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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Reviewing past lessons


Mary Jane England leads the last Catholic women's college in the Archdiocese of Boston. She is a child psychiatrist and a mother whose son was one of the lucky ones who emerged unscathed after serving as an altar boy with a priest now accused of molesting dozens of boys across half a dozen parishes.

In the scheme of things, the president of Regis College thinks the fate of Cardinal Bernard F. Law is beside the point.

England's view of the scandal shaking the Catholic Church is worth considering, less because of her professional stature or her family's close encounter with the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham than because of her own history. She knows firsthand that Law is dead wrong to claim that society had not begun to confront the criminal nature of child abuse when he became archbishop of Boston in 1985.

The lessons the cardinal insists he is just learning, England learned the hard way two years before Law arrived in Massachusetts. By then, she was out of a job as the first commissioner of the state Department of Social Services because of a public perception that the agency was not doing enough to help prosecute those who preyed on children.

Last week, England opened the doors of the financially independent college in Weston for a symposium to encourage those with conflicting views about the state of the church, especially about the role of women, to talk openly with one another. But speaking with England herself was a useful reminder of how far we have come in our understanding of child abuse in the last 25 years and how hard that journey has been.

Tomorrow, the cardinal's Commission for the Protection of Children, on which she serves, will deliver its recommendations for policy changes. "I believe he will listen," she said of Law, "but if he doesn't, he will understand one thing -- we are not going to go away. The laity will not be ignored. We have one agenda: We must heal our victims and we cannot let this happen again."

England knows, more than most, just how long the abuse of children has been happening. It didn't begin 30 years ago in the rectories of Boston. "Abuse is endemic in our society, especially the abuse of women and children, but when it showed up in the church it unleashed a fury, especially among mothers and grandmothers, whose lives are so much about protecting others," she said. "We have had scandals in the church before -- popes may have sold indulgences -- but this is the worst. Maybe, though, the church could be a vehicle for us to confront abuse wherever we find it."

Mobilizing action on this issue has never been easy. It was not until 1965 that medicine even acknowledged the existence of battered children. It was later still that psychiatry denounced sexual contact with patients. It was not until a year after outrage about botched child abuse cases forced her from her post at DSS that England and others convinced the Legislature that abuse would continue unchecked unless the law mandated that social workers, nurses, doctors, teachers, and others report suspected cases to the police. This year that law, too belatedly, was amended to include the clergy.

"What happens to the cardinal is secondary," she said. "What matters is that we change the church. It's not modern. ... They don't get it about how we do business in an inclusive society. If we change the cardinal and don't change that, where are we?"

But it may be that one change cannot be accomplished without the other. Here, too, England's experience at the DSS is instructive. Unlike the cardinal, the commissioner remained well respected when scandal struck; Governor Michael S. Dukakis cut her loose anyway. As then-Human Services Secretary Manuel Carballo told me 21 years ago: "I think very highly of Mary Jane England, but I think in the long run the agency would have suffered by spending time explaining the past instead of looking to the future."

More so, the Archdiocese of Boston.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at .

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 10/6/2002.
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