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Spotlight Report

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A long crisis in church returns to the forefront

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 7/24/2003

 Related stories
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 Complete report
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AG's report, press conference
Statement from the archdiocese

Abuse reports in archdiocese
Leaders who handled abuse
The cost of clergy sex abuse

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly's damning report about the failings of Boston Catholic church leaders immediately transformed the environment for next week's installation of Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, offering a stark reminder to the incoming archbishop that the clergy sexual abuse crisis is not over, and that some prominent figures, among them the state's top law enforcement official, don't believe the church has made sufficient amends.

Reilly's report was denounced by defenders of the church, who said his language went too far, and by critics of the church, who said his findings didn't go far enough. But many others welcomed the report, saying that although the allegations are familiar after a year and a half of news media reports, Reilly's stature as attorney general and the length of his investigation breathed new intensity into a long-burning fire.

''I had thought it was unlikely that this scandal could make me cringe again, but to read this report brings the lamentation for the archdiocese back in full force, and the dismay, the disdain, and the frustration,'' said R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame who studies American Catholicism. ''If there were any question lingering about what Archbishop O'Malley's first, second, third, fourth, and fifth priorities are, that doubt has been removed. That priority is to restore trust, through transparency and a rigorous establishment of processes and systems that make it absolutely certain, as much as any human system can, that this won't happen again.''

Reilly's report was issued on the same day that O'Malley, who has been bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., since last fall, drove to Boston from Fall River to prepare for his installation. Reilly, who is Catholic, declared clearly that he believes his church dramatically failed to live up to its values and teachings.

''The widespread abuse of children was due to an institutional acceptance of abuse and a massive and pervasive failure of leadership,'' Reilly said. ''... For decades, cardinals, bishops, and others in positions of authority within the archdiocese chose to protect the image and reputation of their institution, rather than the safety and well-being of children.''

Reilly, while offering to work with the new archbishop, offered a challenge to a church that has been trying to move forward. He criticized several elements of the local church's policy for child protection, castigated the national church for failing to hold bishops accountable for protecting abusive priests, and said ''the archdiocese has ... not demonstrated a commitment to the protection of children that is proportionate to the harm that it has caused.''

The church responded cautiously. O'Malley declined to be interviewed, as did the current administrator of the archdiocese, Bishop Richard G. Lennon. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to comment; a spokesman said it would be more appropriate for ''those directly involved'' to respond.

A spokesman for the archdiocese, Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said church officials were not ready to dispute or accept the numbers proffered by Reilly. But he said the church does not agree with the assessment that little has been accomplished in the way of reform over the last year and a half.

''Reading this report, you get the impression that we really haven't done anything, when in fact we have done quite a bit, and are continuing to do quite a bit now,'' he said. ''We are really working to clean up our house, and the good efforts that have begun over the last 18 months should not be ignored.''

But Coyne said the church does accept that tough language is appropriate when describing what went wrong in the church over a period of decades.

''The fact that there was no indictment says two things: there was no crime because there were no laws broken [by supervisors] ... and there was no intent to commit a crime,'' Coyne said.

He said top church officials will review the report over the next few days. ''I don't think anybody accepted the abuse of children - I think there was a culture of protection that sought to protect children by moving priests into the kind of treatment that was available at the time, or ... having them go away for a while and then come back ... but there was also an effort to protect the child from what was understood at the time to be the stigma of abuse - there was a whole culture ... that never recognized that the number one thing we had to do was protect children,'' he said.

But scholars said the report highlights a troubling aspect of the sex abuse crisis - the church's failure to live up to its professed moral mandate to protect the vulnerable.

''This is a moral condemnation, as harsh as can be - the church has not abided by its own moral teachings in this case, and whether it was malfeasance or simply a lack of attention to detail, the result was the same, which is that people have been deeply hurt,'' said Chester Gillis, the chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University. ''Bishop O'Malley has a Herculean task in front of him, but it's also a real opportunity for the church of Boston. He can't worry about anything but this immediately, because he's going to be judged in his first month on how he addresses this issue.''

The president of Voice of the Faithful, a Newton-based lay organization formed as a result of the scandal, called for resignations by ''protectors of predators,'' the bishops who played a role in overseeing abusive priests.

''The report provides a chilling picture of how grown men, entrusted with the highest moral and secular responsibility, betrayed the children they vowed to protect and betrayed the church they vowed to serve,'' the group's president, James E. Post, said in a statement. ''The dreadful lack of a moral compass revealed in their deeds ... leaves decent, church-going Catholics sickened. People of every faith, or no faith, cannot fail to be outraged by the revelations in this report.''

But several prominent Catholics said Reilly's report went too far in several respects, in part by reporting allegations rather than verified cases of abuse.

''This report should be viewed with robust skepticism, because one would want to know the nature of the charges,'' said Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, the editor-in-chief of First Things, a monthly journal on religion and public life. ''Plus, Mr. Reilly has a record of making some rather irresponsible statements, including his quickly-withdrawn but astonishing suggestion that the state should supervise the formation of priests.''

Reilly, in March 2002, said the extent of child sexual abuse by priests might prompt him to seek state oversight of the education, training, monitoring, and supervision of priests. He never pursued such authority.

A prominent local Catholic laywoman, Maureen Scannell Bateman, rejected Reilly's assertion that the church had an ''institutionalized culture of acceptance of the sexual abuse of children.'' Bateman, who is executive vice president and general counsel at State Street Corporation, was the chairwoman of Cardinal Bernard F. Law's child protection commission last year, and has studied the church's response to the issue.

''I don't believe that for a minute,'' she said. ''They never accepted it. They made some mistakes, and they respected confidentiality more than they should have, but they never accepted the abuse of children - they never said, `We know this guy's going to do it, and we'll put him in there again anyway.'''

And a watchdog group, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said Reilly was wrong to devote so many resources to his probe when it was clear that church leaders had not violated Massachusetts laws.

''After wasting a colossal amount of public funds in a wild-goose chase effort to prosecute molesting priests, Reilly has concluded there will be no indictments,'' said the Catholic League's president, William Donohue, in a statement. ''It is a waste of public monies to drag any person or institution through the mud. Whenever the outcome is preordained, prosecutors should back off and not let their greed for PR get the best of them.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/24/2003.
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