The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Scandal shakes Catholic laity, theologians

By Michael Paulson and Brian C. Mooney, Globe Staff, 1/27/2002

Cardinal Bernard F. Law's failure to deal with mounting evidence of criminal activity by a pedophile priest has shaken the pillars of Greater Boston's large Catholic community.

Lay leaders and theologians last week openly worried about the scandal's impact on the priesthood, the church's image, even fund-raising. None called for Law's resignation, however.

Most praised the archbishop's decision to agree to give prosecutors the names of any former priests who sexually abused children, although most also said that would not automatically undo the damage done by the church's secretive policies of the past.

Law's policy of reassigning then-priest John J. Geoghan to new parishes, where he continued to abuse children, threatens to obscure Law's accomplishments on issues ranging from housing to race relations in his nearly 18 years as leader of the Boston archdiocese, some Catholic theologians said.

Prominent lay Catholics, including politicians and business leaders, were more reserved in their criticism of Law, saying the cardinal's more aggressive and public stance on sexual abuse by clergy members may mitigate the scandal's harm.

But theologians offered more pointed and broader assessments of Law's actions, the scandal's long-term implications, and the need to address systemic flaws within the Roman Catholic Church in order to effectively deal with sexual abuse by clerics.

The Geoghan case, they said, could undermine the church's moral authority on an array of issues, including sexual ethics.

"When you're talking about the church's mission to bring peace and justice, the first thing that comes up is, `When is the church going to get its own act together?' " said the Rev. David Hollenbach, professor of theology at Boston College. "It raises issues of credibility."

Richard J. Santagati, president of Merrimack College, a Catholic institution in North Andover, said the archdiocese should have been reporting sexual predators to legal authorities all along. "It wasn't a matter for the Catholic church to decide a penalty; it's a matter of law," he said. "Any organization should be held to that standard. It's like any other crime."

Padraic O'Hare, professor of religious studies at Merrimack and a self-described "confessing Catholic," said he is "taken aback by the depth of the problem of good men, including the leadership, in a conspiracy of silence."

And Stephen J. Pope, chairman of BC's theology department, said he is concerned about how much weight the church's pronouncements on questions of sexuality will now carry among Catholics.

"The majority of students don't want to obey what the church says about sexual ethics," he said. "And then when you combine that with the sexual scandals, it just further decreases the students' interest in hearing about Catholic sexual ethics. It's a sad state of affairs, really."

One prominent layman said he is concerned about the potential philanthropic impact on the Boston Archdiocese, now in the midst of a $300 million fund-raising campaign. "People are shaken by this, and I've heard them say it's going to hurt at the [collection] basket and grand annual collection," said Jack Connors, a trustee of BC, advertising executive, and chairman of Partners Health Care, the parent company of Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's hospitals.

Still he says he hopes that most of the faithful among the 2 million Catholics in the archdiocese will differentiate between individual parishes and the central office.

"I don't think that the rank and file are going to take it out on their local parish or Catholic school, but it's a possibility," Connors said. "That's what we need to avoid."

Connors was among those who hoped Law's public pronouncements of remorse and reform measures will limit the damage.

"My mother always told me that some good comes out of everything," he said. "This is a very powerful guy, the cardinal, and if he chooses now to use his power to make sure that these things don't happen again and build in an openness to the future, then that's a good thing."

"It would be easy to gape at the wound and let it fester," said Thomas M. Finneran, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. "But I'm sure the cardinal has been very forthright about the mistakes -- that's plural -- that were made, and his anguish and sorrow for them and his requests for prayer are very sincere . . . Part of the challenge of our faith is to learn to forgive and to help heal the wound."

The Mattapan Democrat predicted a bill to require clergy members to report allegations of sexual abuse "will sail through [the House] and be widely supported" as long as it has a narrow, closely defined exception for instances disclosed during confession. The bill passed the Senate unanimously last Wednesday.

James Borghesani, press secretary for Jane Swift, said the acting governor hadn't read the legislation but supports the concept. He would offer no comment on Swift's behalf about Law and his handling of the Geoghan case, however.

US Senator Edward M. Kennedy also hailed Law's comments about alerting authorities of all sexual abuse allegations involving archdiocesan priests. "Reforms are essential, and I believe that Cardinal Law is taking needed steps to achieve them," he said in a prepared statement issued Friday by his Washington office.

But some theologians said Law's remarks were at best, a first step, treating symptoms of broader ills that afflict the church. "The church needs to think more carefully and reasonably about the procedures that are used to deal with questions of [sexual] abuse," said Pope, of BC. "This shouldn't be dealt with one archbishop at a time -- the same issues came up in Chicago and San Francisco and Los Angeles, and it's not just an American problem."

One theologian said lay Catholics should play a role in determining parish assignments for priests because they would bring an outside perspective. In Boston, personnel recommendations are made by the clergy, with the final decisions made by Law.

"It might be interesting if you had more lay people on diocesan boards," said Francis Schussler Fiorenza, professor of Catholic theology at Harvard Divinity School. "It might not be a bad idea to have a lay view. I think there could be much more openness."

R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said that, although Law had erred in his treatment of Geoghan, the church structure is also part of the problem. "The Vatican is a well-known cult of secrecy, with opaque dealings in terms of the priesthood," Appleby said. "There's no accountability from the outside. It would be terribly hypocritical and ironic to have the Vatican censor him, or demand his resignation, because it's a system that is not unique to Boston or even to the American church."

"This goes to the heart of the clericalist bias in the Catholic Church, the corrosive notion that in some sense the church is for the priests," said O'Hare, of Merrimack. "The people have to take the church back."

Lay leaders and theologians alike say they are concerned about the scandal's impact on the priesthood and the church's ability to reverse the dwindling number of men choosing ordination. "It's going to add to the vocational crisis," said Fiorenza. "I like to say the reason why I got into theology was because as a kid I came into contact with outstanding priests. Now, this is neglecting other priests who are role models. The bad publicity drives out the good."

"It is the nature of us all to focus on the rotten apple," said Connors. "But there are hundreds, thousands of members of the priesthood and members of the clergy who are doing what we always thought clergy should do, which is nothing but good."

Said Hollenbach of BC: "It's been very demoralizing for priests to be looked at, as every priest has people looking at him, saying, `Are you a pedophile too?' That's not a stare to be on the receiving end of. And it's certainly not an encouragement to young people to want to take the church seriously as a future place for them to live out a life of service to other people."

Finneran said he detects "a little bit of piling on the cardinal at a moment clearly when he is weak," and he, like Santagati and Connors, said the Geoghan case is a stain on what they described as Law's otherwise exemplary performance.

O'Hare called Law "a tremendous force . . . on issues of economic justice and peace, and interreligious tolerance."

Appleby, who has a national perspective, called the Boston prelate "a stellar cardinal-archbishop."

"I don't agree with his positions on many issues," Appleby said, "but in fairness, he has been a formidable and influential leader."

But more than damaging Law, the scandal in Boston tarnishes the church's wider reputation, said Hollenbach.

"I don't think it's the end, by any means; I trust there's more to the church than these unfortunate episodes," the priest said. "But the church's greatness is being undermined and obscured by these very negative events. It makes me very sad."

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 1/27/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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