March 2002

The Scandal in Boston—and Beyond

The corruption of the American hierarchy is manifest in the persistent failure
to address the question of priestly pedophilia from a spiritual perspective.

By Philip F. Lawler

Even the most imaginative dramatist, with the most malign attitude toward the Church, would have been hard pressed to produce a scenario in which the Catholic Church was humiliated as quickly and thoroughly as the Archdiocese of Boston was in the opening days of 2002. Within a matter of weeks the Catholic Church—which in theory commands the allegiance of roughly one-half the people living in the region —had been reduced to irrelevance as a force in Boston’s public affairs. And Cardinal Bernard Law, the American prelate with the most seniority within the College of Cardinals, was facing a rising chorus of demands for his resignation.

The proximate cause of the Boston disaster was the case of John Geoghan, a defrocked priest who was facing 84 separate lawsuits and two criminal trials, arising from complaints that he had sexually abused young boys repeatedly during his priestly career. In November of last year, against the vigorous objections of the Boston archdiocese, Judge Constance Sweeney ruled that the documents surrounding the Geoghan case should be made public. And on January 6 the Boston Globe used the first available documents as the basis for a devastating report showing that Geoghan had been charged with molesting 130 boys; that the archdiocese had already reached out-of-court settlements in 50 cases, at a cost of $10 million, and that the archdiocese had been warned about Geoghan’s predatory behavior at least 15 years before he was finally removed from active priestly ministry.

The Globe story opened the floodgates for a deluge of press reports, with shocking new headlines appearing virtually every day. A decade earlier, the Catholics of Massachusetts had been jolted by the case of James Porter, another former priest who was found guilty of 41 counts of sexual abuse. Now they learned that the Porter case was not unique. In fact, the ripples from the Geoghan case soon produced charges against dozens of other Boston priests.

“And newspapers speculate that as many as 50 priests may eventually be accused,” wrote columnist John O’Sullivan, in a sharply critical analysis of the archdiocesan reaction. He continued:

That is almost certainly a large exaggeration. But suppose that the true figure is five. Would that not be shocking enough?

Like thousands of others, O’Sullivan was due for another shock; the newspapers had seriously underestimated the number of pedophile priests. By mid-February the count in Boston had risen to above 80, and Cardinal Law was warning his priests that still more accusations were likely.

(About 1,500 priests are currently active in the Boston archdiocese, including members of religious orders. Since the accusations covered a period of over 30 years, during which time scores of priests have retired while dozens more have been ordained, it is difficult to calculate the percentage of Boston priests implicated. But it seems reasonable to project a figure approaching four percent—certainly a small minority, but by no means an insignificant one.)

In free fall
As the negative headlines tumbled out, one on top of another, spokesmen for the archdiocese were struggling in vain to keep abreast of the latest accusations. Time after time, a reassuring statement by Cardinal Law was contradicted by new headline reports. The cardinal told reporters that the archdiocese was not aware of any priest currently engaged in parish ministry who faced sex-abuse allegations. Within a week, a young priest was arrested and charged with rape; later reports indicated that the archdiocese had prior knowledge of the impending arrest. The cardinal pledged that the archdiocese would cooperate fully with prosecutors; within hours local district attorneys were loudly complaining that the chancery would not surrender needed documents. The cardinal promised that victims of sexual abuse would receive prompt payment on any reasonable financial claims; the next day lawyers for several victims disclosed that they had been warned the coffers were already empty.

Pouncing on an opportunity, the public enemies of Catholicism seized the offensive. Radio talk shows included hour after hour of jeering criticism of Catholic priests and bishops. The Boston Globe featured a parade of “expert” witnesses who suggested that the problem of priestly pedophilia was caused by the discipline of celibacy, and helpfully suggested that the Church might restore her credibility by abandoning traditional Catholic teachings on contraception, homosexuality, abortion, and the ordination of women. It did not matter that such arguments were non-sequiturs; the feeding frenzy had begun, the critics of Catholicism had overrun the rhetorical field, and the media had no time to listen to Catholic apologists.

In the state legislature, too, the rout was complete. Lawmakers hastily approved a bill requiring clergymen to report all credible accusations of child abuse; after initially opposing the bill, the Catholic bishops recognized that their argument was futile and withdrew their objection. Brushing aside complaints by Catholic lobbyists, the legislators gave their overwhelming approval to a bill requiring contraceptive coverage in health-insurance policies. A proposed amendment exempting religious institutions was roundly defeated. And adding insult to injury, after the contraception bill passed through the state senate without a single negative vote, the New Bedford Standard Times published a follow-up analysis arguing that the Catholic Church had exerted too much control over the legislation!

Morale among the clergy of Boston slipped to unprecedented lows. Parish priests reported that they were afraid to be seen in public wearing a Roman collar; many admitted that they were spending long hours alone in their rectories. Some priests complained that charges of sexual abuse were being accepted—and financial settlements made —without adequate evidence. Many of the priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct protested their innocence, and a few claimed that the archdiocese had paid off alleged victims before even informing them, the accused priests, of the charges! One angry priest told this writer that with the archdiocese now desperately anxious to avoid any accusation of a cover-up, he feared: “If there’s one accusation against me, even if it’s completely untrue and unfounded, I could be in the headlines tomorrow.”

The learning curve
These are the facts of the Boston scandal. What can we learn from them?

First it is important to bear in mind (if any reminder is necessary) that the Archdiocese of Boston is not alone. Scandals involving sexual abuse by priests have already taken a heavy toll on the dioceses of Lafayette, Louisiana; Fall River, Massachusetts; Dallas, Texas; and Santa Fe, New Mexico; bishops have been pressured into early retirement in Palm Beach, Florida; Santa Rosa, California; and Springfield, Illinois. New scandals are even now emerging in Tucson, Arizona, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. This is not an isolated disease but a nationwide epidemic.

Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the US bishops’ conference, has asserted: “There has been a dramatic improvement in the handling of these cases, a fact which many in the media have insufficiently recognized.” But evidence of a “dramatic improvement” is difficult to find. The treatment of the Geoghan case by the Boston archdiocese in 2002 is depressingly familiar to anyone who saw the story of Gilbert Gauthe unfold in Louisiana nearly 20 years ago. (Gauthe, like Geoghan, was shuffled from parish to parish, leaving behind a trail of abused boys, until a series of lawsuits brought the case to public attention.)

Late July, before the Geoghan case began commanding regular front-page attention, Cardinal Law tackled the topic of sexual abuse in a column written for the archdiocesan newspaper, the Boston Pilot. “It is fair to say,” he wrote, “that society has been on a learning curve with regard to the sexual abuse of minors. The Church, too, has been on a learning curve.” Each of those claims is debatable.

Has society at large changed its attitudes toward sexual abuse? In 1982, Margaret Gallant—an ordinary Catholic woman, with no special expertise in the field—accurately discerned that John Geoghan’s activities were gravely sinful, illegal, and scandalous. Unlike her archbishops, she did not need a “learning curve.”

For decades, the sexual abuse of minor children has been classified as a felony in all 50 American states. In an op-ed column written for USA Today in February 2002, Bishop Wilton Gregory—the president of the US bishops’ conference—solemnly observed: “The law rightly makes it clear that sexual abuse of minors is a crime. We have been enlightened.” That “enlightenment” was late in coming to the American bishops; the laws have been on the books in many states for over a century. Nor should it come as a revelation to Catholic leaders that child abuse is a serious problem; the Didache, a 1st-century collection of Christian moral teachings, lists the sexual abuse of minors as a grave offense.

The laws of all 50 states also stipulate that anyone who has evidence of such abuse must bring that evidence to the attention of prosecutors. In 22 states (including Massachusetts, until new legislation takes effect), clergymen are exempted from that reporting requirement, in recognition of their role as confessors and confidential counselors. But Catholic priests and bishops have obviously abused that exemption, covering up facts that emerged not in confessionals or counseling sessions, but in personnel reports and even in courtroom proceedings.

From cover-up to containment
When Margaret Gallant complained about the priest who had molested her nephews, she was asked to keep the matter silent “to protect the boys.” Later, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros (who was Archbishop of Boston until his death in 1983) asked her to maintain her silence, recognizing “a very delicate situation and one that has caused great scandal.” Like many others before and after her, she was asked to tolerate a grave sin, purportedly for the good of the Church.

Long after the public exposure of priestly pedophiles, representatives of the Catholic hierarchy were working to suppress evidence of the problem. In 2000, a parish youth worker in Middleton, Massachusetts, was arrested on sex-abuse charges. Lawyers for the Archdiocese of Boston quickly descended on the scene to coach members of the parish staff, reportedly urging them to be discrete in their comments to police investigators. Despite their efforts, it soon became clear that the parish had something else to hide: the pastor had engaged in a series of homosexual liaisons. The priest’s own transgressions—which were well known to the parish staff, and apparently to the archdiocesan lawyers —presumably made him loath to confront the evidence of child abuse by the parish youth worker. And beyond that particular scandal, the official policy of the Boston archdiocese sheltered pedophile priests from criminal charges until early this year—when the overdue change in policy was obviously prompted by a blizzard of lawsuits and adverse publicity.

Even as he announced the new policy of identifying abusers, Cardinal Law couched his public statement in careful, lawyerly language. He wrote:

In retrospect, I acknowledge that, albeit unintentionally, I have failed in that responsibility. The judgments, which I made, while made in good faith, were tragically wrong.

My acknowledgment, in retrospect, that the response of the Archdiocese and me personally to the grave evil of the sexual abuse of children by priests was flawed and inadequate . . .

Now, belatedly, Cardinal Law announced a policy that would include the reporting of sexual abuse, detection and deterrence of sexual abuse, education regarding sexual abuse, pastoral care for the victims of sexual abuse, and cooperation in resolving the legal claims of victims of sexual abuse. He set up a blue-ribbon committee, composed of distinguished physicians and medical-school faculty members, to set new standards for archdiocesan policy.

But Cardinal Law’s new policy did not include a vow to seek out and eradicate the original causes of the sex-abuse epidemic. His approach, with its heavy emphasis on the counsel to be drawn from medical experts, suggested that sexual abuse was a medical problem that must be contained, rather than a vice that must be suppressed.

The most flagrant example of this blindness to spiritual concerns, in the case of John Geoghan, came when the troubled priest was evaluated at the St. Luke’s Institute in 1995. A “spiritual assessment” by Father Canice Connors, OFM, the president of the Institute at that time, concluded that “there are no particular recommendations concerning his spiritual life since he is involved in spiritual direction and seems to have a good prayer life.” Is it really plausible that a man with a history of raping children does not need to make major changes in his spiritual life?

In fact, one unvarying characteristic of the American bishops’ approach to the sex-abuse scandal—from the 1980s through the present, and from Lafayette to Dallas to Boston—has been the failure to emphasize the spiritual dimension of the problem. It was a layman, John O’Sullivan, writing for a secular outlet, National Review Online, who observed about the Geoghan case that “there was apparently a shortage of millstones in Boston over the last three decades.” O’Sullivan continued:

Christ himself would have spoken far more harshly to John Geoghan and the other priests who destroyed the innocence of those in their care. Yet in speaking harshly he would have loved them more. For he might have turned them away from the sins that corrupted their souls and attacked the bodies of children in their charge. Geoghan himself can only hope to find in prison the stern but loving Christ whom he evaded all too easily in the Boston Archdiocese.

The least of my brethren
The working patterns of priests who prey on children are clear. They pursue vulnerable youngsters: boys who are lonely or emotionally troubled; boys from broken homes; boys whose parents are unlikely to supervise them closely; boys whose testimony might not be taken seriously. In short they prey upon the weakest members of the Catholic flock: those who were characterized by Christ himself as “the least of these my brethren.” The full implications of that Gospel message (Mt 25:40) are sobering in the extreme.

But how have the American bishops reacted to this assault on the Body of Christ? In a note to John Geoghan, accepting the pedophile’s retirement from priestly service, Cardinal Bernard Law wrote: “Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness.” Is there any evidence whatsoever that Geoghan was an effective pastoral minister? Is it not prudent to assume, on the contrary, that his pastoral service was as deeply flawed as his personal behavior —and that the parishes where he served now need remedial attention?

Cardinal Law has announced that he will not resign, because the relationship of a bishop to his flock is like that of a father to his family. But has he acted as a responsible father? A father can never resign, but in extreme cases—when the father proves himself unfit, and the children are in jeopardy—other authorities must intervene.

Imagine that the father of a large family discovered that one grown son was molesting a weak younger sibling. Would we not expect that father to take disciplinary action that would be stern, immediate, and decisive? If he failed to do so, would we not agree that the father was unfit—that he, too, was guilty of abuse?

For a decade now, the Holy See has looked on quietly as the pedophilia scandal has engulfed the American Church. Does the relationship between the Vatican and Cardinal Law today resemble the relationship between the cardinal and John Geoghan in 1985?