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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

An obvious question


Was the Rev. Paul R. Shanley blackmailing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston?

It is not a frivolous question; it's the most obvious one to arise from the personnel file that Cardinal Bernard F. Law and his high-priced legal team tried so hard to suppress.

As striking as the revelations of the hierarchy's coverup of Shanley's crimes is the light that more than 800 pages of documents shed on the lengths to which his supervisors went to emotionally appease and financially accommodate a renegade priest they knew to be a serial child molester. Why?

Was the late Cardinal Humberto Medeiros moved by compassion for a sick but repentant priest? That might make sense, if only Shanley's letters to his superiors expressed any remorse for his exploitation of children. Instead, his correspondence betrays a smug self-satisfaction and a barely disguised contempt for chancery officials and for the people he was ordained to serve.

''Put a Roman collar on a lamp-post and some woman will fall in love with it,'' he wrote to a fellow priest about a woman who had accused him of molesting a boy.

Was Cardinal Bernard Law moved by charity for a retired priest who, whatever his sins, had served the church for decades? That might make sense, if only Law's history was one of charitable impulses toward retired priests. Instead, his record includes more than a decade spent rebuffing reasonable requests for a meager pension from scores of honorable men who left the priesthood, some after 25 years of faithful service, to marry.

'' ... the trusts that have been set up for the medical and pension/retirement care of clergy are specifically limited to those who are in `good standing.''' the Rev. William Murphy wrote on Law's behalf to a group of former priests petitioning for pensions from the retirement fund to which they all had contributed.

Shanley was one of those deemed to be in ''good standing.'' Even as the archdiocese was negotiating with his rape victims, it sent emissaries to California to meet with Shanley and agreed to increase by $300 his monthly stipend. Why?

Buried in Shanley's personnel file might be a hint. ''I have abided by my promise not to mention to anyone the fact that I too had been sexually abused as a teenager, and, later, as a seminarian by a priest, a faculty member, a pastor, and, ironically, by the predecessor of one of two cardinals who now debate my fate,'' Shanley wrote to the Rev. Brian M. Flatley in an appeal for Law's support for his efforts to be appointed director of a church-sponsored youth hostel in New York City.

Absent blackmail, why would Law recommend to dioceses in New York and California a ''street priest'' whose public advocacy of sex between men and boys contradicted church teaching and whose private behavior violated criminal and canon law? Law's insistence on adherence to convention, after all, is so strict that he had a nun fired two years ago because she had the temerity to wear a clerical stole at a baptismal rite.

''The discipline of the church is clear and has to be followed,'' Law said then in support of the dismissal of Sister Jeannette T. Normandin from the Jesuit Urban Center. ''A trust is violated when that is not followed.''

Law on trust - how's that for irony? No yardstick can measure the trust betrayed by this cardinal and by the sycophants in clerical collars who have done his bidding during his tenure as archbishop of Boston. But if a criminal prosecution of Law and his minions becomes the sole focus of our anger, we will have missed an opportunity to understand the modern history of the Catholic Church in Boston.

What we need to know is locked in the files that Law is trying so hard to shield. We should not have to win access to them one plaintiff at a time. Unless Attorney General Thomas Reilly can find a way to subpoena every last piece of paper in the mansion on Lake Street, we will never know the answer to the question that haunts this community: Why?

Eileen McNamara can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 4/10/2002.
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