A Mistake Left Alone

By Eileen McNamara
Boston Globe [Boston MA]
September 24, 2003

It is not enough to repent a misdeed, according to the teachings of the Catholic Church; one must strive to set right the wrong that has been done.

It is fine for Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley to promise there will be no more unilateral changes to the Policies and Procedures for the Protection of Children but, if he hopes to be taken seriously, he must rescind the one already made.

"It was a mistake to do it. It was wrong and it has to be fixed," Mary Jane Doherty of Regis College said of the revision that will deny victims of sexual predators in the priesthood access to the church's internal investigations.

The modification, which the canon lawyer, the Rev. Robert W. Oliver, dismisses as a minor, technical change, was made without consulting either the commission that drafted the policies or the panel charged with implementing them.

"This is a breach of our contract with the archdiocese," said Suzin Bartley, a clinical social worker and a member of the panel appointed by Cardinal Bernard F. Law to write the new policies. "We were told we had a certain role to play in this process and we intend to play it. We need to resist the removal of victims' rights to access to the church's investigations. The children and families of the archdiocese deserve more from us than that."

After working for 18 months to devise policies that will restore trust in the church, Bartley's own trust has been shaken.

"That this change happened without any, any consultation is such a clear example of how they got into trouble in the first place and why they will continue to get into trouble unless they learn that things have changed," she said.

Clearly, it is a steep learning curve. "Canon law and civil law are two different legal cultures but we have to communicate. They are just so left-footed down at the archdiocese, to put it mildly," noted Doherty, a scholar and an assistant to Regis College President Mary Jane England. England is a frustrated member of the cardinal's commission.

"Our perspective from the outset was that civil law trumps canon law when it comes to the protection of children," said England of commission members. "The goal here was to eliminate secrecy, to promote transparency so that trust could be rebuilt in the church. The women of the church will have a voice. When it comes to our children, we are lionesses. They've got to know that they cannot just withdraw back into the male hierarchy in the chancery. This is not an academic exercise. This is about the protection of children."

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly was prescient last July when he warned that the Archdiocese of Boston could not be trusted to police itself, that any internal review board was doomed to "favor abusive priests over their victims."

It is past time for the Archdiocese of Boston to submit to monitoring by an independent board of professionals whose first and last commitment is to the welfare of children.

Victims' rights groups are already trying to assemble just such a panel, and there are limits to what the experts the church has relied on in the past are willing to tolerate.

"If this isn't real, if all this work has not been about permanent, systemic change, then I'm out," said Bartley, director of the Massachusetts Children's Trust Fund. "There are lots of places I can turn my attention to the prevention of child abuse where I will be heard."

The humble friar, whose outreach to victims has earned him early and deserved praise, would do well to heed the advice Abigail Adams gave her husband, John, in 1776 as he set off to fashion a more just society: "Remember the ladies."

As Boston's archbishop is about to learn, the women of the modern Catholic Church are not nearly as patient as were the ladies of colonial America.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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