Law's Disgrace (Continued)

By Kristin Lombardi
Boston Phoenix [Boston MA]
Dowloaded December 18, 2003

CLEARLY, SOME things about the Church have changed — at least, in Boston. It used to be that a good Boston Catholic prayed, paid, and obeyed. But that mentality faded almost as soon as the scandal exploded. This year, faithful parishioners asked questions; they demanded answers; they withheld donations. Now that they have developed a voice, many of them are not about to go back to their old, obedient ways. "The laity has risen up and changed the minds of Vatican officials," says Dittrich, of the VOTF. And that, in and of itself, reflects a positive step toward change.

Dittrich knows that it requires what she calls "a leap of faith" to believe that the Catholic Church will exhibit a new attitude toward clergy sexual abuse. Yet she and her colleagues remain undaunted. The VOTF, which boasts 25,000 members in roughly 40 states nationwide, intends to keep up the pressure on Church leaders to end their longstanding penchant for secrecy and self-policing on this issue — and its focus extends well beyond the Boston archdiocese. On December 11 — the same day it demanded Law’s resignation — the group called on Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to require every US diocese to make public its sealed documents detailing abuse accusations against priests. Their goal: to guarantee that the problem does not fade from the limelight after Law’s dramatic exit. "We have to remind ourselves to stay vigilant," Dittrich says. "If we don’t change the culture of secrecy, then sunlight and truth will be unavailable to us."

Whether such vigilance will matter is an open question, of course, one that depends upon the man who succeeds Cardinal Law. Bishop Richard Lennon, who is in charge of the Boston archdiocese until a new archbishop is selected, comes to his new position largely unknown. His peers portray him as a kind, humble, and pastoral man — in short, as Law’s antithesis. And Lennon has wasted no time reaching out to those who have been harmed by the scandal. In a December 13 statement announcing his appointment as apostolic administrator, he offered prayers "for the victims and families who have been hurt by the sin of sexual abuse of children by clergy." Two days later, in his first public remarks at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, in the South End, he trumpeted: "God willing, not only can things change, but things can improve." His words were met with rousing applause from parishioners. But as a temporary figurehead, who has served as bishop for only 18 months, Lennon is unlikely to be named Law’s permanent replacement. And so, the future of the archdiocese remains uncertain. Offers Richard Sipe, a long-time expert on clergy sexual abuse, "This situation is so unique that predicting anything is really guessing. There are just too many ifs."

Then again, one thing seems certain: the horror of the clergy sex-abuse scandal will probably get worse. There is, after all, the ongoing grand-jury investigation by Attorney General Tom Reilly into the archdiocese’s apparent cover-up of child molestation by priests. Just last week, after delivering subpoenas to Law and seven former or current bishops, Reilly promised to unleash "all his investigative tools" to drag the truth out of Church leaders. There are, in addition, 450 pending civil lawsuits against the archdiocese. On the same day that Law stepped down, victims’ lawyers received another 18 boxes of Church files outlining allegations of priestly misconduct. And then, there’s the cry for other bishops to follow in Law’s footsteps — starting with the one-time Boston officials whose names appear all over the records of abusive priests, including John McCormack of Manchester, New Hampshire; Alfred Hughes of New Orleans; Robert Banks of Green Bay, Wisconsin; Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, New York; and William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York. Last Wednesday, the New Hampshire diocese became the first diocese to admit that it violated criminal laws when Bishop McCormack signed a legal settlement acknowledging that state prosecutors had enough evidence to issue a criminal indictment against the diocese. Although McCormack has refused to step down, victims and their advocates have him in their cross hairs. "There was decay within the Boston archdiocese," says Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, whose handling of 84 lawsuits against Geoghan ignited the current crisis and who has deposed all five men. "And this calls for leaders of the Catholic Church to look within themselves and decide whether other bishops must now step down."

In the end, when all is said and done, maybe Law’s departure will have marked a sad day. But not for the cardinal. Or the Catholic Church. For the victims. Who among them can feel good about all the sympathy lavished on Law after what they’ve been through? As Father Doyle puts it: "It’s sad that so many victims and their families have had to be sacrificed and hung out to dry before Church leaders began to wake up." Now that is a sad thing, indeed.


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