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Catholic Church in Crisis

May 13, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Now, the latest on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: There were two legal developments in Boston today involving Cardinal Bernard Law and his archdiocese. The Cardinal himself sat for a third day of depositions in a civil lawsuit brought by 86 alleged victims of former priest John Geoghan. The archdiocese abruptly backed out of a multimillion-dollar settlement with these victims ten days ago.

Separately today, a Massachusetts judge ordered the archdiocese to turn over the psychiatric and medical records of retired priest Paul Shanley to a plaintiff alleging that Shanley raped him as a boy. In both cases, the victims are accusing Cardinal Law and the archdiocese of negligence in reassigning the pedophile priests to new parishes, where they had further contact with children. Pam Belluck has been covering the cases for the “New York Times.” Patrick Schiltz is a professor and interim dean of the law school at the University of St. Thomas. In the past, he has represented the Catholic Church in abuse cases. Welcome to you both. Pam Belluck, beginning with you, I know that reporters are not allowed in the deposition, but I gather that some people in the room did come out and talk to you all afterwards. What do you know about what Cardinal Law had to say today?

PAM BELLUCK: Today we heard from two plaintiffs who were allowed to attend the deposition. And they told us that the Cardinal was asked a lot about documents including two evaluations from pedophile treatment centers where he spent sometime in 1989 and he was also asked…

MARGARET WARNER: Where Father Geoghan had spent time?

PAM BELLUCK: That’s right, Father Geoghan. And he was also asked about conversations or communications he might have had with some of his top deputies who were dealing with Geoghan at that time.

What we’re being told is that unlike the Cardinal’s testimony last week, he actually said that he did remember seeing some of these documents, but he stressed that although the evaluations contained somewhat mixed conclusions about Geoghan’s fitness to return to parish life, the Cardinal apparently was focusing in his deposition on the things that did not seem that threatening.

And he, according again to these plaintiffs, did not seem to take that seriously the things that raised questions about Geoghan’s fitness.

MARGARET WARNER: Now explain to us what are the plaintiffs looking for in this civil lawsuit?

PAM BELLUCK: Well, there are 86 plaintiffs as you mentioned. And they are looking to be compensated. Most of them are people who claim that they were molested by Father Geoghan. A few of them are relatives of people who claim that they were molested. And they have spent many months trying to reach a settlement with the archdiocese.

And as you mentioned, there was a settlement agreement reached in March and it was, by all reports, about to be signed by Cardinal Law about ten days ago, and then that– that settlement broke down because, according to the archdiocese, the archdiocese’s Financial Council, which is a group of mostly lay businesspeople, were required to sign off on releasing itself funds for that.

That would have been a total of $15 million to $30 million for the plaintiffs. And the Finance Council refused to do so. So that’s why the case is going ahead and as a result of that, a judge ordered Cardinal Law to be deposed almost immediately.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Schiltz, in several of the stories about this particular case, it is said that this is the first time a cardinal has been questioned under oath about clergy sexual abuse in his own archdiocese. From your understanding, is this that unprecedented, what Cardinal Law is going through now?

PATRICK SCHILTZ: It is not unusual in the sense that many Catholic bishops have been questioned under oath about sexual abuse. I don’t know whether any of them are actual cardinals. But legally speaking, whether someone is a cardinal or just an archbishop doesn’t make any difference.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, at the beginning of the first day of deposition, the lawyer for Cardinal Law objected to the whole questioning on First Amendment grounds saying that it really, under the First Amendment, I just want to quote this to you — the inquiry into the inner workings of the church was inappropriate.

What have the courts– the judge has reserved all objections to later, so we don’t know her ruling. But what have the courts found about the relationship between the church or any church and its First Amendment protections in terms of whether it can be compelled to testify about inner deliberations?

PATRICK SCHILTZ: Well, it is a very difficult issue. The First Amendment has been interpreted to bar excessive entanglement. That’s the word the courts used, excessive entanglement between the government and churches. And in these cases you have plaintiffs that are asking the court, which is the government, to second guess the hiring of priests, the training of priests, the assignment of priests, the supervision of priests, really getting fairly intimately involved in telling churches who can teach and preach in their names.

On the other hand, we have very compelling circumstances in terms of wanting churches to be responsible for the tremendous damage that has been caused through negligence or reckless behavior. The line that most but not all courts have drawn is they let plaintiffs’ attorneys ask questions. They let them get documents. They get the information. And then judges later on decide whether assessing liability would cross the line. But most judges have allowed the discovery, the questioning to go forward as in this case.

MARGARET WARNER: So would you say perhaps that that was what also was applied– I’m losing my words here– today in the Paul Shanley case, the separate one where another judge ordered the archdiocese to turn over all these documents?

PATRICK SCHILTZ: There is another issue in those cases, and that is sometimes the priests have their own attorneys, as I’m sure is the case here. And sometimes those attorneys tell the archdiocese that if you turn over these private documents, we will sue you. And so the archdiocese needs a court to rule or to order it to turn over the documents so it doesn’t get sued by the priest. I don’t know whether this is the case in the Shanley case, but this has been the situation in some of the cases I’ve dealt with.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Pam Belluck, let’s go now to the heart of the case, which is the accusation of negligence. What has been Cardinal Law’s basic defense? And we should point out that on the first day of deposition, the transcript actually was released, which is why I was able to quote from one. But what was his basic defense?

PAM BELLUCK: Essentially what he said is that he delegated authority in almost all of the decisions in the Geoghan case that he was at least asked about on that day to his top deputies. And he said that he trusted those deputies who were bishops to make appropriate decisions. He also said that in the case of the decision in 1984, to reassign Geoghan to a parish after he had already been — he had been pulled out of another parish because of sexual abuse-related complaints. And a couple months later he is reassigned to another parish.

Cardinal Law says in that case they were relying on medical reports saying that said it was okay to put Geoghan back into a parish. What we’ve learned separately is that the two doctors who issued those medical reports were not — did not have the credentials that one might expect them to have had in order for them to have been relied upon by the church.

One of them was– had no psychiatric background at all. He was a general practitioner who had been the Geoghan family physician for years. And another one was a psychiatrist, but he had no specific experience treating pedophiles. And he also had settled a sexual molestation complaint against himself several years earlier.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Schiltz, if we are looking at a negligence case and comparing say a cardinal to a CEO, would the exact same test apply, in other words, the same kind of defense? Or would a church leader have any kind of special standing, any kind of special legal standing in a negligence case?

PATRICK SCHILTZ: Well, generally speaking, the same test would apply. We would ask in both cases whether the decisions that the CEO or the Archbishop made were reasonable. There’s a couple complications in the church cases. One is this First Amendment defense that I discussed. The First Amendment doesn’t bar from us asking whether the chair of the board of Enron made reasonable decisions.

But it does at least have some implications for whether we can ask whether a Bishop made reasonable decisions about who would preach and teach in the name of the Catholic Church. The other exception is some states still have residual charitable immunity. Some states bar people from recovering in tort suits against charities, but these immunity statutes tend to be highly qualified, and then they’re generally pretty easy for plaintiffs to get around.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean these are statutes that say you can’t essentially put the charity out of business?

PATRICK SCHILTZ: Well, not just that. In their strongest forms, they say you can’t sue a charity; you can’t recover damages. The reasoning behind them is when you sue the Catholic Church, you are not suing the bishop. You are essentially suing the people in the pews or the people served by the Catholic Church, neither of whom had anything whatsoever to do with the decisions that created the damage here.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Schiltz, Cardinal Law in declining to sign this settlement that Pam Belluck described, said he couldn’t because the Finance Council of the archdiocese had essentially said he couldn’t. And he cited canon law. Does canon law have any legal standing in the civil system or could this court essentially order, theoretically, Cardinal Law and the archdiocese to go ahead and pay up under the terms of the settlement?

PATRICK SCHILTZ: Well, if the court found that the cardinal had made a contract with the plaintiffs’ attorneys to settle the case, they could– the court could certainly order the Cardinal to go through with the contract. It’s just as if the church had bought pencils for the office and promised to pay for them. If you make promises, you have to keep them.

The fact that the cardinal’s barred by canon law from doing so eventually if the cardinal hadn’t reserved his right to back out of it, that would be his problem not the plaintiffs’ problem. But I don’t know enough about the facts of the case to know whether the cardinal had reserved this or not.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Professor Schiltz and Pam Belluck, thank you both very much.

PATRICK SCHILTZ: You’re welcome.