In Boston, Signs of Gradual Recovery Emerge

By John H. Allen, Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
January 25, 2008

Five years after Cardinal Bernard Law left Boston in the wake of one the most horrific scandals in the history of U.S. Catholicism, signs of gradual recovery are emerging. Most notably, the Boston archdiocese recently announced that the Catholic Appeal, its principal annual fundraising effort, raised $14.5 million in 2007, a 5 percent increase over the year before.

The financial picture is one of few measurable signs of recovery in an archdiocese where Mass attendance and donations plunged precipitously following unprecedented revelations of Law's ongoing cover-up of criminal sex abuse. Donations dropped from $17.2 million in 2000 to $8.8 million in 2002, when the dimensions of the scandal became public. Resentment against how church leaders had handled the crisis exploded in 2002, when The Boston Globe published an investigative report on notorious priest abuser John Geoghan and a Massachusetts judge released thousands of previously secret documents detailing the hierarchy's activities in transferring known child abusers among parishes and dioceses.

Although the clergy sex abuse crisis had been the subject of national and regional news reports since the mid-1980s, Boston was the first place where the full extent of the church's cover-up became public. The documents released by court order revealed both the horrifying details of abuse and the church's cavalier response to victims and others concerned about the ongoing abuse. The revelations were dramatically at odds with years of protestations by church leaders, including Law, blaming the media for exaggerating the scandal's extent.

Calls for Law's resignation increased with each new revelation. They culminated with the release of a letter, signed by 58 pastors of the archdiocese, asking Law to step down. Some credited that unprecedented vote of no confidence with finally tipping the scales against a powerful cardinal's right to remain in office. Law resigned within days of the letter's release.

Regaining the confidence of Boston Catholics was left to Law's successor, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, a Capuchin Franciscan, who seemed to set a new tone for pastoral leadership when he arrived on the scene in his order's traditional brown robe and sandals. O'Malley initially angered many Catholics with a plan that resulted in the closing of 62 of 357 parishes. Over time, though, he has earned praise from some of the church's strongest critics for a variety of initiatives that increased financial transparency and involved lay experts in devising a strategic plan and overseeing restructuring of the area's parochial school system.

Growing confidence was reflected in the 2007 appeal, up 57 percent from its low point in 2002, according to The Globe, but still down from pre-scandal levels. A total of 50,000 donors contributed to the 2007 campaign, up from a low of 38,000 in 2002, but still well under the 90,000 who gave in 2000.

If Law is now out of sight in Boston, he is not out of mind. In a letter to Pope Benedict XVI, delivered Jan. 9 to the pope's representative in the United States, members of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) called for Law's removal from eight Vatican congregations before the pope visits the United States in April.


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