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Suffolk DA says he can't prosecute Lowell priest for 1971 sex abuse allegation
By Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, 03/15/02
Too much time has passed to consider pursuing criminal charges against a Lowell priest accused of inappropriate sexual contact with a 14-year-old boy, prosecutors said Friday.
The Child Abuse Unit at the Suffolk District Attorney's office has closed its review of the case involving the Rev. George Spagnolia because the 1971 allegation falls outside the applicable statute of limitations.
The statute of limitations for the allegation is six years.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston last month forwarded Spagnolia's name to District Attorney Daniel Conley.
Spagnolia, most recently the pastor at St. Patrick Church in Lowell, denied the allegation and is fighting his suspension by the archdiocese.
A call to Spagnolia's lawyer was not immediately returned Friday.
Conley said the statute of limitations tied the hands of prosecutors.
"Father Spagnolia remained a resident of the commonwealth of Massachusetts for most if not all of the time in the last 31 years," Conley said. "Had he absented himself from the commonwealth and took up residence in another state or country that would have suspended the statute."
Once investigators determined they could not proceed with a prosecution, they did not delve further into the allegation, Conley said.
"When we concluded there was no case that could be brought we didn't bother the victim," he said.
Spagnolia, 64, was the first priest to fight his suspension under the church's new zero-tolerance policy toward child sex abuse. The alleged sexual misconduct took place while he was at St. Francis de Sales Church in Boston.
Spagnolia has admitted to lying about remaining celibate during an 18-year leave from the priesthood. Spagnolia later said he had two homosexual relationships during that time.
The archdiocese has defended its decision to remove Spagnolia from the Lowell parish, saying it acted only after meeting separately with the alleged victim and Spagnolia, and determining that there was reasonable cause to believe the abuse occurred.
The archdiocese issued a brief statement Friday saying it was in the process of reviewing the allegation against Spagnolia, who will remain on administrative leave until the review is completed.
Wendy Murphy, a lawyer for Spagnolia's alleged victim, said she wasn't surprised, but said the decision does not mean Spagnolia is innocent. Murphy has not revealed the identity of the alleged victim.
"One of the important questions raised by this result is whether the statute of limitations is fair to victims," she said referring to the burgeoning sex abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese.
The archdiocese has turned over to prosecutors the names of more than 80 current and former priests suspected of child abuse in the past 50 years.
"My client is one person among hundreds of victims describing horrific acts of sexual abuse and the criminal courtroom doors have been slammed in their faces," Murphy said, referring to the statute of limitations.
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