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CNN Sunday Morning

Interview with Kendall Coffey

Aired May 05, 2002 - 08:29   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's talk about going on with the archdiocese of Boston as well as the Roman Catholic Church in general and a few other legal matters as well. For that we punch in, if you will, the meter is running with former U.S. attorney Kendall Coffee, helping us sort through some of the courtroom action. Don't worry those billable hours are remitted by us, not you, the viewer. Good to see you.

KENDALL COFFEY, FMR. U.S. ATTORNEY: Good morning, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about this burgeoning controversy, which I guess is an accurate way to describe it, in particular with the Boston archdiocese, the fact that the finance committee has decided to pull out of the settlement that was proposed puts the church in -- put it this way. We know it's a public relations problem for the church. Walk us through the legal issues. What are the lawyers advising the cardinal and his advisers, that have made them do this kind of thing?

COFFEY: Well, it is a public relations disaster, and at some point they've got to do damage control. With this result things are going to get even worse. But clearly what someone was telling them is look, there are too many additional suits out there, too many additional problems and we can't write the check yet because we don't know how vast the treasury is gonna have to be to pay for all these settlements.

O'BRIEN: Would you have made that advice? Looking at it purely from a legal perspective, that seems like sound advice, as is often the case, what is good legally is not always good from a public relations standpoint.

COFFEY: Well, at some point you've got to start to do containment of a runaway problem. My view would have been to try very hard to make at least some settlements, get some problems resolved and then deal with the others. The problem now is this thing is spiraling out of control with no end in sight as far as the dollar exposure.

How do you go out and raise money for something where there's no progress being made and where the dollar signs just keep piling up especially when you're raising money as the church is obviously going to be trying to do, to solve pretty horrible problems that the church seems to have been responsible for.

O'BRIEN: All right. Help us sort out the difference between criminal and civil offenses here. Clearly the priests who are accused, face criminal charges. That is very clear-cut, but I'm speaking specifically about the hierarchy and even more specifically about Cardinal Law. Does he face criminal charges at this juncture, from your view of it?

COFFEY: Not yet. Because we are in phase one. Six months ago it wasn't even thinkable to be prosecuting priests in the way they're going after them now because what you have are the holiest of people being accused of the most despicable of human acts. But that pedestal is shattered. Many of these suspects are now standing in a crater. So we're going to see around the country a lot of prosecutions of the perpetrators far beyond anything we've seen before. But there's going to be a phase two that looks criminally at some of the hire-ups. That's going to involve theories anywhere from aiding and abetting to cover-ups or obstruction, if some of that evidence comes out.

O'BRIEN: You're talking perhaps about a RICO case against the archdiocese of Boston?

COFFEY: RICO is going to be on the table and all of the theories that prosecutors look at to reach higher up. Remember, there are also specific child abuse laws that many states have that go beyond intentional crimes that can make you criminally responsible for what they call culpable neglect. So a certain degree of negligence as opposed to pure intent could be a basis for criminal charges. Remember prosecutors' don't stop at the initial perpetrator. Their jobs is to work as high up the pyramid as they can assuming the law and the evidence support charges the higher-ups.

O'BRIEN: I suppose it is worth pausing for a moment to consider where this story is. We're talking about the possibility of racketeering charges leveled at the Roman Catholic Church.

COFFEY: And because there's been systematic evidence over years, knowledge of higher ups, all kinds of things are on the table that no one would have found conceivable six months ago. And beyond that the juries are now of a different mindset. You couldn't have gotten all members of a jury very easily to believe that a priest could be capable of such things. It's different now. Now people believe that priests, higher ups, are capable, frankly, of very, very appalling things.

O'BRIEN: OK, let's move on to another appalling story on its own right, the Robert Blake story. The defense said he and his attorneys are going after right now just to get him out of jail is that he's dyslexic and needs help in pursuing his defense vigorously. Surely there's precedent for people behind bars who are denied bail who are either illiterate or unable to read for any other reason besides dyslexia, and do you think there's any chance he'll get bail based on this plea?

COFFEY: I think this is pretty slim stuff. There's no dyslexic celebrity exception to the rules on pre-trial release. The fact is that a lot of people are behind bars who are illiterate and almost anyone who is in prison would be much better off outside a prison, including ways to prepare their own defense. The real question here is, is this a serious enough crime that implicates danger to the community, risk of flight? And this is first degree murder where he's being accused of being the trigger man. Does the state have evidence? They seem to think they do. I think it is pretty clear that he is not going to be getting out any time soon, although the judge said there's going to be an open mind kept on it.

O'BRIEN: When he says that, how do you interpret that? An open mind, what would be different? What new information would have to come to fore in order for a change of heart to occur?

COFFEY: The judge very properly was acknowledging that not all the evidence has been presented. But what the state has already signaled are things like evidence of gun powder on Blake's hands, on Blake's clothes. And there's this very troubling list of things that were being purchased by Caldwell, things that include everything from lye to acid, 25 auto shovels, crow bar. It's not the everyday family list that most of us keep around the house. Frankly, that list, the other evidence taken in conjunction is likely to be enough to persuade the judge to keep Blake behind bars.

O'BRIEN: Finally, one other issue I want to talk to you about. "New York Times" today reporting that the U.S. will do what, in fact, has been talked about and the announcement will come tomorrow, and that is specifically, pull out of a treaty which would have allowed the country to participate in an international court of law, an international tribunal, if you will. The idea is that this opens the U.S. up to legal chaos, if you will. Is that a good argument and does this put the U.S. in a bad -- once again -- we're talking about what's legally correct and what's good from a public relations standpoint, seem to be at odds here?

COFFEY: The treaty was signed by the U.S. president and now we're backing out. That's not going to earn us songs of praises from all the European capitals. Bottom line, we're not gonna subject ourselves to the international community in terms of how we're going to conduct our efforts in the war on terrorism.

And whether it's a concern about some foreign prosecutor charging some member of our own government, or more realistically just the fact that we don't want to tie our own hands in dealing with what we consider to be one of the most serious threats to national security that we have faced in decades. We're not going to sign it. We're gonna back out. We are not going to get praised, but the bottom line is the administration thinks this is the best way to protect American interests.

O'BRIEN: It sure doesn't make us look very good, does it?

COFFEY: When Colin Powell reaches out for cooperation of other countries, they may be slower to return his phone calls when we're basically walking out of a treaty that the U.S. signed.

O'BRIEN: Isn't it important for the U.S. to just -- give the appearance of going the extra mile in these areas even if it does open up a possibility of so called legal chaos? COFFEY: Well, it's a great question. We tipped our hat a little bit to the Geneva Convention. But if you look at our approaches overall, we basically said we are willing to go it alone if we have to. We are not going to change what we think we need to do to make other countries around the world happy. This, in some ways, is unprecedented in terms of the U.S. backing out of a signed treaty, but on the other hand, everything about the war of terrorism is unprecedented. It's going to make international cooperation harder. But that's a tradeoff that the Bush Administration has decided it's willing to accept.

O'BRIEN: Spanning the full range of legal matters this morning Kendall Coffey, former U.S. attorney, joining us from Miami. As always, we appreciate your insights. Thanks for being with us.

COFFEY: OK, Miles. Thanks.