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Spotlight Report


Actions follow an established course

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/10/2002

T he news conference was dramatic: a contrite Cardinal Bernard F. Law, dressed in the simple black cassock of a priest, humbly apologizing for transferring an abusive priest from parish to parish and announcing ''zero tolerance'' for clergy sexual misconduct.

But, in offering an apology and announcing a change in archdiocesan policy, Law was not breaking new ground for the church: Instead, he is following in a long line of American Catholic prelates who, prompted by egregious misconduct cases, have sought forgiveness from their faithful and promised policy changes to prevent further scandal.

The Catholic Church, according to specialists on clergy sexual misconduct, has generally lagged behind Protestant denominations in taking steps such as requiring clergy to report allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities - a step Law made mandatory for Boston priests yesterday. And the Boston archdiocese has lagged behind other American dioceses in adopting such measures.

''These announcements of new policies have been rather cyclical in many dioceses, coming each time after a big case,'' said Jason Berry, author of ''Lead Us Not Into Temptation,'' a 1992 book on sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. ''Anytime a bishop apologizes, it's an admission of wrongdoing, and it's a step, but let's not overestimate it. It takes time to determine what will happen.''

Yesterday's news conference, at which Law offered his most detailed apology to date for the archdiocese's continued lengthy employment of the former Rev. John J. Geoghan even after he was accused of sexual abuse, was a remarkable moment for America's senior Catholic prelate.

Law was not only profusely apologetic, but was uncharacteristically nondefensive, fielding many more questions than typical for him and not once responding in anger. Instead, he spoke sympathetically of people who might second-guess him, write critical stories in the news media, or even sue him.

''Given the legal proceedings that are still unfolding, I think Cardinal Law said as much as he could, and especially notable was his expression of heartfelt sorrow and apology for what he himself described as a tragically incorrect judgment,'' said Thomas H. Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College. ''It also seems that he is putting in place structures to prevent such tragedies from being repeated, and for that he deserves credit.''

But even some of the cardinal's closest friends wished Law, who has been archbishop of Boston since 1984, had acted sooner.

''I was touched by it - he took responsibility, he said he was profoundly sorry, and I could hear him choked up a bit,'' said Monsignor Peter V. Conley, the executive editor of the Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper.

''But I wish this had been done months ago,'' he said. ''I'm certain he took advice of legal counsel, and their oversight was to miss that this is being conducted in the court of public opinion as well as the court of law, and that's disastrous.''

Law's most substantive announcement yesterday was that he would now require clergy to report allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities, except when those allegations are brought to a priest's attention during confession. Twenty-nine states require such reporting; Massachusetts is one of 21 that do not.

Other dioceses have long required such reporting. For example, the Archdiocese of St. Paul adopted such a policy in the late 1980s, and the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1992 started reporting all allegations of sexual abuse to a state children and family services agency, according to specialists.

''Boston is obviously one of the latecomers,'' said Gary R. Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist who has testified frequently as an expert witness in clergy sexual misconduct cases.

Most Protestant denominations require clergy to report allegations of sexual abuse to authorities, according to the Rev. Patricia E. Liberty, executive director of Associates in Education and Prevention in Pastoral Practice, a Rhode Island firm that consults with denominations on sexual abuse issues.

Massachusetts' largest Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ, even went to court last year to defend its decision to turn over to police a youth minister who had admitted abusing children.

''We have for years instructed the clergy and lay leaders of our churches that it is their moral obligation to report sexual abusers to the proper authorities,'' said the Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, president of the Massachusetts conference of the United Church of Christ. ''Additionally, we have been working to address these difficult issues in an open and carefully considered process. We applaud Cardinal Law for joining us in these efforts.''

Specialists say the Catholic Church has been more hesitant than other denominations and institutions in American society to aggressively take on sexual abuse of minors by adults in positions of authority.

''The Catholic Church was slow to get involved,'' said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, who said organizations such as the Boy Scouts have been more progressive in confronting the problem of pedophilia. He said the key is providing training and education to all employees and volunteers to prevent and respond to sexual abuse.

Finkelhor said the Catholic Church's handling of Geoghan - allowing him repeatedly to receive treatment and then to return to parish ministry - was out of step with societal understanding of pedophilia.

''In the 1980s, when a lot of this passing the buck and cover-up was going on, information about sexual abuse and child molesting and pedophilia was not hard to come by, and there were people in Massachusetts who were clearly at the top of the field,'' Finkelhor said. ''I don't know who these clinicians were [who cleared Geoghan to return to work], and maybe the church was getting the medical advice they wanted, but that was not the state of the art for the time.''

The issue of clergy sexual abuse has racked the Catholic Church since 1985, when the National Catholic Reporter began publishing stories alleging that abuse was a major problem and that the church's general response was ''a pattern of defensive cover-up,'' according to publisher Tom Fox.

In Massachusetts, the issue hit home in 1992, when Catholics began to allege widespread abuse by the Rev. James R. Porter, a priest in the Fall River diocese. Law pushed through a new clergy sexual abuse policy in 1993, which has generally been praised by victim advocates.

Under the Boston policy, which Law said he expects to refine over the next three or four weeks, any priest accused of sexual abuse is removed from his duties, and the allegation is investigated first by a delegate of the cardinal, and then, if it appears credible, by a panel of lay and religious specialists who make a recommendation to the cardinal on what to do.

Under a new Vatican edict made public this week, the archdiocese will have to notify Rome of sexual abuse cases, and the Vatican could choose to hold church disciplinary hearings there, rather than in local dioceses such as Boston. But the archdiocese will continue to bar all priests accused of sexual misconduct from contact with children until the church determines whether the allegations are true, according to Monsignor Michael Smith Foster, judicial vicar for the archdiocese of Boston.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

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