By Stephen Kurkjian
March 18, 2002
When Cardinal Bernard F. Law was asked in January to explain his 1984 decision to move the Rev. John J. Geoghan to a new parish knowing he had sexually abused children, Law declared: "I didn't have the knowledge, the experience with this issue, the wisdom of time that I have now."
As a bishop, Law apparently had handled only one similar case of reported sexual abuse prior to coming to Boston, and it appeared to have been resolved before his arrival here. Three years earlier, when he was bishop of a small diocese in southern Missouri in 1981, Law had removed the priest, the Rev. Leonard R. Chambers, who had been accused of molesting a child. After Chambers underwent treatment, Law assigned him to another parish.
Monsignor Thomas E. Reidy, the vicar general of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese, said last week that the 1981 incident was the lone allegation reported against Chambers.
"At least that was the only one that was ever reported to us," Reidy said. The 1981 accusation, he said, was the only such case that Law dealt with during his 10 years in Missouri.
In 1998, Chambers was permanently removed from duty for violating an order issued in the 1990s forbidding him from being alone with a minor.
Chambers, then 44, was accused in 1981 of molesting a teenage boy at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Springfield, Mo. After the boy's parents complained directly to Law, he removed Chambers and sent him to a psychiatric center for Catholic priests in Jemez Springs, N.M. Although he declined to discuss details of the offense, Reidy confirmed that parents of the child had accused Chambers of molesting their son.
"Absolutely, it was inappropriate behavior with a minor, and for it to involve a priest is unthinkable," Reidy said.
In a telephone interview, Chambers said that Law visited him twice in New Mexico during his 10 months of treatment. According to Reidy, the doctors pronounced Chambers rehabilitated in 1982, and Law allowed him to return to work as a priest in the diocese.
Law then assigned Chambers as pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Salem, Mo., without restricting Chambers's access to children. "The doctors believed I was rehabilitated and Bishop Law felt I was ready to serve in another parish, so I went back to work," Chambers said.
A year later, Chambers was moved again, to St. Mary's Church in Pierce City, Mo., and a year after that to Our Lady of the Cove Church in Kimberling City, Mo. Between 1973, when Law became bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese, and 1998 Chambers was shuttled through eight parishes in the diocese, even though assignments typically last at least five years, according to Reidy. There were no restrictions on his access to children until the mid-1990s.
Asked why Chambers was moved so frequently, Reidy said: "Leonard was a tough taskmaster and he tended to butt heads with people. Often, the best course to take was to make a transfer."
Reidy defended Law's returning Chambers to full pastor responsibilities in Salem.
"We didn't know as much about this problem then as we do now," Reidy said. "It was thought, wrongly, perhaps, as it turns out, that people could be cured of this illness."
Donna M. Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Boston, did not return calls yesterday seeking comment.
In the early 1980s, many psychiatrists believed that child molesters could be cured. Even so, Salem's top law enforcement officer last week criticized Law for failing to inform police that Chambers had molested a child.
"I'd have liked to have known about it, certainly," said Clifford Jadwin, then county sheriff and now Salem police chief.
He added that because child sex abuse is difficult to detect, "if there had been a problem in the past, it would have been good to know about it so we could have made checks."
In the mid-1990s, Reidy said, Bishop John J. Leibrecht, who succeeded Law, decided as a precautionary measure to impose restrictions on Chambers that barred him from being alone with any minor. Then, in 1998, a couple contacted Leibrecht to complain that Chambers had "been acting strangely" toward their son, Reidy said.
When Chambers was asked about the complaint, Reidy said, he acknowledged that he had been alone with the boy, and denied that he had done anything inappropriate. However, because Chambers had violated one of the restrictions imposed by Leibrecht, he was ordered to retire as an active priest.
In the years since Law left for Boston in early 1984, Reidy said, two other priests in the diocese have been accused of having improper conduct with minors, and both were removed from active ministry. He declined to identify the priests or to provide details of their cases.
Referring to Law's 1982 reassignment of Chambers, Reidy said: "Maybe we should be criticized for returning him to pastoral duties, but back then we were operating under a whole different set of assumptions than we are now."
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