obstruction of justice.

Yet in most states, convicting a church official of conspiracy or aiding-and-abetting would require prosecutors to prove that "he had, as his purpose, that the crime would be repeated - that a child would be harmed," says Robert Blakey, a former prosecutor who is now a law professor at Notre Dame in Indiana.

As terrible as church leaders' actions may be, he says, "Indifference is not enough" to convict them. Nor is "indifference plus knowledge" enough. "Intent to harm" must be proven. …


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