Will O'Malley Get It Right?

By Joseph E. Gallagher Jr.
Boston Globe [Boston MA]
August 27, 2003

AS WE REFLECT on the tragic turn of events that took the life of John Geoghan last weekend, we realize that as bad as any situation may seem, it can always get worse. And such is the case in the clergy sex abuse scandal that has rocked the American Catholic Church to its very core, especially in Boston. Even at this late date, when you'd have expected the church to have learned so much, it still falls woefully short of meeting the hopes and expectations of those abused by men who stood in the place of Christ. Understand this: There will be no healing in this church until victims experience the catharsis of genuine mercy and compassion devoid of the narrow vision and attitude that has had such an incendiary effect on past settlement talks. We refer to the following issues:

Settlement amounts: There is no "right" amount that will make victims whole, but there are "wrong" amounts that will leave them feeling revictimized once again. Victims are being bullied by the church to accept an offer without the benefit of full financial disclosure in at least two relevant areas -- first, a reasonable estimate of maximum insurance exposure, said to be in the range of $110 million, and, second, an analysis of their unused assets and properties available for sale here in Boston said to have an assessed value of $160 million, with a market value of perhaps as much as $250 million.

Thus, the church may have insurance and assets available for victims' settlements that could exceed $300 million before it has to reach into its operating funds.

Why then has their offer been so low? At $65 million -- the latest offer -- the average victim would receive less than $80,000 and lawyers' fees. That is a "wrong" number that would leave most victims feeling abused once again. What might the "right" number be? Consider the figure of $163 million, yielding victims some $200,000 after legal fees. It is exactly the per-victim amount granted to victims in Providence in 2002 and it would seem to be well within the limits of insurance coverage and the church's unused assets and properties. This would not be a settlement that victims could retire on. Far from it. But it can be a foundation for rebuilding shattered lives and souls.

It is time to stop the bargaining and begin the healing with a financial "leap of faith." An offer should be made that will not only not infuriate victims but will leave them encouraged at such a tangible sign of the church's desire to make amends, promote healing, and move on.

Full disclosure of records: More than any single element that could be offered, victims want the world to understand what happened to them and to thousands of others. They want their story told.

Historically, the church has bought the silence of victims and withheld full disclosure as a condition of settlement. History will judge Archbishop O'Malley by his display of or lack of courage on this point. We are reminded that while inFall River, Bishop O'Malley refused for over 10 years to reveal the names of 21 priests accused of sexual misconduct to the police and District Attorney Paul Walsh. Will he now have the courage to do the right thing? Will he ask, "What would Jesus do?"

Independent access to therapy: For too long, the church has insisted that in making therapy available to victims it will do so only when the victim has sought such help directly from an office of the Archdiocese. Why should a church that has so cruelly victimized the most vulnerable among us get to insist that survivors of such abuse grovel to that same church for access to therapy?

O'Malley must allow for an independent outreach and advocacy program for those who simply cannot approach the church for help. It could be ably administered by organizations such as Jane Doe, Victims of Violence, and Massachusetts Citizens for Children, who are ready to help, and it is supported by Attorney General Thomas Reilly. For what possible reason, other than arrogance or ignorance, would church officials not see the wisdom and compassion of this need?

Independent review board: The surest sign of "business as usual" would be a refusal on the part of the archdiocese to a truly independent review board to oversee the efforts of the church to protect children from clergy sexual abuse. Victims don't want a board of "fat cats" who, by their very appointment, are indebted to the archdiocese that appointed them. This just won't work and the attorney general has bluntly told O'Malley so. It is a tired, cynical, insider approach designed to appear as if the church is under close scrutiny. Not so, and we all know it.

Thus, by these four needs or their approximate equivalents, shall the efforts of the church and the archbishop be judged as visionary and heroic or myopic and bureaucratically timid. An effort by protagonists on both sides to break the mold, to offer heartfelt reparations, and to seek real avenues of healing could have the truly stunning effect of redemption for our church and its victims.

Yes, things can always get worse, which is why we need a giant of a leader who insists, no matter what the cost, that things must and will get better. Will that leader be Archbishop O'Malley?

Joseph E. Gallagher Jr. is co-founder of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, a victims advocacy group.

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