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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Still waiting for answers

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist, 11/24/2002

We are no longer shocked. That is the saddest and most dangerous fallout from months of revelations about the sexual abuse of children by priests and the cover-up of their crimes by princes of the Roman Catholic Church.

In depositions released last week, the cardinal-archbishop of Boston admits that the Rev. John J. Geoghan was not the only sexual predator he knowingly placed in the path of fresh victims. There were at least five others, and that number is likely to rise after victims' lawyers examine thousands of internal church documents that Judge Constance Sweeney ordered the archdiocese to turn over last Friday or face contempt charges.

How is it that, during Cardinal Bernard F. Law's press conference in January when he acknowledged having assigned Geoghan to parish work despite the priest's history of alleged sexual misconduct, he neglected to mention that he had done the same thing with the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham, the Rev. Eugene J. O'Sullivan, the Rev. George J. Rosenkranz, the Rev. Anthony J. Rebeiro, and the Rev. Daniel M. Graham?

Did the cardinal miss the reference to sins of omission in the Catholic catechism?

Withholding the truth until forced to answer specific questions under oath might be a workable legal strategy, but it casts doubt on the well-orchestrated displays of public remorse the cardinal has engaged in during the last few weeks. If lawyers have to drag the truth out of him case by case, if judges have to threaten him with contempt to get access to relevant documents, what does it say about the depth of his commitment to the healing process for his priests' victims?

The almost 900-page transcript of depositions of Law taken on four days in October and August show a man less repentant than resistant to taking responsibility for the scandal that has resulted in hundreds of legal claims against the Archdiocese of Boston, including dozens involving the Rev. Paul Shanley, now in jail awaiting trial on child rape charges. He would have acted differently in the Shanley case, Law contends, had only he not delegated it to subordinates, had only he read the incriminating personnel file, had only he known more about the pathology of sexual abuse.

But how can a reasonable person accept those excuses when, in the same deposition, the cardinal admits repeatedly assigning other miscreant priests to parish work even after learning of their past sexual misdeeds?

Birmingham, who died in 1989, is accused of molesting dozens of boys during a career than spanned 29 years and a half-dozen parishes, and yet Law reassigned him twice without ever alerting the new parishes of his history. He sent O'Sullivan to the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., without warning parishioners that the new priest working with their children had admitted sexually assaulting a minor in 1985. He let Rosenkrantz, who is accused of several incidents of sexual abuse, remain in parish work after the priest was charged with lewd conduct in a men's room. He took no action against Robeiro in 1984, dismissing a man's complaint that the priest had exposed himself and masturbated in front of the man's wife as ''personal'' matter for Robeiro to handle. In his deposition, Law even says he could not remember sending that letter because he often signs ''routine'' correspondence without reading it.

How many other priests were dealt with similarly? If the answers are contained in the boxes of personnel documents delivered Friday night to the office of plaintiffs' attorneys, the public might not know anytime soon. Law's lawyers have asked the court to impose a gag order, sealing those records from public scrutiny.

No number of apologies can obviate what we know now. John Geoghan's crimes were not an aberration in the Archdiocese of Boston and neither was the protection offered by Bernard Law to him and other miscreant priests, too many of them still unacknowledged by a prelate who breaks his unholy vow of silence only when he is under oath.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/24/2002.
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