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Prosecutor angers some by releasing names of accused priests
By Denise Lavoie, Associated Press, 09/26/02
Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh gave out the list of names Thursday as he announced the indictment of the Rev. Donald J. Bowen for allegedly molesting a girl while he was a priest at a Norton church from 1965 to 1971.
Civil rights advocates sharply criticized Walsh's decision, which Walsh acknowledged goes against standard prosecutorial policy and appeared to be the first move of its kind by a prosecutor.
"In the normal course of events, we would not identify a suspect in a criminal case who has not been formally charged, but ... in this case, I don't think that policy should be applied," Walsh said.
"It perpetuates secrecy, it invalidates victims and it pretends that none of this ever happened. I'm just not going to do that," said Walsh, who encouraged people to come forward with information or allegations against the men he named.
Walsh obtained the names of the priests from the Fall River Diocese after the clergy sexual abuse scandal exploded in Massachusetts earlier this year. Dioceses turned over names of priests with any allegations civil authorities after Cardinal Bernard Law mandated such reporting in the Boston archdiocese.
The Fall River diocese turned over a total of 21 names, including Bowen and two priests who are now deceased.
The remaining 18 priests were not prosecuted, either because the statute of limitations had expired or because the alleged victim was not interested in pressing criminal charges, Walsh said.
Several names of priests who've been accused but not criminally charged have been made public before Thursday but not by prosecutors. They have been made public by church officials or as part of civil lawsuits. The Boston Archdiocese's policy of publicly naming and suspending priests before a full investigation has been criticized as a violation of priests' rights.
None of the named priests has active ministries. Most have retired; several were removed from their ministries after allegations of sexual abuse were received by the diocese in the 1990s.
Civil rights advocates and groups formed to protect the rights of priests blasted the move.
"Releasing the names just to see if any people will come forward -- to me that is just a form of a witchhunt," said Michael Higgins, executive director of Justice for Priests and Deacons, a San Diego-based organization founded by canon lawyers in 1997.
Higgins was removed from the priesthood in 1999 after he was accused of soliciting sex in a confessional. He denies the allegation and has appealed his case to the Vatican.
Philip Cormier, a Boston attorney who specializes in civil liberties litigation, said the public release of the priests' names by a district attorney could invite false accusations.
"Essentially, these people are targets. People see dollar signs, they see these civil settlements that people are getting, and it's very easy for people to make something up," Cormier said.
John Kearns, a spokesman for the Fall River diocese, would not discuss Walsh's decision.
The Fall River Diocese has a sex abuse policy that has been hailed as a model since it was put in place in 1994 after the Rev. James Porter pleaded guilty to molesting 28 children and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison.
The diocese requires all priests and church employees to undergo criminal background checks and to attend training sessions on sexual abuse. Bishop Sean O'Malley, who is credited with developing the policy, was recently named by Pope John Paul II to lead the Diocese of Palm Beach, replacing a bishop who quit after admitting he molested a student years ago.
Essex County District Attorney Kevin Burke, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said he would be reluctant to release the names of priests who had not been charged unless he believed they were a "clear and present danger" to the public.
"It's a real balancing test -- the rights of individuals who have the potential of being accused of a crime but they can't be prosecuted versus the public safety and the right of citizens to know," Burke said. "It is a very tough call."