Denis Dillon, for the past 29 years, he has brought the principles of the Catholic faith to his job.

He's the popularly elected district attorney of Nassau County in New York's Long Island.

He worked for civil rights in Robert F. Kennedy's Justice Department in the early 1960s and in 1988 left the Democratic Party because of abortion, which he calls the civil-rights issue of our time.

He spoke to Register correspondent Stephen Vincent.

Were you always interested in law enforcement?

Honestly, I never had a plan of life. I grew up in the South Bronx, in St. Jerome's Parish, when it was mostly Irish Catholic. I was graduating from college, and a bunch of my friends were taking the civil-service exam, so I did, too.

I became a police officer. After graduation from the police academy, I went into the Air Force for two and a half years. When I got out of the service, I decided to go to law school. Someone was giving out scholarships to cops, so I got three years of law school for free.

How were your years under U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy?

I was assigned mostly to civil-rights enforcement in Mississippi, but I was also chosen to help enforce the court order at the University of Alabama on desegregation. I investigated a lot of civil-rights cases.

Later, under his tenure, I worked as an assistant U.S. attorney and, after Kennedy was killed, I directed the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force in the Eastern District of New York.

How have you handled clerical sex abuse in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.?

I've never had a problem prosecuting priests who break the law. About five years ago, there was a case involving a priest here. The parents were Jewish, and they brought it to the police. We prosecuted the priest and he got four years in state prison. During the recent crisis, we prosecuted another priest whom we convicted of a felony and who went to prison.

The problem has always been — and it's not just the case with the Church — that agencies that deal with children don't report these kinds of things to law enforcement. I've been here almost 30 years, and prior to the crisis, I never got a report from the Church and never from agencies that are not required by law to report.

Abuse is an extremely serious violation of young boys and adolescent youths. The media exaggerated it. They made it appear that it was all happening now, and involved mostly pedophilia. That was not true.

Aside from that, it was a wakeup call, and I hope the bishops got the message.

How did you proceed on the cases?

The bishop here [Bishop William Murphy] gave us everything we requested. We went back about 50 years to look at every allegation of sexual abuse. In a very short time I realized nothing could be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run out on all the incidents. There was only a five-year statute of limitations at the time.

I made a public statement that there could be no prosecutions. I did not release the names of the priests, since we were bound by grand jury secrecy. Moreover, they were only allegations and could not be tested in a courtroom because the statute of limitations had expired. The accused priests had not been given due process of law. I decided to seek the correction of weak points in the law.

I asked the New York State Legislature to extend the statute of limitations for future cases. I asked that instead of five years it be extended to 15 years beyond the minor's 18th birthday. Also, I asked that there be mandatory reporting of violations by every agency that was not already mandated to report, so all the children would be protected. The Legislature failed to pass either bill.

You came under fire in the late 1980s when Operation Rescue was blocking abortion clinics.

I publicly asked the county police officers to petition their unions to have a conscience clause passed by the Legislature. This would enable them to avoid having to follow orders that violated their conscience—a right nurses and other professionals have.

When people were blocking entrances and a police officer would remove them and arrest them, that officer was removing the last barrier between the abortionist and the baby that was going to be killed. That constitutes proximate material cooperation with abortion. Under Catholic teaching, one who engages in proximate material cooperation with abortion is culpable.

My problem as prosecutor was different. If I prosecuted the people arrested, my cooperation would have been remote. I think I could have prosecuted them and not have been morally culpable. Nevertheless, I asked to be recused by the court, as I have a right to do—if I believe there is a conflict of interest. I stated in an affidavit filed in court that, as a matter of science and of conscience, I believe abortion is the unjustified killing of innocent human life.

Not only could I not prosecute individuals seeking to save innocent babies through minor offenses such as trespass, my public stand against abortion could cause others to question my professional judgments if I did prosecute.

Moreover, I said I believed the rescuers were morally justified. So a special prosecutor was appointed, and the Operation Rescue people were prosecuted, even though the media gave the impression that they weren't because I refused to do it.

Your pro-life stands have not hurt your career.

One of the reasons I take such a strong public stand is to show other people in public life that taking a strong stand won't hurt them. Waffling will hurt them.

Why did you leave the Democratic Party?

In 1986, I started leading demonstrations against abortion clinics. Peaceful demonstrations, not sit-ins. The Democrats got very upset about it, and they passed a resolution at their county convention saying abortion is a woman's God-given right, and they wanted every public official to support that right.

I said I considered that statement to be blasphemous, an offense against God. I told them it would have to be rescinded or I would leave the party. I thought that was a trump card because I was their biggest vote-getter. But in my party at the time there were zealots in favor of abortion and they weren't going to back down. We negotiated for a few years.

I took time out to run for governor on the Right to Life line against the Democratic candidate [Mario Cuomo], which further enraged them. So in 1988, when I was coming up for the 1989 election, I switched over to the Republican Party.

How do you view the push for same-sex marriage?

Just [recently] we had a female rabbi call wanting us to know she was going to perform a same-sex marriage, as she called it, in one of the villages here. One can't get a marriage license for that in New York, so I didn't think any legal issues were involved. We checked the statutes though, and it did look as though she might be committing a crime. We sent two investigators.

In the end, we decided that under New York law, there can't be a same-sex marriage because marriage in New York is defined as requiring a man and a woman. What they did might have been a religious ceremony, a blessing. Whatever it was, it was no marriage, so no law was broken.

I oppose same-sex marriage because it undermines traditional marriage and the traditional family, which are foundations of our culture.

Do you see yourself at the fore-front of the culture wars?

I do try to build public support for issues I'm interested in. There's more secularism in our society, and much of it is sponsored by government. I do what I can to oppose that.

I dispute public officials who say their moral beliefs should not influence their public decisions. They're wrong. If something is morally evil such as abortion, one can't support it. We are never free to knowingly do immoral acts. I can't go before the judgment seat of God and say I was a public official and I did what my constituents wanted. I'll be held responsible for what I do.

There are times when I might have to recuse myself. There are other times when my moral beliefs have as much right to be involved in the clash of ideas in the public square as anyone else's.

If I get my moral beliefs from the Catholic faith and the dictates of the natural moral law, so be it. I have every right to draw on these sources in a democracy as the secularists have drawn from their own sources in forming their opinions.

What's in the future for you?

I'll be 72 years old at the end of my present term. I am satisfied with many things I've done.

What gives me the most satisfaction, what keeps me thinking about re-election, is the Rising Star Program, sponsored by my office. It gives kids from economically deprived areas a chance when they have few other opportunities. We teach them the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude. We also fund after-school programs and sports activities and find them jobs. We try to make a real difference in a young person's life.

Stephen Vincent is based in Wallingford, Connecticut.