The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Delegation of duty is called faulty

Law should have tracked Geoghan case, some say

By Thomas Farragher and Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 5/10/2002

He supervises 900 priests. He manages a $43 million budget. Like most chief executives, Cardinal Bernard F. Law's day is chockablock with meetings and conference calls, speaking engagements and frequent travel.

So few legal analysts were surprised by Law's frequently faulty memory in his sworn testimony Wednesday about precise details of events from 18 years ago.

But business leaders and those who teach future CEOs said yesterday that they are surprised that Law so loosely delegated to subordinates explosive charges that one of his priests had been sexually abusing children.

''I don't necessarily say that it was the best business practice to delegate such a sensitive, critical, and potentially criminal act,'' said Ira R. Weiss, dean of Northeastern University's business school. ''We can debate that. But the issue that we probably can't debate is why he didn't ask for accountability to see what went on. Because ultimately, as we see today, he's accountable.''

As lawyers, professors, and business leaders dissected Law's nearly four-hour deposition in the civil case brought by 86 alleged victims of former priest John J. Geoghan, they were struck by narrowly drawn answers designed, they say, to restrict the cardinal's liability and by how Law handled events that led to his 1984 decision to reassign Geoghan to a parish in Weston.

Six months after Law became archbishop in 1984, he received a letter alerting him that Geoghan had molested seven boys in one extended family. He marked the letter's envelope ''urgent,'' and forwarded it to his chief deputy, Bishop Thomas V. Daily. Law said he relied on subordinates who handled the archdiocese's day-to-day affairs to address the matter appropriately.

''I'm going to prayerfully hope that these letters from parishioners were not frequent or commonplace and to that extent they were extraordinary,'' said Douglas W. Kmiec, dean of the Catholic University Law School. ''I think you'd be very disturbed by their receipt and would want to know that the matter was concluded well. ... I think this would have risen to the top of my in-box.''

Indeed, Law said that in 1984 - 18 years before today's intense awareness about clergy sexual abuse - a letter to archdiocesan headquarters alerting officials about sexual molestation by a priest would have been extraordinary. But, he said, he was ''relying upon those assisting me to handle this adequately.''

Professor Jay W. Lorsch of the Harvard Business School, a specialist on corporate governance, said Law's mistake was not that he relied on his chief deputies, but that he apparently failed to make sure they were doing their jobs.

''Law's at fault for not following up on it,'' Lorsch said. ''If you write `urgent' on a letter you should write a note to yourself and follow up on it. If he delegated to somebody else and it was a serious issue, he has the responsibility to run in to this bishop and say, `How did it go? What did you do? How are we doing on these things?'''

If Law is seeking to cast himself as a chief executive of an expansive enterprise, his business-leader peers said accusations like the one Law received would have sounded alarm bells - even in 1984. ''Even 20 years ago, sexual harassment in the work place, or racism in the work place - you would jump all over those things, let alone pedophilia,'' said Thomas J. Colatosti, chief executive officer of Viisage Technology in Littleton, a provider of facial recognition systems.

''It's surprising he wasn't looking for daily reports because of the explosiveness of the topic,'' he said. ''You don't fool around with this type of thing because it gets into the media and it can have a dramatic effect on morale. Something like this you'd be looking at every single day.''

Joseph W. Alsop, president of Progress Software, a 1,300-employee company based in Bedford, agreed. ''I think the CEO is absolutely responsible for the ethical behavior of the organization,'' he said. ''Questions of unethical behavior will be brought to my attention, and then I'm faced with trying to figure out how credible the person making the claim is. I just have to dig into it.''

Kmiec said ultimately it may be up to a jury to decide whether Law's actions amount to negligence. ''The primary focus of people's attention is the nature of the allegation made against the former priest, and whether that would be the type of matter that a reasonable person would have delegated to a subordinate and allowed the subordinate to handle it without further supervision,'' he said.

Kmiec said Law handled himself with ''dignity and restraint'' at the deposition and said many people would have difficultly remembering events from the early 1980s.

''The question is, would an event of this seriousness not be present in one's mind forever after that?'' he said. ''I don't know how many serious matters the cardinal handles. But one of this kind would have stayed in my memory for a good long time. But I'm not running the Archdiocese of Boston.''

One priest familiar with Law's deposition said he wondered whether Law even took the time to absorb the potent content of the letter about Geoghan's alleged attacks. ''Maybe he didn't even read the whole letter,'' said the priest, who asked that he not be identiified. ''Maybe he had a stack of 50 letters on his desk and read the first three sentences and said, `This is a priest personnel problem,' and passed it on and figured it would be taken care of. Should he have done that? If you're going to pass judgment ... you can fault him for not taking it seriously, for not making it a big enough priority. ... That's the most benign interpretation.''

If Law's laissez-faire management practices surprised some business leaders, his careful answers to questions posed by the plaintiffs' lawyer were standard fare at civil depositions, several lawyers said. Witnesses are almost uniformly instructed to answer only what is asked, to volunteer little, and to guess at nothing, they said.

''It would seem to me that a lawyer would not be doing his duty if he didn't tell the cardinal to answer only what's asked and to answer only yes or no if he can,'' said Jack Moscardelli, a veteran Boston trial lawyer and a 15-year member of the Judicial Nominating Committee. ''If you're not sure, the best answer is, `I can't recall' or `to the best of my recollection' when you're under oath.

''You have to teach the witness to focus only on what the other attorney is seeking to elicit from him. It's an adversarial proceeding. Whether it's embarrassing or not, you put all that aside. They have forced you to say only what you have to say.''

But Richard J. Santagati, president of Merrimack College, a Catholic school, said he found it jarring to read Law's carefully chosen wording, which lawyers encourage, when openness and truthfulness are expected from the cardinal.

''I found it very disconcerting and disheartening,'' said Santagati, although he understood why the cardinal answered as he did. At a deposition, ''The legal reality is you don't say anything that isn't necessary. You choose every word in a careful way before you state it.'' But that's not what people want or need to hear at this time, he said.

''He's the bishop of the diocese, he is the shepherd, who needs to be totally concerned for the victims and their families,'' said Santagati. ''It seems he was couching his responses rather than creating a comfort level that nothing would be hidden or disguised or less than forthright.''

An expert on canon law said it was not surprising when Law testified that he did not know he needed the archdiocesan Finance Council to agree to the conditions of a $15 million to $30 million settlement with Geoghan's alleged victims. The church and plaintiffs announced the settlement on March 12, but last Friday, the Finance Council voted against it, which nullified the deal.

Because bishops can overrule or disregard votes by almost all church boards, many have no idea that the approval of their Finance Council is mandatory for major expenditures, said the Rev. Reginald Whitt, a professor on canon and civil law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. ''He just can't make that deal on his own,'' Whitt said.

Law said in the deposition that he had never been overruled before by the board.

Sacha Pfeiffer of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

Thomas Farragher can be reached at Matt Carroll can be reached at

This story ran on page A43 of the Boston Globe on 5/10/2002.
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