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The Church and Chapter 11

New York Times Editorial
December 5, 2002

If there is a way to compound the folly so painfully on display in the Boston Archdiocese's handling of sexually abusive priests, surely Cardinal Bernard Law is facing it in the prospect that the archdiocese declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Perhaps the cardinal's lawyers think a spiritual crisis might be scuttled for 10 cents on the dollar like some dot-com fiasco. Ghastly fresh evidence of the scandal emerged this week from records that had to be pried from the diocese by a determined Boston judge.

Cardinal Law has been putting more emphasis lately on publicly sympathizing with "the victims of this crime, this sin." But the new disclosures showed him sympathizing at least as ardently six years ago with "the pain endured by those who have been accused." This was in a private note to a priest finally reined in after years of violation complaints from young women.

The new records show that the archdiocese's familiarity with the scandal had reached the point of cynical shorthand. "Problem: little children" was the private notation about one protected, notorious abuser attributed to Bishop Thomas V. Daily, who moved on from Boston to be the bishop of Brooklyn.

As painful as this is to church leaders, the fullest disclosure of abuses is a minimal prerequisite for rebuilding the laity's shattered confidence that their church might once more be entrusted with the care of tender children.

But rather than painful candor, the bankruptcy tactic could make a caricature of Cardinal Law — a shepherd crying for sanctuary in a courthouse retreat from his flock's pleas for full disclosure about this vile plague. In previous finessings of secular law, the diocese prized the secrecy of damage settlements sealed by the courts. Churchmen also presumed the right to vet and bury charges that rightfully belonged in the criminal law realm. In the process, suspect priests were shipped out to fresh pastoral fields.

With secrecy no longer purchasable, the diocese would in bankruptcy be resorting to a Dickensian world of dry, drawn-out litigation inviting limited disclosure and an air of drowsiness to descend on what should be the most imperative concern of the soul, the abuse of innocent youngsters by their spiritual guides. Jeffrey Newman, a lawyer pressing some of the pending 450 claims of abuse, vows to use any bankruptcy proceeding for unprecedented delving into the Boston church's administrative records.

Cardinal Law has given no sign that he will ultimately accept that risk. But the mere broaching of the possibility of bankruptcy weakens his current attempt to appear more apologetic to the many faithful families still suffering from the diocese's protection of predatory priests. Courthouse bankruptcy promises no deliverance from the specter of spiritual bankruptcy.

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