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Clerical Sexual Abuse Scandal Widens in Boston Archdiocese

By Chuck Colbert, National Catholic Reporter
February 8, 2002

The ever-expanding scandal of clerical sex abuse reported here -- unraveling in newspapers, radio and television broadcasts -- widened last week to include claims against many more priests, including many accused of sexual abuse in the past.

The Boston archdiocese has received heavy criticism since Jan. 9, when The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight Team” published a comprehensive history of the allegations of child sex abuse against former priest John Geoghan, and the handling of those charges by the archdiocese. Geoghan, convicted of assault of a 10-year-old boy this January, faces trial, to begin Feb. 20, for rape of a 7-year-old. He also faces more than 80 civil suits accusing him of child sex abuse (NCR, Feb. 1).

Ordained in 1962, he was retired from active ministry in 1994. He was involuntarily laicized in 1998.

On Jan 31, The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight Team” made banner headlines again: “Scores of priests involved in sex abuse cases.” The lead sentence of the new investigative report reads: “Under an extraordinary cloak of secrecy, the archdiocese of Boston in the last 10 years has quietly settled child molestation claims against at least 70 priests.”

The Globe report goes on to say that out-of-court “settlements kept the scope of the issue out of the public eye.” The Globe reported, “Although the settlements are secret, the church’s annual directories, which list where priests are assigned, are public. From them, the Globe developed a database to track assignments of clergy, and those data strongly suggest that large numbers of priests were involved in sexual abuse cases that were settled.”

That front-page story hit newsstands, doorsteps, and the paper’s Web page, along with reports that officials of the local archdiocese gave names of dozens of priests suspected of pedophilia in the past to law enforcement officials, including district attorneys and local chiefs of police.

The Globe published a list of 24 “convicted and accused” of sexual misconduct, citing them as “clergy identified through pending lawsuits, publicly settled lawsuits, confirmed private settlements, criminal charges, and church officials.”

On the same day, moreover, The Boston Herald, the city’s other daily newspaper, ran a front-page story, “Church ID’s 40 years of alleged pedophile priests.” That story reported that “six district attorneys and several police chiefs were given the identities of suspected pedophiles, but not their alleged victims.”

The Herald reported the reaction of one victim, Joseph Parker, of Haverhill, Mass., who says that a former priest molested him decades ago.

“It’s a tremendous sense of validation. When you live with this alone for such a long time, to finally have some verification of it is liberating,” Parker said

Yet another Herald story, headlined “Handling of clergymen by archdiocese,” reported that in reviewing four decades of accusations alleging clerical sexual misconduct -- information provided by local diocesan officials themselves and gleaned from court files -- a pattern emerges. Most cases fit the same patterns: Allegations, reassignment, brief respites for care, further postings, more allegations, in some cases defrocking, suits and hidden settlements for the victims to keep the matter within church walls,” according to the Herald.

The story came a few days after Cardinal Bernard Law, in a policy reversal, announced that he would turn over names to law enforcement officials of former priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Initially, the archdiocese was reluctant to report, retroactively, cases of alleged misconduct.

But as the local scandal unfolded in the following weeks, Law changed his mind.

“As I reflect on this whole issue, from the perspective of the child, I believe that everything that can possibly be done to protect a child from that kind of abuse must be done,” Law said at a news conference Jan. 25.

By Jan. 30, Law delivered on his pledge to turn over the names of suspects. As the archdiocese handed over names of clergy members suspected of sexually abusing minors, a spokesperson for the cardinal, Donna M. Morrissey said that “none of the individuals being reported is currently in active service in the archdiocese.”

On Jan. 26, Law released an open letter, a comprehensive response to the scandal, to members of the archdiocese. Key points included detection and deterrence of sexual abuse, education regarding it, continuing pastoral care for victims and their families, and legal processes.

So far, Law refuses to consider stepping down as head of the archdiocese. He compared the relationship between himself and the local church to marriage.

“The relationship between bishop and his diocese, in our case between me and this archdiocese, is a sacred and serious one. It seeks to reflect the relationship between Christ and the church in much the same way as the Sacrament of Matrimony does. The bishop’s ring, like the wedding ring, symbolizes the commitment and love of the bishop to the faithful of his diocese,” Law wrote.

The letter also spoke of his grief and sorrow. “With humble sorrow and hopeful faith, I turn to our loving God and to you, the faithful of this archdiocese, and seek your forgiveness and support.”

Meanwhile, local newspaper columnists continue to call Law to task. Boston Globe op-ed page columnist Joan Vennochi, for example, in her Jan. 29 column headlined “Archbishop in name only,” wrote that “Law has lost his moral authority,” adding, “Cardinal Law can stay or go … it really doesn’t matter.”

Taking aim at the church with a broad stroke of the pen, she went on to say, “It [the church] is rigid, unyielding and unwilling to compromise. It turns a deaf ear to members of the flock who beg to be heard. Now the flock is applying the same unyielding standard to a cardinal. Parishioners reared on the sacrament of penance may forgive. But they will not accept Law as a figure of moral authority.”

That op-ed struck a chord with one woman, a divorced and remarried Catholic, who said, “Vennochi got that right. Rigid, unyielding, and unwilling to compromise -- if Law will not accept me as a member in good standing, I will not accept him!”

Yet one columnist for the Herald, Joe Fitzgerald, wrote on Jan. 30 a more supportive response to Law’s handling of the pedophilia cases.

“He is the corporate face of a very embarrassed church, but that does not make him guilty of anything other than what he claims to be, which is ‘profoundly sorry’ for all the damage that has been done.”

Chuck Colbert is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002

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