Boston scandal erodes traditional legal
deference to church
By Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe, 5/12/2002
When Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney ordered
Cardinal Bernard F. Law to submit to questioning by lawyers for
the alleged victims of convicted pedophile and defrocked priest
John J. Geoghan last week, it was a legal watershed.
Law became the first cardinal in the United States to be deposed
over his actions as a prince of the church.
But Law's being forced to submit to the standards of the secular
world in the most Catholic metropolitan area in the nation is as
much a cultural sea change as a legal one. It is the latest and
most dramatic example of how much the deference traditionally shown
the Catholic Church has eroded.
The cardinal finds himself embattled not simply because of his
handling of miscreant priests like Geoghan, but because those with
power in the secular world, most of them Catholic, have deemed it
necessary and acceptable to delve into areas that local custom long
treated as off-limits.
Prosecutors, judges, and politicians who once looked the other
way when it came to the church's dirty laundry are now holding the
cardinal and other church leaders to a higher standard.
The decline of deference has occurred throughout the United States,
but it has been most dramatic in Boston, where the church is a powerful
institution in the only major metropolitan area where Catholics
make up more than half the population.
Most of these secular authority figures are the children, grandchildren,
or great-grandchildren of immigrants who owed much to the church
for giving them a foothold and a place in the New World. But in
many cases, that sense of unquestioning loyalty has been replaced
by moral outrage and a belief that the Boston Archdiocese put concern
for its reputation and its priests ahead of concern for its most
vulnerable members: children.
Growing up in a family that prayed together daily
Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly grew up in what he calls ''a
typical Irish Catholic family.'' His immigrant parents were deeply
religious. Like many Irish who settled in Springfield, Bridie Reilly
hailed from Dingle, a quaint harbor town in County Kerry. Mortimer
Reilly, a Mayo man known as ''Murty,'' worked for the Springfield
Department of Public Works.
''We knelt down and said the rosary, as a family, every night,''
the attorney general remembered.
Reilly fondly recalls the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught him
at Cathedral High School. His mother and a priest worked as a team
to get him into a Catholic college in Canada.
''The church I grew up in cared about kids,'' said Reilly.
As a young prosecutor, Reilly learned of a priest who had sexually
abused a child in Arlington, but he considered it an aberration.
When the extent of the abuse committed by former priest James Porter
in the Fall River Diocese became known in 1992, Reilly said he was
shocked, but he gave the church the benefit of the doubt after Law
announced a new policy to aggressively deal with allegations of
Then in January, as he read disclosure after disclosure about how
church officials had moved Geoghan from parish to parish, Reilly
As he read how the cardinal sent soothing letters to Geoghan, and
later to the Rev. Paul Shanley, an accused child rapist, praising
their priestly careers, he recalled reading two years earlier about
Sister Jeannette Normandin, a 72-year-old nun who was ousted from
a South End church because she violated canon law by baptizing two
boys. There was no second chance for the nun.
''And then look how they treated priests who raped children. They
were raping children,'' said Reilly. ''Where's the moral outrage?''
Besides getting mad, Reilly fired legal shots at the church, forcing
Law and the archdiocese repeatedly to alter course. After the initial
reports about Geoghan, the cardinal apologized for past mistakes
and promised to report any future allegations against priests to
the authorities - but not any accusations that had been made in
Reilly said Law's response reminded him of what the cardinal had
said a decade before in response to the Porter case.
''He was basically saying, `Trust us, give us the benefit of the
doubt, we'll create a commission to make sure this doesn't happen
again.' Well, we tried that. It didn't work.''
Fighting with the Irish rebels
When Reilly spoke out against Law, Essex District Attorney Kevin
M. Burke spoke with him.
Burke grew up in Malden, then moved to Beverly when he was 10.
His grandparents were Irish immigrants, and his grandmother was
a daily communicant. His grandfather served with the Irish rebels
who fought the British for independence, and never forgave the church
As children, Burke and his siblings attended Mass daily during
Lent. Burke looked upon priests ''as separate from the rest of us,
as special people, as holy people deserving our respect.'' But his
life experience changed those views.
In 2000, when Burke's office brought charges against Christopher
Reardon, a lay worker who pleaded guilty to raping and molesting
children, ''the church was less than forthcoming, to put it mildly,''
''But what really struck me, in communications with the archdiocese,
was that there was never any concern shown for the victims. Not
the slightest nod of concern for these young people whose lives
were turned upside down by this abuse,'' he said.
The inability of church leaders to sympathize with the victims
led Burke to conclude that the bishops were out of touch. Reilly
came to the same conclusion as he read Law's ''God bless you, Jack''
letter to Geoghan. ''The cardinal didn't send letters like that
to the victims,'' Reilly said.
A week after Law insisted there were no sexually abusive priests
working in the archdiocese, Reilly and Burke went public, saying
that prosecutors, elected and accountable to the public, should
be deciding the culpability of sexually abusive priests - not the
cardinal. They said Law's zero-tolerance policy had to be retroactive
to cover priests against whom allegations had been made, and which
still might be prosecutable.
''I wouldn't say Tom and I speaking out made us profiles in courage
as much as a reflection of the deference in society that has been
eroded,'' said Burke.
The cardinal quickly relented. But when the archdiocese refused
to turn over the information prosecutors needed to judge the merits
of the cases, Reilly called together the five district attorneys
who cover the archdiocese - Burke, Middlesex District Attorney Martha
Coakley, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, Norfolk District
Attorney William R. Keating, and Plymouth District Attorney Timothy
J. Cruz. The prosecutors, all of them Catholic, sent a letter to
the archdiocese containing a thinly veiled threat to haul church
leaders before a grand jury if it didn't turn over more information.
Less than 24 hours later, the prosecutors had what they wanted.
Reilly said the response from the public convinces him that ordinary
people want secular authorities to be less deferential.
''Almost every day, somebody comes up to me and says, `Keep doing
what you're doing,''' said Reilly.
Some believe prosecutors should be tougher
Some legal specialists say prosecutors haven't gotten tough enough.
Joseph di Genova, a former US attorney in Washington, said Boston-area
prosecutors are still being too soft on the church. And di Genova
said Coakley compromised herself by sitting on the commission Law
created in response to the scandal to explore ways to prevent abuse.
After her office filed rape charges against Shanley last week,
Coakley resigned from the commission, acknowledging there was at
least a perception of a conflict of interest. But she bristles at
charges that she and other prosecutors are afraid to go after the
''If we had the statutes, we'd prosecute anybody, including the
cardinal,'' she said. ''But the statutes are not there. We looked.
Civil law provides for remedies for negligent supervision. But in
Massachusetts, there are no criminal law provisions in this area.''
Reilly says he has not ruled out bringing charges against Law and
other church leaders.
Eight years ago, before it was fashionable, Coakley aggressively
prosecuted a priest for sexual abuse. Although she lost the case,
her willingness to pursue it was part of the process of challenging
the prevailing attitude that priests didn't do this sort of thing.
Coakley grew up in North Adams, went to Mass at St. Joseph's Church,
and to class at St. Joseph's School. Her father was a daily communicant.
Her two sisters went to Catholic colleges. She sang in the choir.
She sensed early on that women weren't equals in the church, but
''in general, I have fond memories of my growing up in the church.''
Coakley said the idea of priests sexually abusing children didn't
enter her consciousness until she was in her 30s, when she began
prosecuting sexual abusers.
''People expect the guy to be drooling, lurking around in a trench
coat. But when I started doing these cases, it became obvious that
most abusers are caretakers, respectable people who use that respectability
as a cover to carry out their abuse. There was an aura around priests
that protected them, and that protection extended to sexual abusers,''
In 1993, Coakley prosecuted a priest, the Rev. Paul Manning, for
sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy in a Woburn rectory. The victim
recanted, but Coakley pressed ahead, in part because Manning's chief
accuser was a credible witness - another priest, the Rev. Paul Sughrue.
She lost the case, but looks back at it now as part of an educational
process for her, the public, and the church. Despite his acquittal,
Manning was removed from ministry by the archdiocese. Coakley said
attitudes have changed dramatically in the eight years since she
unsuccessfully prosecuted Manning.
''I think juries are more willing to convict,'' she said.
Judges also more willing to issue tough sentences
Judges are more willing to mete out severe punishment, too.
When a Middlesex County jury in February convicted Geoghan of squeezing
the buttocks of a 10-year-old boy at a public swimming pool, the
indecent assault charge involved was one of the less egregious acts
of abuse he was alleged to have carried out over the years. But
Judge Sandra Hamlin stunned some legal observers by handing down
a 10-year sentence, the maximum allowed.
That sentence was much harsher than the one Judge Walter Steele
gave the Rev. Eugene O'Sullivan, the first priest in Massachusetts
convicted of sexual abuse, in 1984. The prosecutor, George Murphy,
asked for three to five years after O'Sullivan admitted he had anally
raped a 13-year-old altar boy. Steele gave the priest probation
on the condition he was not allowed to work with children. The Boston
Archdiocese ignored the judge by shipping O'Sullivan to a parish
in New Jersey.
In 1991, when prosecutors in Western Massachusetts went to get
a search warrant for the home of the Rev. Richard Lavigne, who later
pleaded guilty to molesting three boys, a judge refused to give
them a warrant, saying it would be outrageous for police to search
the home of a priest.
''There was a lot of deference shown the church,'' said David A.
Angier, who prosecuted Lavigne.
Judges, many of them Catholic, were complicit in the secrecy that
kept the extent of the abuse hidden from public view. Between 1992
and 1996, for example, a group of judges sitting in Boston chose
to impound all the records in five lawsuits involving three priests
who molested children because they reasoned that, as one judge put
it, ''the particulars of the controversy'' ought to be kept from
the public. In one case, a judge impounded all the records even
though the victim testified that he only wanted his identity kept
from public view.
In a confidential 1985 report done for US bishops, the church began
to realize its special treatment was in jeopardy. ''Our dependence
in the past on Roman Catholic judges and attorneys protecting the
diocese and clerics is gone,'' the report said.
That warning came true in the person of Judge Sweeney, a Springfield
native who spent 16 years in Catholic schools, the same amount of
time she has spent on the bench. Last year, Sweeney decided the
public interest outweighed the church's traditional First Amendment
defense, siding with a motion by the Globe to unseal Geoghan's file,
opening some 10,000 pages of internal church records which fueled
the unfolding scandal when they were made public in January.
And when the archdiocese reneged on paying Geoghan's victims, Sweeney
stunned Law's lawyers by ordering his deposition, saying the cardinal
was no different than anybody else.
Abuse was hidden from public view
The deference shown by Massachusetts lawmakers, three-quarters
of them Catholic, helped create a system by which predators like
Geoghan could sexually abuse children with impunity, shielded by
an archdiocese that had a strong incentive, and was within its legal
rights, to hide the abuse from public view.
Reilly said the refusal of Massachusetts legislators to include
clergy in a bill requiring police officers, teachers, doctors, and
social workers to report suspected child abuse that became law in
1983 was a disastrous mistake. On May 3, Massachusetts joined 28
other states that make clergy mandated reporters. Reilly said he
wonders how many children might have been left unharmed if the law
had been implemented two decades ago.
Marian Walsh, a state senator from West Roxbury, may have been
the cardinal's favorite lawmaker. But, after the scandal broke in
January, she filed a bill that would make the way Law handled abusive
priests a crime. The bill, still pending, would punish supervisors
who knowingly expose children to sexual abuse.
Walsh's grandparents arrived from Ireland with little more than
a steamer trunk. They worked hard to send her father to Boston College.
He went on to become an obstetrician. Her mother got two degrees
from Catholic colleges. The church was the family's anchor.
''Their faith was important to my parents as a couple,'' Walsh
said. ''They went on retreats. They tried hard to live their lives
according to the basic tenets of the church, and my parents sacrificed
a lot for the church.''
Walsh had long been an admirer of Law, especially for his outspoken
opposition to abortion and his work for social justice. Although
some Catholic legislators were opposed to abortion, Walsh was one
of the few who also sided with Law in opposing the death penalty.
But she was furious when she read of what she called Law's dishonesty
in handling Geoghan and other sexually abusive priests. She felt
''I never thought that a leading facilitator for child abuse would
be the church, where the church would supply the victims and hide
the perpetrators,'' she said.
''I understand why pedophiles do what they do. I still can't understand,
I still can't appreciate, how the church could do this, how sophisticated
and how diabolical this was. And how the cardinal could preside
After the Shanley documents were made public, Walsh became the
first state lawmaker to openly call for the cardinal's resignation.
When Law blamed poor recordkeeping for his failure to stop Shanley,
politicians of all stripes let him have it. There had been a discernible
change in the political culture of Massachusetts: The cardinal was
now fair game.
As one DA sees it, church should be worried
Burke believes the erosion of the deference shown the church could
lead to a ''mini-Reformation.''
''There's no Martin Luther here, and whether the Vatican pays attention,
who knows?'' he said. ''But we're dealing with a medieval organization,
an organization that represented authority to my grandparents and
other immigrants. It was an organization that was respected because
it educated them, it gave them a place in the New World, it gave
them an identity.
''But with assimilation, the average Catholic's need of the church
is not social or political, it's moral and spiritual. And this behavior
of the church is so at odds with being moral and spiritual. The
church's leaders should be worried about a lot of things, but they
should be most afraid of the lack of deference now shown them.
''They should not think that once this scandal fades, people will
come running back to them. I know I won't.''
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/12/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.