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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

A troubling accusation


t was bound to happen, an allegation long delayed against a prelate long dead.

It is difficult enough for the faithful to fathom that any cleric could molest a child. Even when the evidence is compelling, even when the case is proven, most are loath to think ill of their parish priest. What are they to think, then, of an unsubstantiated accusation by a troubled man that Cardinal Humberto Medeiros groped him one evening 23 years ago? A criminal act, as Garry M. Garland's lawyer alleges, or character assassination, as the cardinal's successor, Bernard Law, insists?

This time, there is no basis on which to judge. The intention of Daniel J. Shea, Garland's attorney, to amend his sexual misconduct complaint against the Rev. Frederick J. Ryan to include this afterthought allegation against Medeiros could not be more misguided. Ryan was vice chancellor of the Boston Archdiocese in 1979 when Garland contends the priest molested him in the chancery after plying him with wine at a North End restaurant. At the chancery, Garland says, Ryan introduced him to Medeiros, whom the now 38-year-old former Catholic Memorial High School student accuses of touching his crotch.

That a dead man cannot defend himself is only the most obvious obstacle to determining the truth behind Garland's charge. Just as troubling is the potential for such a vague and uncorroborated accusation to undermine efforts to end the societal denial on which child abuse depends to thrive in the shadows. Subverting due process will not end the scourge. It will only encourage accusations of witch hunting.

"It's time to be heard," a combative Garland said at a rain-driven press conference yesterday, dismissing as secondary any concern that the cardinal, who died in 1983, is unable to defend his reputation for moral rectitude. "I can't defend myself either. I'm dead," he said, attributing his history of violence, suicide attempts, and drug and alcohol abuse to the molestation he allegedly suffered at the two priests' hands. "I died in 1979. Cardinal Medeiros is lucky he got four more years. . . . What do you want me to do for the cardinal? This is bigger than the cardinal. This is a big problem."

If, as Garland contends, Medeiros did brush his hand briefly across the teenager's pants, the case would never have made it to criminal court. Child sexual abuse is one of the most difficult crimes to prove. Prosecutors move forward only on cases they have a chance to win. This would not have been one of them. The accuser was drunk. There were no witnesses. Now, the accused is dead, more than 20 years have passed, and the case will play itself out alongside so many others in civil litigation.

Hard as it would be to prove such a charge, Law is wrong to cite his predecessor's reputation for piety as proof that such an allegation is implausible. How many clergymen convicted of abuse were beloved and admired before their crimes were exposed? But advocates for victims of abuse err, too, when they ignore the rights of the accused, whether alive or dead. Roderick MacLeish Jr., an attorney who represents many abuse victims, says he is not surprised by the allegation against Medeiros because the late cardinal covered up the crimes of James Porter, the now-incarcerated serial child molester, when the former was a monsignor in Fall River and Porter was a priest. But shielding a miscreant priest in a misguided attempt to protect the church is not the equivalent of being a child molester oneself.

Garry Garland is married, the father of four, a man who said yesterday that he is taking his private pain public to help victims not yet able to acknowledge the wrong done to them as children. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, but the means matter as much as the ends. Trial by press conference is as much a perversion of justice as child molestation is the enemy of innocence.

Eileen McNamara can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 3/27/2002.
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