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EILEEN MCNAMARA

Profiles in timing

Thomas F. Reilly flatters himself.

The attorney general of Massachusetts did not run Cardinal Bernard F. Law out of Boston any more than The Boston Globe did.

The Vatican yanked the discredited archbishop out of Brighton because it made a calculation that the checkbooks of Boston Catholics would stay shut as long as Law remained at the helm of the fourth largest diocese in the United States.

It is tempting, especially for politicians seeking higher office, to rewrite history, but events as recent as this one do not lend themselves so easily to recasting. Reilly came late to this stage, and his role had little impact on the drama that began with Judge Constance Sweeney's decision to open church files to public scrutiny and ended with Law comfortably ensconced in a basilica in Rome.

Certainly Reilly's impact was not nearly as far-reaching as the candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor suggested over the weekend. ''There weren't many other people in politics that were willing to stand up to the Archdiocese of Boston in the sexual abuse of children. You are looking at someone who did, and changed things forever," he said.

The problem with Reilly's view is that the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests did not begin in 2002 when a cascade of church documents revealed a pattern of predatory behavior and official coverup that dated back decades and could no longer be ignored. There had been intimations of criminal conduct and official coverups for at least a decade before then, but those crimes remained hidden because of the deference shown to the church by prosecutors, judges, lawyers, journalists, and politicians.

Reilly could call himself courageous if he had stood with lawmakers who demanded long before 2002 that the Legislature ignore the fierce lobbying efforts of the Catholic Church and require clerics, as well as nurses and social workers and teachers, to report suspicions of child abuse to authorities. Reilly did not.

Reilly could wrap himself in the mantle of leadership if he had demanded greater accountability from the church in 1992 following revelations that former priest James Porter's molestation of children from Fall River to New Mexico had been facilitated by the decision of his superiors to transfer him whenever fresh allegations came to light. Reilly did not.

Reilly could take credit for fearlessly challenging the Catholic Church if he had opened an investigation in 1993 when Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer representing victims of clergy abuse, announced publicly that he had forwarded allegations against 20 priests to the Boston Archdiocese. Reilly, then Middlesex district attorney, did not.

Reilly was hardly alone in his willful ignorance, but he is distorting history when he suggests that he was in the vanguard of those demanding justice for the victims of clergy sexual abuse. That distinction belongs to those who recognized the problem long before it dominated the front page: former representative Barbara E. Gray of Framingham, who fought successfully in the 1990s to extend the time available for victims to sue their attackers; Senator Patricia D. Jehlen of Somerville, who has been fighting since her early days in the House to eliminate the statute of limitations altogether in rape cases; former senator Cheryl Jacques of Needham, who championed the inclusion of clergy as mandatory reporters of child abuse before anyone imagined that a Boston cardinal could be forced to sit for a deposition.

Reilly convened a grand jury in 2002, subpoenaed church records, and issued a report outlining how the Catholic Church failed children in its care. It is a worthy document. It came too late.

How bold was it to speak up in 2002, as Reilly and Essex District Attorney Kevin Burke did, when every day's headlines brought new revelations of the hierarchy's complicity in crimes against children? Burke got it right at the time, telling the Globe: ''I wouldn't say Tom and I speaking out were profiles in courage as much as a reflection of the deference in society that has been eroded."

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara@globe.com.

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