The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Law's explanation finds some skeptics, some believers

Critics predict letter will only worsen crisis

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/21/2002

Cardinal Bernard F. Law's latest mea culpa, in which he said that for his first nine years in Boston he didn't know that the Rev. Paul R. Shanley had been accused of molesting children, was greeted skeptically yesterday by some leading Catholics around Boston and the nation.

Some took Law at his word, saying that given the culture of the church, and its byzantine bureaucracy, it is possible that Law was unaware of a 1966 complaint against Shanley and heard none of the complaints about the priest's alleged support for man-boy sex. But many found the cardinal's explanations not credible and his letter unhelpful.

''It makes me want to cry,'' said Philip F. Lawler, who from 1986 to 1989 was editor of the Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper in Boston. ''We've been going through this for several months, and I'd like to see some progress, but I don't think he gets it. Like most everything else this year, this will make things worse.''

Lawler, who is now editor of Catholic World News, an Internet site, said Law's letter reinforces a pattern in which the longtime archbishop of Boston has blamed record-keeping or his predecessors, rather than ''recognizing it was the duty of the archbishop, not his subordinates or his predecessors, to make sure pastors against whom serious accusations had been lodged were either proven innocent or removed.''

Richard J. Santagati, president of Merrimack College, a small Catholic college in North Andover, also said ''these statements are only more injurious to the situation as it exists.''

''The rationalization for the dates and the facts creates a cloud of suspicion which he doesn't need,'' Santagati said. ''He's trying to defend actions that were indefensible, particularly when our knowledge of those actions came about through a legal process in which the archdiocese fought the release of legal documents. It just has a very bad taint.''

Law's letter, distributed throughout the archdiocese and released late Sunday, which was Pentecost, included a direct acknowledgment of how unhappy many Boston area Catholics are with their spiritual leader.

''I have become for some an object of contempt,'' Law wrote. ''I understand how this is so, and I am profoundly sorry that the inadequacy of past policies and flaws in past decisions have contributed to this situation.''

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, said the cardinal still plans to explain his actions in handling priests accused of sexual abuse, via remarks in The Pilot and on Boston Catholic Television, as he promised on April 16 after returning from a trip to Rome to discuss his possible resignation with Pope John Paul II.

''It is my intent to address at length the record of the archdiocese's handling of these cases by reviewing the past in as systematic and comprehensive [a] way as possible, so that legitimate questions which have been raised might be answered,'' Law said at the time.

Morrissey could not provide any details of Law's plans, but described the Pentecost letter as ''one in a long line of communications he has made to the people of the archdiocese.''

But the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, leader of the Boston Priests' Forum, a large organization that is discussing the ongoing crisis, said that, despite the occasional communications from Law, area priests are ''drifting day by day.''

''It seems that nothing gets better - the news locally and the news from the Vatican does not help us, and we're struggling in parishes as it gets worse and worse,'' said Bullock, the pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon. ''We need something to give people some hope, some direction for getting through this.''

Law's letter, Bullock said, is unsatisfying.

''His letter raises a lot of questions - if he wasn't told this until '93, why not?'' Bullock said. ''Wouldn't his associates have an obligation to say something like this to him?''

Law has his defenders, who say it is believable that Law didn't know about the allegations against Shanley, who was long admired by church progressives as a street priest.

''I've known Cardinal Law for many years, and I've never known him to tell a lie,'' said Eugene Kennedy, a psychologist and former priest who has written widely on church issues.

''He is saying, `This is really all I knew about this; I should have known more, but I didn't, and I followed the accepted practices of the culture,''' Kennedy said. ''I have to agree, lamentable though it is. I don't think he ever knowingly assigned a person he thought would do harm to a parish.''

Others were skeptical.

''In some sense, his letter is probably technically correct, and I hate to doubt a cardinal's word. But on the other hand, there are many ways to know things and many ways to remain ignorant,'' said A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk who has studied sexuality and priests. ''This guy [Shanley] was so notorious within [the] chancery, the cardinal could not have helped hearing things. It's just not like the hierarchy not to know - rumors go upward first.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A12 of the Boston Globe on 5/21/2002.
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