Archdiocese Problems Linger under Interim Leader
Lennon Has Spent Time Pushing for Global Settlement
TheBostonChannel.com [Boston MA]
Downloaded March 24, 2003
BOSTON -- When Bishop Richard Lennon emerged from obscurity to head the Boston archdiocese on an interim basis, he inherited a clergy sex abuse crisis, hundreds of lawsuits, dissent among fellow priests and skepticism by parishioners.
In the first 100 days of his service as interim head of the archdiocese, Lennon hasn't engendered the same level of criticism as his predecessor -- Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in mid-December -- and the intensity of the debate has tapered off.
Still, continuing efforts by church lawyers to scuttle hundreds of lawsuits against the archdiocese -- by seeking to limit the potential amount of damages to pressing First Amendment separation of church and state claims -- have stirred some skepticism toward Lennon's leadership.
"His efforts at denying responsibility for settlements by suggesting First Amendment separation between church and state is offensive, especially given his call for healing," said Bill Gately, the New England spokesman for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"It seems inconsistent to me, and it's caused me to wonder if it's more empty rhetoric rather than sincere pastoral concern."
Lennon was president of St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Mass., when he was named apostolic administrator in mid-December, on the day the pope accepted Law's resignation from the fourth-largest diocese in the U.S.
At a news conference five days later, Lennon listed his priorities as protecting children, unifying the church and helping victims heal.
Since then, Lennon has spent much of his time pushing for a global settlement in the approximately 500 lawsuits now pending against the archdiocese for its decades-long mishandling of priests accused of sexually abusing children.
He promoted the idea of a temporary moratorium on litigation so both church lawyers and victims' lawyers could focus on mediation designed to settle the cases without going to trial.
But Lennon has also angered abuse victims by failing to stop church lawyers from using what they consider hardball tactics. Church lawyers have subpoenaed victims' psychotherapists and unsuccessfully tried to get the lawsuits dismissed on First Amendment grounds.
Last week, church lawyers filed long-anticipated court documents arguing that the state's charitable immunity law, which limits damages to $20,000 per victim, should be applied to lawsuits against the church.
A 90-day moratorium began late last month, but progress has been slow, according to victims' lawyers. There have been no joint negotiating sessions with the two sides seated across a table from one another, although two mediators have been working with both sides.
"Things are not going fast, I can tell you that," said Carmen Durso, a Boston attorney who represents 35 people who are suing the archdiocese for sexual abuse by priests.
"He said a bunch of stuff at the very beginning, but I don't see the signs of what he talked about doing. Certainly, the progress of the talks don't seem to reflect his influence in any way."
Lennon has said he does not know how long he will be in the job. He's been told only that he will be apostolic administrator until a new bishop is appointed by the pope.
In a round of press interviews in January, Lennon said the various legal moves are necessary to satisfy the church's insurance carriers, in hopes that they will pay at least a portion of settlement costs expected to exceed $100 million.
"I've only made decisions based upon the sincere hope of achieving a comprehensive settlement," Lennon told The Associated Press at the time. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
His spokesman, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, said Lennon has spent his first 100 days working on efforts to manage a crisis that was decades in the making. Along with that, he said, Lennon inherited "the necessary legal process that's part of it."
"His efforts toward a general settlement have proven fruitful, at least in terms of keeping the process moving and placing our energies in that forum rather than in prolonged court battles," Coyne said.
Lennon has also focused on the archdiocese's budget problems, attempting to make cuts to close a $4 million shortfall projected for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. Earlier this month, Lennon told pastors he will have to close an unspecified number of parishes and schools.
During the pre-Easter holy season of Lent, Lennon made the rounds of parishes within the archdiocese, celebrating Masses in the region and inviting priests to meet with him. At each Mass, he's offered prayers of healing and reconciliation for all those affected by clergy sexual abuse.
Lennon has won the support of some priests who had called for Law's resignation.
"There's a very different atmosphere. Things have clearly improved," said the Rev. Robert Bullock, a leader of the Boston Priests Forum. "Bishop Lennon is very, very likable and admired by priests and other people. He has very good pastoral skills."
But Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic reform group that was sharply critical of Law, says not much has changed since Lennon took over.
At a meeting earlier this month with the group's president, Jim Post, Lennon refused to immediately reverse a policy set by Law barring new chapters of the laity group from meeting on church property, but did not rule out lifting the ban in the future.
"I told him the bans are very divisive and an affront to Catholics," Post said.
But Post and others say they are willing to continue to work with Lennon, who they see as more willing to listen than Law.
"He is meeting with survivors -- in one-on-one meetings -- and I think he certainly has some deeper understanding of the impact that the abuse has had on the lives of these people," Post said.
"This is a person who is working 24/7 to address a set of problems that nobody would wish on another person. I think he truly cares deeply about the archdiocese and about healing."
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