The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Law seeking counsel from civic leaders

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 2/20/2002

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, trying to stem the crisis over clergy sexual abuse, has enlisted some of the city's most prominent lawyers and business leaders to help him settle lawsuits, reach out to victims, and restore public confidence in the church.

Law is seeking counsel from prominent Catholics, including bankers, politicians and public relations executives, many of whom gathered at his residence yesterday. He has asked one of the area's top litigators, R. Robert Popeo, to begin sitting in on settlement talks, hoping to speed an end to the numerous lawsuits over clergy sexual abuse. And he has hired outside public relations help in an effort to improve the archdiocese's communications.

The advisers, meeting yesterday morning over coffee and pastries in what amounted to a de facto kitchen cabinet, had an intense discussion of how much damage the hierarchy's handling of pedophile priests has done to the church. According to some participants, the group was generally uninterested in the suggestion that the cardinal should resign, was divided over whether solving the sexual abuse crisis requires opening up the priesthood beyond celibate men, and was united in wanting to see the archdiocese take steps to make sure that never again are pedophile priests given a second chance by the church.

Among the group's members are Jack Connors Jr., founder of the advertising firm Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos Inc.; William M. Bulger, president of the University of Massachusetts; John L. Harrington, outgoing CEO of the Boston Red Sox; John Hamill, CEO of Sovereign Bank New England; and Rev. William P. Leahy, president of Boston College. The meetings have been quite candid: Bulger yesterday called the cardinal's actions to date "disastrous."

"There were words of disappointment, anger, and pointed criticism of those each person felt were responsible for the manner in which the church handled these terrible deeds," Bulger said in a telephone interview. "It was disastrous in its consequence, because these people [priest pedophiles] continued to function where they could do harm. I just keep hearing the biblical word, that it's better to hang a millstone around your neck and throw [yourself] into the sea than to scandalize these little ones."

One participant in yesterday's meeting, who asked not to be identified, said sentiment in the group divided roughly into thirds: "The first third believed this is a crisis of unprecedented proportions about which there is a degree of rage. They think the cardinal has to assume responsiblity, and they believe the issue of his resignation is still to be resolved. The second third is uncomfortable, speaks of what's happened as a `tragedy,' and is concerned about how best to resolve it. The third group thinks the church will emerge the stronger for all this, and that the cardinal is the best person to lead it back."

Thomas P. O'Neill III, a former Massachusetts lieutenant governor, told the cardinal that as the senior American prelate, with the ear of Pope John Paul II, Law should urge the church to address its chronic shortage of priests, according to some participants. Others said O'Neill appeared to be suggesting that the church remove its restriction of the priesthood to celibate males -- a step that would require action by the Vatican.

O'Neill declined to discuss the specifics of his remarks, but said, "There's a very big job to be done. A lot has happened that simple apologies won't accomplish. I believe the cardinal recognizes this."

Two of the city's top lawyers have joined the group: Popeo, who is chairman of Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, and Jeffrey B. Rudman, a senior partner at Hale and Dorr LLP. Popeo and Rudman are trying to hasten Law's stated goal of reaching a settlement with all victims.

"On a pro-bono basis, Bob Popeo and I are offering the cardinal what I would call strategic advice on resolving the litigation, and trying to resolve the problem of pedophilia in the archdiocese," Rudman said. Rudman, who is Jewish, said he wanted to help because he has long been "very grateful" to Law "for his resolute opposition to anti-Semitism."

The group is also discussing how to finance the settlements, which are expected to cost tens of millions of dollars. The group includes some of the church's top contributors, such as Jack Shaughnessy Sr., chairman of Shaughnessy & Ahern Co., a crane and rigging company; and John A. McNeice Jr., a former CEO of the Colonial Group, an investment management firm. Shaughnessy said he, for one, would be willing to contribute money to help settle the lawsuits.

"I dearly love and admire and respect Cardinal Law. . . . and my affection for him has not diminished in the least," Shaughnessy said. "It would be my privilege and pleasure to assist the cardinal in any way that he sees fit."

Some of the Catholic leaders have met with Law three or four times since early January and helped fashion his initial response, including the cardinal's decision to retroactively report to prosecutors the names of priests who have abused children. Other Catholic leaders met with the cardinal on this issue for the first time yesterday.

Among the business executives involved are John Drew, president of the World Trade Center Boston; Paul La Camera, president and general manager of WCVB-TV, and Donna Latson Gittens, the president and chief executive officer of Causemedia Inc., a Newton-based marketing firm. The cardinal has also contacted John A. Kaneb, chief executive officer of HP Hood Inc., and Kevin C. Phelan, executive vice president of Meredith & Grew Inc.

The cardinal has been attended by his secretary, Rev. John J. Connolly, and Dr. Michael F. Collins, who is the president and chief executive officer of Caritas Christi Health Care System.

As part of its effort to manage the crisis, the archdiocese is trying to beef up its public relations operation, which has been widely criticized for its handling of the intense media attention since the Globe Spotlight Team first detailed the church's handling of pedophile priest John J. Geoghan on Jan. 6.

The archdiocese has hired Morrissey & Co., a public relations firm with expertise in crisis communications, to help out with strategic planning and with legwork, such as answering phones and staffing events. The company is headed by Peter Morrissey, a first cousin of the cardinal's communications director, Donna M. Morrissey, but she says she played no role in selecting the firm.

Connors, of Hill, Holliday, is providing strategic advice; the Rasky/Baerlein Group has been providing consulting help, and Corrigan Communications is providing logistical assistance.

But the archdiocese, according to people familiar with its communications efforts, rejected its consultants' advice to get ahead of the first Spotlight report by announcing preemptive changes to its policy for handling pedophile priests. The archdiocese announced the changes, such as requiring priests to report allegations of sexual abuse to the authorities, only after the Spotlight reports, and the Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll earlier this month found that 62 percent of local Catholics believe the cardinal apologized only because of stories in the news media.

Although the cardinal has held three news conferences over the last seven weeks, the archdiocese has had a spotty record in responding to requests for information -- not only did it decline to comment for the initial reports in the Globe, and several other articles by the newspaper, but just within the last week it has had no comment for reports in The New York Times and the Washington Post. The archdiocese has declined to cooperate with profiles of church officials or priests or to allow visits to the seminary, and has generally declined to provide anyone to speak for the church on television or radio news shows.

"Our experience has been that they're extremely polite, very pleasant, and not defensive, but they're not particularly cooperative in any sort of useful way," said Charles Kravetz, vice president of news and station management at New England Cable News Network. "We have asked them on to our news program every time we're going to be discussing the issue, and most of the time we simply never hear from them."

Donna Morrissey says the church has been working hard to improve its communications operation in recent weeks, and reporters say the archdiocese has been somewhat more willing to answer questions recently. Morrissey said her office has been hamstrung by a small staff, and by instructions from church lawyers who have ordered staffers not to comment on the specifics of cases.

"We're getting hundreds of calls from the media about two or three decades of information," Morrissey said. "We're trying to be responsive, but the focus has to be the protection of children. And we're not willing to put out information that's not confirmed or complete."

But media specialists say the church has violated the basic rules of how to communicate during a crisis, and that the price has been an undermining of public confidence, particularly in the cardinal. The Globe/ WBZ poll of 800 local Catholics found that 78 percent believe church leaders have tried to cover up cases of sexual abuse of children by priests, and 58 percent believe Law has done a poor job handling cases of clergy sexual abuse.

"They were not open, they waited too long to apologize, and they made it appear as if they were stonewalling and covering up at the expense of the morality and ethics of their religion," said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University. "The first rule of crisis management is to get all the bad information out immediately, and what has been so damaging . . . is the constant water torture of drip, drip, drip, one horrible, despicable story after another."

Crisis communications experts say a particularly damaging development was the cardinal's repeated assertion that no priest known to be an alleged sex abuser was still working for the archdiocese, when the church later discovered eight such priests on the payroll and now says it can't be sure there are no others.

"Coming out and apologizing quickly was the right thing to do, but to not have all the facts and information is just deadly," said Helene Solomon of Bishoff Solomon Communications.

And George K. Regan Jr., president of Regan Communications Group, says, "This will be a case study for Columbia Journalism School some day in what not to do." Regan, who was Morrissey's employer before she went to work for the archdiocese, and who now believes Law should resign, says the problem is not Morrissey but that "this is an institution that just doesn't get it. They don't get public relations."

Kevin Cullen, Stephen Kurkjian, and Ben Bradlee Jr. of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/20/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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