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Spotlight Report

  Adrian Walker  

The cardinal as penitent


It was all so measured, so thoughtful. Cardinal Bernard F. Law was a changed man yesterday, explaining how the scandal that is John Geoghan will transform the Archdiocese of Boston. Gone was any trace of prickliness or arrogance, any implication that the priesthood was above question or criticism. One would barely have suspected that the archdiocese had recently refused even to listen to any questions about the priest suspected of molesting as many as 130 children, or that Law's lawyers had been turning backflips to shield the church's conduct from public scrutiny.

"Judgments were made regarding the assignment of John Geoghan which, in retrospect, were tragically incorrect," Law said, sounding a little like Richard Nixon.

Speaking to reporters, Law mounted no defense, made only the most cursory of excuses. He acted, he said, on the wisdom and knowledge he possessed at the time. It was a startling performance, the cardinal as penitent. He announced a "zero tolerance" policy of abuse of minors. He also said church officials would now be required to report allegations of abuse to police, a policy the church had until recently resisted.

It felt strange listening to Law beg for absolution, ask for our prayers, describe his as a "grieving heart." His sincerity was obvious, even if it came after enough stonewalling to build a cathedral.

He patiently answered every question. Though he stopped short of admitting that he should have removed Geoghan from contact with children -- as clearly he should have -- he was convincing in his regret.

Tragically, for dozens of victims his remarks can only be inadequate. For them -- the victims and their families alike -- his apologies will do relatively little to ease their pain. The truth is, there should always have been zero tolerance; it shouldn't be a newly minted policy.

This may all seem like just so much hand-wringing. But it isn't -- not to the dozens who are still suing, or those who face the prospect of describing their betrayal at Geoghan's hand on a witness stand in the coming months.

"He's been saying `I'm sorry' for 10 years now," noted Phil Saviano, an advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse. "So I don't think those kinds of apologies are going to have a lot of weight with the average victim."

If Law is serious about reform, he has some more reforming to do. Roderick V. MacLeish Jr., an attorney who represents some of Geoghan's alleged victims, has some thoughts on how the archdiocese could move on.

First, he says, it must settle the pending lawsuits against Geoghan. Given the number of victims, that will likely require some form of mediation, but resolution is vital.

Second, the church must institute more aggressive psychological screening to identify priests who might be at risk for deviant behavior.

Finally, it must stop protecting priests with problems. It is highly unlikely that a priest like Geoghan (who was defrocked in 1998) would be transferred from parish to parish now. But one troubling aspect of Law's statement yesterday is that the reporting requirement would apply only to complaints made from now on. If there are pending allegations that have not been reported to police -- and Law said he knows of none -- they must be.

Law insisted that the Catholic Church has come a long way in its handling of abuse, and it has. But not far enough -- not until every child in every parish can be safe. That will require vigilance, even after the glare of publicity fades.

The archdiocese can indeed move past the legacy of shame and silence -- but sorrow isn't enough. Law said yesterday there will be no more tolerance. Sooner or later those words will be put to the test. He will need not only faith, but the courage of his newfound convictions.

Adrian Walker can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 1/10/2002.
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