Houses of Worship: Abuse on Trial
Boston's Archbishop Answers a Pedophilia Scandal with a Corporate Dodge

By Charles Molineaux
Wall Street Journal
January 18, 2002

John Geoghan, 66, a former Catholic priest, went on trial in Boston this week, accused of molesting an 11-year-old boy. But the Catholic Church must feel on trial, too, for it is accused of looking the other way.

This trial concerns only one boy, but many, many others claim to have been sexually abused by Mr. Geoghan—more than 130. The church has reportedly paid out millions of dollars already to compensate his apparent victims, and may pay out millions more when dozens of civil cases are finally settled.

At the center of the controversy is Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, who is said to have transferred Mr. Geoghan from one church to another despite his knowing of Mr. Geoghan's wrongdoing. Indeed, the archbishop faces dozens of lawsuits himself.

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On the eve of trial, Cardinal Law issued a sort of apology, but it was too little too late, and in itself points to the difficulty the church has had grappling with wayward priests.

As a recent article in Crisis magazine noted, massive amounts of money have flowed out of the church's coffers in recent years—money that could have gone to good works and important church functions—to settle sex-abuse suits like those that face Cardinal Law and Mr. Geoghan. This is itself a scandal. But of course the problem isn't primarily financial. Priestly abuse threatens the church's spiritual mission—bringing souls to Christ. And the church's failure to act decisively against it shows a stunning moral laxity, one that substitutes denials of responsibility and legal posturing for a proper reckoning.

This can be seen in the Geoghan case. Cardinal Law broke his public silence only last July, with an article in the Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper. There he denied negligence in the repeated transfers of Mr. Geoghan during his administration. As court documents have shown, though, Cardinal Law had been notified by letter in September 1984 that Mr. Geoghan, then still a priest, had molested at least seven boys. Cardinal Law then transferred him to another parish and later to other parishes. Father Geoghan retired in 1993 and was defrocked in 1998, two years after the accusations became public.

In his column, Cardinal Law said that in 1993 he had approved a written policy for handling the sexual abuse of minors by priests. By his own account, the policy was directed at providing counseling for the victims and treatment for the alleged perpetrator; Cardinal Law actually seemed to suggest that a victim may lose out by going to the police. He wrote: "Obviously, there are instances when the victim chooses to go first to a lawyer or to the police. Even in such cases, the policy can go into play with regard to the priest, even though we may be inhibited from doing all we would like to do with regard for the victim by the victim's own choice." The implication: Trust us.

He also said: "Society has been on a learning curve with regard to the sexual abuse of minors. The Church, too, has been on a learning curve." It was surprising to read that the church, after 2,000 years of experience with sin and recidivism, is on some sort of business-management learning curve about such ghastly and repeated conduct.

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Around the same time, the cardinal's attorney asserted in court documents that some of Mr. Geoghan's victims were "not in the exercise of due care" and that their "negligence" contributed to the molestation. The public outcry caused by this assertion forced a retreat by the archdiocesan spokeswoman, who claimed rather feebly that it was "standard legal language."

At least there was no "learning curve" jargon in the cardinal's apology of last week, but the tone was still bureaucratically defensive, claiming that a panel of experts had been directed to "review" the archdiocesan policy about abuse cases and that, in deciding what to do with Mr. Geoghan, the church had relied on "psychiatric assessments and medical opinions." What kind of corporate dodge is that, coming from Christ's shepherd? And at the press conference the cardinal twice ducked questions as to whether the church would continue to try to block the release of its documents. In any case, a major document release has been ordered by a court in the civil suits next week.

It is instructive to recall that last October the Roman Catholic archbishop of Cardiff, Wales, acknowledging his responsibility for not properly addressing pedophilia scandals in his own archdiocese, resigned. Cardinal Law should follow his example.

Mr. Molineaux, a member of the Knights of Malta, is a lawyer in Washington.


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