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Law’s failure to lead

The Catholic Church must stop its sleazy defense tactics in sex-abuse cases

IN MARCH, THE Phoenix reported that Bernard Cardinal Law was facing 25 lawsuits alleging that he knew about a former priest’s pedophilic behavior yet did nothing to stop it (see " Cardinal Law, the Church, and Pedophilia, " News and Features, March 23). Last month, people were shocked to learn that Law intended to defend himself against the suits by blaming the victims. In his formal response to the 25 lawsuits, Law’s attorney wrote that " the negligence of the Plaintiff contributed to cause the injury or damage complained of ... " The shock only grew when the Boston Herald reported this week that attorneys from the Rogers Law Firm, which represents the Archdiocese of Boston, allegedly urged four witnesses in the case against former Church youth worker Christopher Reardon (who was sentenced August 17 to 40 to 50 years in prison for molesting children) not to share what they knew with investigators because it might make the Church vulnerable to lawsuits alleging negligence.

Yet given how the Catholic Church has conducted itself over the past 20 years, no one should have been surprised. As staff writer Kristen Lombardi reports this week (see " Protect the Church at All Costs, " ), the tactics employed by Law and his attorneys are commonplace within the Church. In the United States, in fact, the Church has a long and shameful history of shifting blame from perpetrator to victim and trying to conceal evidence in cases of alleged sexual abuse by members of the clergy. In case after case, the Church has filed countersuits against victims, accused parents of negligence, hired private detectives to dig up dirt on victims, sued victims for slander, intimidated witnesses, and stonewalled court proceedings. In doing so, the Church has acted more like a corporate polluter evading responsibility than like a religious institution.

In one infamous instance, a bishop in the Bridgeport, Connecticut, diocese testified that priests are independent contractors, and so their supervisors and employers cannot be held liable for their actions. The bishop? Edward Egan, who was later named cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York, perhaps the most influential post in the American Catholic Church. In the aftermath of his incredible testimony, Egan wrote a letter to his Connecticut parishioners: " To clear up any misunderstanding I need to add that, for personal income tax purposes only, priests ... are considered ... self-employed independent contractors. This, however, does not mean that a priest is a so-called ‘independent contractor’ for any other purpose.... Moreover, the Bishop is responsible for the overall administration and spiritual care of the Diocese. "

In other words, he said one thing in court to avoid taking responsibility, and said quite the opposite as a pastoral leader. This duplicitous approach is deplorable. So are the Church’s aggressive legal tactics, which push the boundaries of the law while shattering those of morality. The Catholic Church is a 2000-year-old spiritual institution. It should act with commensurate gravity and wisdom in its dealings with the victims of sexual abuse and its perpetrators. Should the Church be telling pedophilic priests that they aren’t responsible for their actions? Should the Church be teaching the victims of sexual abuse that they are? Francis Fiorenza, a Catholic theologian at Harvard Divinity School, notes: " There is obviously a stark inconsistency between professing a passionate and loving concern for the religious, moral, and emotional welfare of the victims, while at the same time using a legal tactic that seems to blame victims themselves for their very victimization. That is religiously and morally inexcusable. "

As one of eight cardinals in the United States, Law wields considerable influence. And as a named defendant in 25 clergy-sex-abuse cases, he is in a unique position to change the way the Church defends itself in these cases. Yet he’s tried to keep court documents that name him sealed, and he’s made the dubious argument that determining whether Church superiors properly supervised John Geoghan, who’s been accused of molesting nearly 100 children, would force the court to examine canon law, which is shielded by the First Amendment. (Former Superior Court judge James McHugh denied both motions.) Law could direct his attorney, Wilson Rogers Jr., not to engage in such obstructionist tactics. More important, Law could direct his attorney not to blame the victims in the these cases — who were, after all, allegedly subjected to child molestation.

Cardinal Law in particular and the Catholic Church in general have every right to mount a vigorous defense when accused of negligence leading to child sexual abuse. But there’s a difference between vigorous and sleazy. And the Church’s behavior veers toward the latter. Take Rogers’s claim that the language included in Law’s responses to the 25 lawsuits was mere " boilerplate, " common in responding to negligence suits. It is — if you’re defending yourself against someone claiming to have slipped on a patch of ice in front of your house. But it’s not when you’re defending yourself against a claim involving sexual abuse of a child. Under Massachusetts law, a person must be 16 years old to consent to sexual activity. There is simply no way that minors, which the 25 plaintiffs suing Law were at the times of the alleged abuse, can be held responsible. And Rogers clearly knew this.

Cardinal Law has the power to change the way the Church conducts itself in these cases. The question is whether he will. To judge by his behavior thus far, it doesn’t seem likely.

What do we make of a spiritual leader who has it in his power to right a terrible wrong and set a mighty institution on a new course — and who fails to act? The answer is impossible to ignore: he loses the moral claim to lead his flock.

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Issue Date: August 23-30, 2001

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