Perspectives: Bankruptcy Implications for Boston Archdiocese

Interview by Bob Abernethy of Michael Paulson
Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Episode No. 614
December 6, 2002

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Two major developments this week in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which has been at the center of the Church's sex abuse scandal. The archdiocese's Finance Committee, which advises Cardinal Bernard Law, gave him permission to file for bankruptcy, if he decides the archdiocese needs that protection. At present, more than 450 people claiming they were victims of sex abuse by Boston priests are asking for settlements that could cost an estimated $100 million.

Also this week, by court order, Church personnel records and correspondence were made public, containing what victims and their lawyers say is evidence that Church officials knew more than they had acknowledged about abusive priests and did not immediately remove them from ministry.

Michael Paulson is religion writer forthe BOSTON GLOBE. Michael, welcome. Let's begin with the debate about the bankruptcy possibility. What are the major arguments, for and against?

MICHAEL PAULSON: Well, the major argument in favor of bankruptcy is that it would allow the Church to bring some kind of organization to what's been an extraordinarily chaotic legal and financial situation for them with more than 450 victims pressing lawsuits, with revelations coming out steadily as files on priests are released. The arguments against are coming from many quarters. There are victims who are upset, who believe that the threat of bankruptcy is just that, a threat, and an effort to get them to settle. There are priests who don't like the symbolic import of the word "bankruptcy." They think it suggests a kind of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as well as financial bankruptcy. And for the archdiocese itself, bankruptcy would require turning over control of financial assets and of documents to a federal judge, which is something that no diocese in the country has ever allowed.

ABERNETHY: And what was most important about the documents that were released this week?

PAULSON: The documents this week were really extraordinary. We've had a lot of extraordinary cases of revelations about abuse by priests in Boston this year. But this week for the first time we saw allegations that a priest had physically beaten his housekeeper, that a priest had traded drugs for sex with a minor, and that a priest had stood idly by as his lover and the mother of his two children died of an overdose. Those kinds of allegations, in addition to the numerous allegations that priests had sexually abused minors over a number of decades, have really infuriated Catholics here in Boston.

ABERNETHY: And there are more such documents to come?

PAULSON: Yes, that's right. The lawyers representing the victims of one priest here, Paul Shanley, have succeeded in prying from the archdiocese -- with assistance of a judge -- documents on 83 priests from Boston, and those documents are slowly being released. There are 59 sets of files that have yet to become public.

ABERNETHY: And what are people saying around Boston about this? What do they tell you? What's going on with lay Catholics?

PAULSON: It's interesting, because many of us were wondering whether there was any capacity left for shock and outrage here after a year of revelations. But this week's disclosures have shown that there's a lot more outrage. People are furious, and both laypeople and priests are speaking out like never before. Already a majority of laypeople in Boston have indicated to pollsters that they wanted Cardinal Law to resign. But this week we're seeing more priests speaking out; we're seeing the leading lay organization here, Voice of the Faithful, getting ready to take a vote on Cardinal Law's status and the organization representing priests, the Boston Priest Forum, talking about doing the same.

ABERNETHY: And beyond the status of Cardinal Law, quickly, what else do people want?

PAULSON: I guess they want things at two levels. First, they want protection of their children. They want to know their children can serve as altar servers, can go to Catholic schools, can come to worship without fear of being molested by a Catholic priest. But then on the larger level, there's a lot of talk about whether the Church needs to change in more fundamental ways in terms of the way power is allocated: who becomes a bishop, who becomes a priest, celibacy, the role of women in the Church. All those issues are very much alive here.

ABERNETHY: Many thanks to Michael Paulson of the BOSTON GLOBE.

PAULSON: Thank you.


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