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Spotlight Report

  Ellen Goodman  

A new chapter in church tale


LAST WINTER, when stories of priestly sexual abuse broke over my city, I couldn't help comparing the church scandal with the Enron scandal.

It was, admittedly, a bit of a stretch. The tower that Enron built was not literally a cathedral, although there was a good deal of (mammon) worship. The Houston company dealt in energy; the Boston archdiocese dealt in souls. Besides, it's far worse to have a child violated than a 401(k).

Still, each scandal had its cover-ups and its CEOs with shredded reputations. The citizens used the same vocabulary of betrayal. Employees and parishioners alike talked about losing their "faith."

Now, however, the analogy is nearly complete. Both stories have arrived at the same chapter in their history: Chapter 11.

It has been a year since Enron filed for bankruptcy, as protection from its creditors. It has been just a few days since the Boston archdiocese admitted that it too is considering bankruptcy, as protection from its victims.

A bankrupt Catholic Church? Are all other metaphors now officially irrelevant?

The narrative of this church sexual abuse tale moved gruesomely from Chapter 1 to Chapter 10, from sexual assaults to secret settlements, and rogue priests transferred from one parish to another like bad debts to off-shore corporations.

At some point, the outrageous became so routine that many of us began to suffer from shock fatigue. Pedophiles in Los Angeles, sexual abuse in St. Louis? What else is new?

Then Tuesday, a Boston court released another 2,200 pages of church documents as lurid as anything imagined in a 19th-century anti-papist novel. In the recorded allegations, there's the saga of one priest who beat his housekeeper and had a long affair with a woman. There's another -- so hooked on cocaine he was nicknamed "the blow king of Malden" -- who admitted sex with a teenager as well as with other men.

Most bizarre of all is Robert V. Meffan, a priest who enticed teenage girls preparing to become nuns into sex acts by claiming to be "the second coming of Christ." A 73-year-old now living out a comfortable retirement with his depraved delusion intact, he told a Boston Globe reporter, "What I was trying to show them is that Christ is human ... I felt that by having this little bit of intimacy with them that this is what it would be like with Christ."

These documents with bureaucratic comments scribbled casually in the margins -- "Problem: Little Children" -- broke through the shock barrier. And so too did the litany of notes from the cardinal to the criminals that sprinkled through the record. His words, full of warmth and pastoral empathy, read like thank-you notes to torturers.

To a self-confessed gay "sex addict" who feared that one of the boys he abused had committed suicide, Cardinal Bernard Law wrote, "It is my hope that some day in the future you will return to an appropriate ministry bringing with you the wisdom which emerges from difficult experience."

To an accused priest transferred to the Army chaplaincy without any warning of sexual abuse charges, he offered fare-thee-well, "I have every confidence that you will render fine priestly service to the people who come under your care."

And to the priest who seduced girls into "intimacy," Law sent his best retirement wishes: "Without doubt over these years of generous care, the lives and hearts of many people have been touched by your sharing of the Lord's Spirit. We are truly grateful."

Against this background, what are we to say when the page turns to Chapter 11? Have a nice day?

Throughout the scandal, Catholic leaders have been both apologetic and defensive. It was a different time, they say, we didn't know then what we know now. What precisely didn't they know then? That the Rev. Robert V. Meffan was not Jesus Christ?

They also insist that the church has changed in its attitudes toward victims. How precisely has it changed, if it declares bankruptcy?

Throughout this sorry tale, one thing has dismayed loyal Catholics the most: The realization that the hierarchy defended the institution instead of defending the children. The church hunkered down to protect its moral reputation. And lost its moral authority.

Indeed, the church is not talking about bankruptcy as an admission of failure, but as a tactic to stave off lawsuits and settlements. It has no intention of "restructuring" its all-male rules and celibate regulations, but every intention of saving the old hierarchies and coffers.

In the tale of two scandals, the CEO of Enron is gone, but the CEO of the Boston archdiocese is, incredibly, still at his post. Pink slips appear regularly now on the collection plates and yet the church fathers, deep in moral debt, are deciding whether to seek financial protection against the very victims they failed to protect.

Chapter 11? They might as well close the book.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is

This story ran on page D11 of the Boston Globe on 12/8/2002.
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