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Church in Crisis

Boston bishop draws fire for move to depose therapists


A group of 83 psychologists and victims’ rights advocates have criticized the Boston archdiocese’s new leader for permitting church attorneys to depose the therapists of alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse.

In a letter, the group of practicing therapists, about a dozen psychology professors, and several rights advocates called the church tactic of questioning therapists about their patients a revictimization of those patients who were “already broken members” of the church’s flock.

The Boston archdiocese is now headed by Bishop Richard Lennon, who has taken over temporarily as apostolic administrator following Cardinal Bernard Law’s resignation Dec. 13 (NCR, Dec. 27). It faces more than 500 civil suits alleging abuse by archdiocesan priests. The first therapist was deposed Jan. 17.

“While the archdiocese of Boston has a legal right to pursue the depositions of therapists treating abuse survivors in litigation with the church,” the psychologists’ letter said, “it is crucial for church officials to remember that these suits have emerged from the sexual abuse of minors by priests and, often, only after years of stonewalling efforts by the hierarchy. We hope that you will reconsider your decision to retraumatize the already broken members of your flock and will choose to pursue a pastoral rather than corporate and counter-litigious path.”

According to a Jan. 25 report in The Boston Globe, the church decision to allow lawyers to use the tactic of deposing therapists comes after several U.S. prelates, led by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, opposed allowing the Boston archdiocese to declare bankruptcy.

The newspaper quoted from an unnamed Boston church adviser who said the prelates objected to a bankruptcy declaration because it could lead to a decline in donations nationwide, give the public more access to private church records, and further hurt the church’s already damaged image. However, the adviser said, the opposition to bankruptcy by the prelates has begun to subside as the issue becomes better understood, and the Boston archdiocese may yet win permission for a bankruptcy declaration.

Archdiocesan spokeswoman Donna Morrissey told the Boston Herald that the depositions are lawful and necessary in cases in which settlement hasn’t been reached. “If the victims choose to sue, which is their right, we feel that we’re obligated to defend ourselves,” she said. While therapy for victims is essential and has the archdiocese’s support, she said, the support is “separate and distinct from the litigation process.”

Another archdiocesan spokesperson, Fr. Christopher Coyne, said depositions of therapists are common in such cases and that it is unlikely the archdiocese will change its strategy.

Leading the signers of the letter was psychologist Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, the only therapist invited to address the U.S. bishops in June at their Dallas conference. She currently heads the Trauma Treatment Center at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis.

“I am not a hysteric. I don’t think suing is the best way for survivors to go,” Frawly-O’Dea told the Globe. “I have a lot of empathy for the bishops who are trying to make things right, and I don’t consider the church my enemy. But I think that this is very despicable and deceitful. To say ‘the church loves you’ and ‘we want to help you’ and then to invade your treatment is really just wrong. It may be legally OK, but it’s wrong.”

After a brief period of relative quiet in Boston about Lennon’s initial handling of the ongoing church scandal, victims’ rights groups and many other Boston Catholics have said they are becoming increasingly disappointed with the archdiocese’s new leader.

James Post, president of reform group Voice of the Faithful, told The Los Angeles Times in a Jan. 26 report that since the resignation of Law “there has been no change in policy, no change in practice, and therefore, no effective leadership. … Bishop Lennon has retained all of the cardinal’s old advisers. He is staying in the cardinal’s residence. And obviously he is listening to the attorneys, the canon lawyers and the auxiliary bishops -- all the old palace guard. These are the last loyalists that Cardinal Law had, and they are right there, surrounding Bishop Lennon.”

Victims’ rights advocates have also voiced disappointment of Kathleen McChesney, the former FBI official now heading up the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection. In a recent trip to Boston, McChesney said she supported the decision to depose victims’ therapists.

“I understand how [victims] feel, and it’s a very tragic set of circumstances,” she told the Globe. “But when you get to the litigation stage, there are certain things lawyers insist on doing to protect their clients. It’s very sad that it has come to this point,” she said.

McChesney encouraged anyone abused by a priest to come forward. “I know it is very, very difficult. I understand that and appreciate that. But there are processes in place to provide aid and therapy,” she said.

In response to McChesney’s support, Ann Hagan Webb, a leader of Boston’s chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said, “It seems to me, once again, that the church is writing its own report card, and reporting to her that everything is wonderful, and I am disturbed and dismayed that she hasn’t reached out to survivors to get a report card from us about how they’re doing.”

Victims’ rights advocates have said they were further dismayed at a Jan. 17 attempt by a team of lawyers for the archdiocese to petition a Boston court to dismiss the 500 civil suits that have been filed against the archdiocese on the grounds that courts do not have the right to examine the interactions between archdiocesan officials and their priests.

“It is absolutely our position that when it comes to this bishop-priest relationship ... the court can’t get into the business of defining what a reasonably prudent bishop would do,” said L. Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado attorney brought to Boston to make the argument. He argued before Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, the judge who in November 2001 ruled that the Boston archdiocese had to allow media outlets to view the church records of John Geoghan, the now-defrocked and imprisoned pedophile priest whose case made national headlines in January 2002.

Victims’ attorneys countered Nussbaum’s argument by saying that the First Amendment offers protection to religious beliefs, but does not protect against illegal conduct. Sweeney said she would rule on matter in about a month.

The Globe quoted unnamed archdiocesan officials who said that such motions are being made by the archdiocese be-cause they must show insurance carriers they are putting up a strong defense against the lawsuits. The paper has said the archdiocese expects the carriers to provide between $60 and $65 million in coverage to settlements with victims.

Four days after that hearing, Sweeney rebuked an attempt by Boston lawyers to delay a re-sumption of Law’s deposition by lawyers for alleged victims of Fr. Paul Shanley (NCR, April 19). She rejected the motion, characterized it as delay and said the archdiocese would be fined for its attempt at “sandbagging” the procedures. The archdiocese had argued that Law’s deposition should be postponed because plaintiffs’ lawyers were likely to comment publicly about the deposition and taint an ongoing grand jury investigation of Law. The deposition continued as scheduled Jan. 22.

Gill Donovan is an NCR writer. His e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003