Law, other bishops subpoenaed by grand jury

Friday, December 13, 2002

BOSTON -- Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, the nation's senior Roman Catholic prelate, could soon be facing questions from a Massachusetts grand jury investigating the priest sex abuse scandal.

Law and seven bishops who once worked for him were subpoenaed last week to appear before a grand jury looking into possible criminal violations by church officials, a source familiar with the subpoenas said Thursday on condition of anonymity.

Law, who has testified in depositions for civil suits, flew to Rome the day after receiving the subpoena. He remained at the Vatican on Thursday amid speculation that he will resign or get approval to declare the embattled archdiocese bankrupt.

Only the pope can decide whether to accept such a resignation. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Law was expected to meet with Pope John Paul II on Friday and any resignation would not come before then.

Law raised the possibility of resigning when he met with the pope in April, but came away determined to repair the damage to the Boston Archdiocese.

However, lurid details contained in recently released church personnel files have angered priests and lay Catholics alike and spurred new demands for him to step down. Priests have noted a drop in church attendance and donations.

Battered by accusations

Law has been battered by accusations that he allowed priests who were sexually abusing children to remain in parishes. The grand jury investigating the role of church officials in the scandal has been meeting for six months, but so far has only demanded church records.

Attorney General Thomas Reilly answered questions about the subpoenas Thursday, though he did not say whether he issued them. And he cautioned that state law makes it virtually impossible to charge church officials with concealing clergy misdeeds or failing to protect children.

Reilly has come under fire in recent weeks from Catholics who blame him for not indicting Law or other church higher-ups. Protesters outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross have started pasting Reilly's name and picture on protest signs targeting Law.

Law's attorney, J. Owen Todd, said he does not believe the cardinal is a target but simply a witness called to testify.

And he said he is not worried about the accessory statute.

"I think they'll find that what has taken place and has been disclosed and discussed at great length in the civil depositions does not constitute any crime in Massachusetts," Todd said.

Law's testimony before a grand jury could present other potential problems for him. Prosecutors would likely scrutinize transcripts of his previous testimony in civil lawsuits to look for inconsistencies.

"All of this is going to be groundbreaking," said Frank Libby, a Boston attorney and former federal prosecutor.

"I think that this is under review very likely back in the Vatican, and their legal minds are looking not just at Boston, but at the domino effect this could have," Libby said. "If one jurisdiction starts looking at (grand jury subpoenas), they may be in the soup in half a dozen dioceses."

Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk was subpoenaed in April, but was excused after his lawyers gave prosecutors undisclosed evidence. An attorney for Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien is demanding immunity before he cooperates further with a county prosecutor.

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