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Taking a side in a Boston Irish row – Kevin Cullen’s attack on Eugene O’Flaherty

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Eugene O’Flaherty

What I’m about to write might not be too popular in the Boston Irish community - or elsewhere, for that matter.

On the pages of the Boston Globe last week, columnist Kevin Cullen blasted Massachusetts State Representative Eugene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea). Cullen accused O’Flaherty of “stifling a proposal to eliminate the statute of limitations on prosecuting child sexual abuse crimes” in his capacity as co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. O’Flaherty responded by stating that he took issue with being depicted as someone “unconcerned about the murder of children’s souls” and by announcing that he would resign his chairmanship at the close of the current legislative session.

Kevin Cullen and Eugene O’Flaherty have very close ties to their ancestral country. Cullen was based here as a Globe correspondent for a number of years and is regarded as one of the most knowledgeable journalists in the United States on all things Irish. He continues to contribute regularly to Irish newspapers and is a frequent guest on national radio.

O’Flaherty was born in Boston to emigrants from Co. Kerry, spent nearly as much time in Kerry as he did in Boston growing up and is a first cousin to the McEllistrim Fianna Fáil political dynasty in Kerry. As a state legislator, he spearheads a number of different initiatives to foster cooperation between Massachusetts and Ireland on several fronts.

This isn’t the first time that Eugene O’Flaherty has been attacked for taking controversial stands on “hot button” issues. He opposed Melanie’s Law, which includes harsher, mandatory penalties for drunk drivers and bears the name of Melanie Powell, a young girl sadly killed by a drunk driver. He opposed Jessica’s Law, which imposes mandatory minimum sentences for child rapists and was named for Jessica Lunsford, a young girl who was tragically raped and killed. O’Flaherty has also opposed various measures relating to reform of criminal offender record information that is accessible to the public and may be used in court proceedings.
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For taking these stances, O’Flaherty was the recipient of withering criticism and over the top personal attacks. By way of example, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly hinted that his opposition to Jessica’s Law stemmed from the fact that he is a lawyer and “has ties to elements within the trial lawyer community.” Far more personally damning, some critics opined that O’Flaherty was opposed because he just doesn’t care about crime victims or their families.

None of this could be further from the truth. Maybe it’s because I too am a lawyer, but I believe that O’Flaherty’s own experience of what actually happens in the courts on a daily basis provides him with far sharper insights than his critics. The reality is that all cases are different, that judicial discretion is the lifeblood of the system and that the likes of Melanie’s Law or Jessica’s Law have the potential to perpetrate, as well as to remedy, injustice. From my own personal experience, I agree with O’Flaherty that criminal offender record information is deeply problematic. The information can be comprised of fraudulent, yet difficult to expunge, accusations that can be sought to be used rather unfairly by a third party in an entirely unrelated proceeding. What’s more, the information can be a significant obstacle to past offenders who have paid the price for their bad behaviour and are seeking gainful employment as they re-enter society.

In sum, while one can certainly disagree with the positions Eugene O’Flaherty has taken, they are not without rational justification. Claims that his stances reflect his own self interest as a lawyer are cheap shots. Claims that his stances reflect his indifference are reprehensible.

Last week, Kevin Cullen took O’Flaherty to task for opposing an extension of the statute of limitations from 15 to 27 years for sex abusers. In doing so, Cullen relied heavily on the facts of a tragic case of alleged abuse that could not be prosecuted because the victim made the allegations a year after the 15 year statute of limitations had expired. As O’Flaherty pointed out in response though, statutes of limitations exist for good reasons. Memories and recollections fade; evidence gets harder to come by; the potential for fraudulent accusations and character assassination increases exponentially.

To O’Flaherty’s responses to this latest criticism, I would add the maxim that hard cases make bad law. Laws enacted or amended in reaction to horrifying events that generate an understandable public outcry for action can have myriad unintended consequences. Lawmakers have to take a longer and broader view, especially when prescribing criminal offences and devising appropriate sanctions. That’s what Eugene O’Flaherty has consistently done as a legislator and as co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. For doing so even when it is unpopular, he does not deserve the personal attacks he has equally consistently been subjected to.

The reality is that Kevin Cullen would be among the first to highlight any injustice that might result from a well-intended law that produced a morally indefensible result. Those who have the very serious and difficult responsibility of lawmaking don’t have the luxury of having it both ways.
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Kevin Cullen would likely retort that his criticism of O’Flaherty is directed largely at the delay in reporting the bill extending the statute of limitations out of his committee. The column, however, is wider than that – both for what it says and does not say. Cullen writes that “[T]here is a growing consensus that there should be no arbitrary hiding place for those who murder children’s souls by sexually abusing them. That consensus does not include Gene O’Flaherty.”

Imagine how these two sentences could be read by Eugene O’Flaherty’s family, friends, constituents, etc. Indeed, this column was the final straw for O’Flaherty, and, in announcing that he would resign his chairmanship, he noted with trepidation the sorts of things his family can read when they Google his name.

I still think Kevin Cullen is a fine journalist. He has a very well-developed and unique perspective about Ireland. His work on the Phoebe Prince case, which helped to expose the bullying culture that undeniably exists in both the United States and here in Ireland, was extraordinary. But this column was beneath him.

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