But why isn't Bernard Law in jail? (Part 2)

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 19 2002 6:33 PM

But Why Isn't Bernard Law in Jail? (Part 2)

(Continued from Page 1)

Another route involves prosecuting church leaders for obstruction of justice. Some experts say that the Boston Archdiocese hasn't actually obstructed any criminal investigation; it did turn over its documents. But in Phoenix, Ariz., prosecutors have suggested that Bishop Thomas O'Brien may soon face criminal obstruction charges for allegedly counseling victims' families not to approach police.

One more tack being considered by the Massachusetts AG's office is to file charges against Law as an accessory after the fact to the abuse. But to be an accessory, experts insist that you must intend for the abuse to occur; in other words, it's not enough that Law knew his subordinates would molest again. It seems that not caring one way or another is insufficient.

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In some jurisdictions RICO suits have been filed, using racketeering laws to prosecute the seemingly untouchable higher-ups in the church. Although early this month, a Cleveland grand jury cleared two bishops of racketeering charges, finding that their mishandling of sex abuse claims didn't amount to criminal racketeering. This was a pretty creative use of the RICO laws, and it might work in other cases where the supervisors were more complicit in the coverups.

Last week, New Hampshire got a taste of how criminal indictments—or the threat of criminal indictments—may play out in the coming months. In settling a civil case, the Diocese of Manchester admitted that, had criminal charges been filed, the diocese itself would likely have been found guilty. Whether this kind of admission will embolden other prosecutors to file criminal charges or just use the threat as leverage in civil suits remains to be seen. But what's becoming clear across the country is that the taboo is broken; that the church can still be a holy institution, but its criminals are not sacred. Civil suits and cash reparations are just not enough. Church elders who unloosed monsters on suffering children for decades cannot be treated as though they were above the law. Shakespeare wrote: "The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept." It's past time for the law to wake up and punish the guilty.

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