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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

A false accusation


THE CLERGY SEXUAL abuse scandal, because it was kept hidden from view for so long, was bound to produce false accusations once it exploded into public notice this year. Fortunately for one priest, the Rev. Michael Smith Foster, a spurious accusation against him was withdrawn yesterday only three weeks after it was made public.

Still, it must have been an ordeal for Foster, a high-ranking archdiocean official, who took a leave of absence as judicial vicar rather than wait for Cardinal Bernard Law to relieve him of his duties. Foster's plight makes it imperative for the cardinal to ensure that the rights of priests are protected even as he attempts to safeguard the children of the archdiocese from further abuse.

These two priorities are difficult to balance; the key is for the archdiocese to listen before it acts. Archdiocesan officials ought to seek the advice of their priests, the vast majority of whom have nothing to do with sexual abuse. It is encouraging that the cardinal and his regional bishops have agreed to meet with priests to discuss their concerns.

Paul R. Edwards, Foster's accuser, had a history of embellishment, as the Globe first reported on Aug. 22. And people who were in Foster's youth ministry in the mid-1980s quickly came to his defense. Edwards's lawyer abandoned the case last week. With Edwards's accusations growing weaker by the day, the withdrawal of the lawsuit was only a matter of time.

Now the archdiocese has an opportunity to show that a baseless accusation does not result in long-term harm. If Foster is willing, he ought to be returned to his job as the top canon lawyer in Boston.

In his lawsuit, Edwards also accused the Rev. William J. Cummings of abuse. Cummings died in 1994, but his memory is besmirched by the allegation. If it is baseless, then Edwards has a moral obligation to retract it.

Not all cases are quite so clear-cut as Foster's, however. The archdiocese needs to set up a procedure that provides priests with an assurance of legal help and offers them a clear path to the disposition of their cases.

The Catholic Church in the United States brought this scandal on itself by putting the prerogatives of priests above the protection of children. Now it must be careful not to make scapegoats of priests to shield higher-ranking officials from the consequences of their cover-up.

This story ran on page A16 of the Boston Globe on 9/4/2002.
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