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AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

The Big Question: Is the Catholic Church Denying its Own Priests Justice?

Aired February 27, 2002 - 07:18   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: The big question at this hour, is the Catholic Church denying its own priests justice? Well, in Boston the Catholic archdiocese is under fire for the new policy it has adopted to confront spreading allegations of child sexual abuse by priests. Some Boston Catholics are concerned that religious leaders may be getting too tough and going too far, especially in the case of the Reverend George Spagnolia, who supporters say is the victim of a witch hunt.

Here's Bill Delaney.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BILL DELANEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At a time in the archdiocese of Boston when many Catholics say they feel uncertainty about their priests in the wake of a wave of sexual scandal...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We love you.

DELANEY: Certainty for many hundreds and from Father George Spagnolia himself that he should not have been suspended because allegations he molested a child some 30 years ago are not true.

REV. GEORGE SPAGNOLIA, ST. PATRICK'S ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH: I deny any allegation made against me. I have done nothing.

DELANEY: Father Spagnolia refused to resign his post, though he said he will obey orders not to perform the Catholic sacraments. He's the 10th Boston area priest removed from his duties since Archbishop Bernard Cardinal Law instituted a zero tolerance policy in late January toward priests accused of sexual misconduct with children. The archdiocese says it stands by its determination of reasonable cause to believe that abuse of a minor under the age of 18 occurred. But parishioners stand by their pastor.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The cardinal's giving, he's hanging out his own priests out to dry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're angry. We're angry that they could, it's a witch hunt.

DELANEY: The crisis in the Boston archdiocese erupted when former priest John Gagen went on trial in early January, accused of molesting children for decades in a series of Boston parishes. Convicted now of fondling a boy, facing nine years in jail, he also faces rape charges. But even a man who says Gagen molested him expressed concern the archdiocese is now going too far.

PATRICK MCSORLEY, ALLEGED VICTIM: It's just creating other problems for other priests, probably a lot of which who didn't cause any problems to anybody or ruin anyone's life.

DELANEY (on camera): The man known to everyone here in Lowell, Massachusetts as Father Spag has tangled with superiors before, staging a fast and prayer vigil some 30 years ago before the residence of the then Archbishop of Boston when he wanted a parochial school built. He later resigned and worked a variety of jobs for 20 years before resuming his ministry.

A priest not afraid to make waves at a time when the Archdiocese of Boston has never been more interested in calming the waters.

Bill Delaney, CNN, Lowell, Massachusetts.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And lawyers for the Boston Archdiocese say they have given authorities the names of many priests, 25 in Suffolk County alone, who have been accused in recent decades of sexually molesting children.

Joining us now to talk about prosecuting priests for their alleged abuses, from Boston, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, who will be prosecuting Father Spagnolia.

Good to see you. Thank you so much for joining us.

DANIEL CONLEY, DISTRICT ATTORNEY, SUFFOLK COUNTY, MASSACHUSETTS: Thank you for having me on, Paula.

ZAHN: In this piece that preceded you, you heard a number of residents from your district saying this is nothing more than a witch hunt. Will that have any impact on your prosecution?

CONLEY: Actually, Paula, Father Spagnolia, the case that was in your lead up to my segment, is a priest in Middlesex County. That's a different county than where I prosecute cases. But the abuse that was reported to us is alleged to have occurred in Suffolk County and it's for that reason that the case is in my office for investigation.

ZAHN: Now, the charges against him go way back to 1971. How will the fact that there are statutes of limitations on the books affect your prosecution?

CONLEY: Yes, first of all, Father Spagnolia is not at the moment subject to prosecution. What has happened is in the last few weeks the Archdiocese of Boston has been reporting cases, they're conducting an investigation of their records and then they report in a very sort of limited way allegations of abuse that have been made over the years towards and against Catholic priests. In this case, last Friday we received a letter hand delivered by the archdiocese attorney informing us that in 1971 -- strike that, that last week someone came forward and alleged that Father Spagnolia had been involved in some type of sexual abuse in 1971. We don't know the name of the victim. We don't know the exact location or the exact nature of the offense. All of that information is important in order for us to conduct a statute of limitations analysis.

ZAHN: So where do you go from here on all the very complicated things you were just talking about? You have to wait until the archdiocese supplies you with the name of a victim before you can carry forward?

CONLEY: Correct. Although we have opened a file, obviously, and we are, as in every single case where we receive a report of sexual abuse, clergy or otherwise, we open a file, we conduct an investigation. But before we can really get that investigation off the ground, we need some further information.

We have asked the archdiocese attorneys to provide us with the name of the victim, as well as the assignment history of Father Spagnolia. That is important to determine the statute of limitations analysis. The archdiocese, through their attorney, has informed us and my colleagues in the other counties that they will provide that information to us. We have not received it yet. We're waiting for it and as soon as we do that, we will do, with all due diligence, conduct a complete and comprehensive investigation.

And for us, obviously, the primary concern is the victims of sexual abuse. We have a myriad of services that we want to offer them, whether we can prosecute these cases or not.

ZAHN: And I know that the archdiocese is also giving you the names of 25 priests also allegedly involved with sexual crimes. You will continue to wait for those names of victims, as well, too, right?

CONLEY: That's right, Paula. Aside from Father Spagnolia, we received the names over the last few weeks of 24 other priests. In each case, the same basic information was received, a general description of a sexual abuse allegation, the age but not the sex or the name of the victim or the full assignment histories of the priests involved. Without that information we can't conduct a full investigation to close out these cases and determine whether or not we can prosecute some, all or none of the cases.

ZAHN: All right, thanks so much for your time, sir.

Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley. We'd love to come back to you as you get more information on these individual cases. Appreciate your joining us.

CONLEY: Thank you, Paula.

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