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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

Zero tolerance on abuse


CARDINAL Bernard Law made an extraordinary apology yesterday to the victims of Father John Geoghan and announced a tougher archdiocesan policy toward priests accused of sexually abusing minors. His words were encouraging, but he has yet to grapple publicly with the question of why it took so long for the Boston archdiocese to give sexual abuse the unqualified attention and condemnation it justifiably received in the wider society.

Law also partially aligned the archdiocese with the state law that mandates reporting of suspected sexual abuse. Henceforth, priests, nuns, employees, and volunteers will have to report any allegations of abuse learned "outside of the Sacrament of Penance or through spiritual counseling."

"Spiritual counseling" is a significant exemption, however, which could result in abusers continuing to prey on youngsters while talking about their crimes to a priest. A bill on the verge of passage in the Senate would add clergy to the list of mandatory reporters and only exempt information gleaned in the confessional. The Legislature ought to approve this bill quickly to help make sure that no cases of abuse go undetected.

"Before God . . . it was not then, nor is it my intent now, to protect a priest accused of misconduct against minors at the expense of those whom he is ordained to serve," the cardinal said yesterday. His apology was heartfelt, and it was understandable that he referred, in Geoghan's case, to the "psychiatric or medical assessments indicating that such assignments [to parish work] were appropriate."

The cardinal sent Geoghan to St. Julia's parish in Weston in the fall of 1984, when Massachusetts was in the midst of an intense conversation about the impact of sexual abuse on children, focusing on the contentious Fells Acres day care case and other allegations of abuse. The one message that came through clearly then was the importance of breaking the silence that shielded the abuser and disempowered the victim. Yet Geoghan went quietly to his new assignment.

"Cases were handled then in a manner that would not be acceptable according to our present policy," the cardinal said yesterday. The public will get a closer look at the way the archdiocese handled the Geoghan case when documents connected to legal actions against the defrocked priest are released on Jan. 26.

The archdiocese released its first policy statement on sexual abuse by priests in January 1993. It was sensible for Law to establish a committee to undertake a policy review, the results of which will be available within a month.

"Any priest accused of sexual abuse of a minor simply will not function as a priest in any way in this archdiocese," the cardinal pledged yesterday. It is not hindsight to wonder why it took the cardinal this long to articulate an obvious and overdue policy.

This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 1/10/2002.
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