January 21, 2005
Judge to review scope, cost of diocese child abuse audit
Jan. 21, 2005 [The Telegraph]
By Albert McKeon
MANCHESTER - A judge will try to breathe life into the stalled state review of child protection policies implemented by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester in the wake of the clergy abuse crisis.
On Thursday, the church and the state presented varying interpretations of the historic criminal agreement that both sides entered two years ago, demonstrating in a courtroom that differences essentially arise on the scope and cost of the audit.
The biggest sticking point is the extent to which the state can review the diocese’s abuse policies. Prosecutors want to interview anyone who will use the diocese’s procedures, but church officials claim that process crosses a constitutional boundary.
Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Carol Conboy took the case under consideration, and urged the two parties to negotiate privately in the meantime. Conboy also offered to mediate any relevant issue as she prepared a decision.
Representatives for the state attorney general’s office and the diocese openly expressed a desire to keep the pact relevant. They both spoke of making the protection of children a paramount goal.
The diocese’s attorney, David Vicinanzo, told Conboy the church would consent to an immediate review of abuse policies. Prosecutors, though, replied that the diocese’s audit terms prevent any meaningful review of those policies.
In signing the criminal agreement in December 2002, Bishop John McCormack acknowledged that diocesan officials could have faced charges for endangering children through their handling of abusive priests. The diocese accepted an annual state audit for five years.
The state, though, has not conducted an audit. Tuesday’s oral arguments exhibited the divide on the scope of such a review.
State prosecutors asked the court to approve an audit that can question active parishioners - those who work or volunteer for the church - on the effectiveness of the diocesan child protection program. To gauge the efficiency of the diocesan policy, prosecutors must pose direct questions to the people who would use it, and not limit an audit to a less extensive review, said state Assistant Attorney General Ann Larney.
“If the policies and procedures don’t work, if it looks good only on paper . . . where are we? We’re back to 2002,” Larney said.
But Vicinanzo argued that the state’s audit proposal is open-ended, and that it veers from the agreement’s original terms: prosecutors measuring only compliance. To that end, the diocese has implemented a system that reports abuse to the state, and it has shared all policies and paperwork, he said.
Vicinanzo cited federal constitutional protections in trying to stop the state from potentially asking questions that he said would measure parishioners’ perceptions of the church’s handling of abuse claims.
“It should be narrow, and not have changing terms by the state,” he said of a proposed audit. “The perceptions and opinions of parishioners inserts the state right into the middle of parishioners (and) church leaders.”
Larney, though, argued that the audit would not ask questions of a religious nature, meaning the diocese’s First Amendment argument does not apply. She also suggested the diocese waived any constitutional protection by signing the agreement.
The audit’s scope would have a narrow, secular focus so that prosecutors can determine if church personnel have a firm grasp of diocesan abuse policies, she said.
“The diocese entered into the agreement to prevent abuse. The church is not immune” to criminal review under the law, Larney said.
An attorney who said he represented a group of Catholics and some abuse victims also addressed the court. David Braiterman focused on the church’s past handling of abuse in more striking language than prosecutors did, and he urged Conboy to hold the diocese accountable to the agreement it signed.
Most of the abuse allegations investigated by prosecutors occurred decades ago. Vicinanzo said he objected to the state recently claiming the diocese had allowed the abuse of minors for four decades. Rather, almost every document shows the abuse transpired in a previous generation, he said, suggesting current church leadership has complied with state law.
Conboy will also try to reconcile the argument over the audit’s estimated $445,000 cost. Both sides acknowledge the criminal agreement does not specify who should pay for the review. The church wants the state to shoulder the cost, but the state has recently offered to pay as much as half.
Posted by Nancy at January 21, 2005 04:11 PM