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Failure to act
By the 1980s, the Catholic Church knew more about pedophilia than any other organized group working with children in the US. So why didn’t Cardinal Law protect his flock?


THE PLOT IS thickening. Last January, Bernard Cardinal Law was named in 25 lawsuits alleging that he could have prevented now-defrocked priest John Geoghan, who is accused of molesting at least 120 children, from committing his crimes — but didn’t. Since then, two more damning pieces of information have come to light: Law received a letter in September 1984 outlining allegations of Geoghan’s alleged criminal behavior, and in 1985, as a member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the cardinal was asked to review a groundbreaking report on the widespread problem of clergy sexual abuse within the American Catholic Church. (Court motions in Geoghan’s criminal trial will be heard at Suffolk Superior Court on October 9; no date has been set for the civil lawsuits naming Law.)

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of these new facts. How could Law have been briefed on the extent of clergy sexual abuse throughout the Church, yet choose to ignore a glaring instance of the problem in his own archdiocese? After all, it’s not as if sexual abuse had been ignored by society at large. By the time Law received notice of Geoghan’s alleged abuse, in 1984, child sexual assault had become a felony in all 50 states — as had the failure to report suspected abuse (though in Massachusetts and 21 other states, members of the clergy are exempt from this requirement). The Church itself had, to some extent, been aware of the problem for generations. But ignoring this unpleasant subject seems to be standard practice. (Only now, it seems, has the Church finally learned its lesson. It was reported this week that Law immediately dismissed priest Andrzej Sujka of South Boston’s Our Lady of Czestochowa Church after a parishioner disclosed to the archdiocese that Sujka had once molested him.) The cardinal, through Boston archdiocese spokesperson John Walsh, did not respond to three phone calls seeking comment, or to a list of seven questions faxed to his office. Law’s attorney, Wilson Rogers Jr., did not return a call seeking comment.

In fact, the silence surrounding this issue has been deafening. But a look at how the Catholic Church has responded historically to the problem of clergy sexual abuse sheds some light on Law’s behavior.

BY ALL accounts, the Catholic Church has struggled with the seriousness and extent of pedophilia within its own ranks for much longer than any other American social or religious institution. As far back as the early 1970s, the Vatican had received warnings about potential trouble with pedophilic priests. At that time, Catholic treatment centers for priests with " psychosexual disorders " began popping up across the country, from Massachusetts to Maryland to New Mexico.

In fact, the Church has considered pedophilia not just a psychological problem but an " ecclesiastical crime " — sexual contact with a minor is defined as such in the 1984 Code of Canon Law, the body of law that structures the Catholic Church’s legal system. Father Thomas Doyle, a canonical lawyer who’s testified on behalf of plaintiffs in some 200 sex-abuse lawsuits, traces the existing law back to the Middle Ages, when Irish monks published penitential books for use while hearing confessions. Several of the tomes, according to Doyle, refer to sexual crimes committed by clerics against boys and girls. One widely used volume, known as the Penitential of Bede, advises clerics who sodomize children to repent their sins by subsisting on nothing more than bread and water for anywhere from three to 12 years. " The reason sexual abuse of minors is in these books, " says Doyle, " is because it was a problem. "

Yet this vast institutional knowledge of the problem never resulted in changes on the diocesan level — changes that might have prevented the molestation of thousands of children. Until the infamous 1984 case of Gilbert Gauthe, who was convicted of fondling and raping dozens of boys in Lafayette, Louisiana, the Church dealt with the issue quietly.

The Gauthe scandal, however, served as a tipping point. In that case, families of Gauthe’s 50 victims took the unprecedented step of suing the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, for failing to follow up on complaints about the priest’s sexual misconduct. News of the lawsuit spread from the pages of the National Catholic Reporter to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Time magazine. (This is all recounted in Jason Berry’s best-selling 1992 book Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, which was reissued by the University of Illinois Press last year.) One year after the Gauthe case made headlines, 10 more lawsuits alleging child molestation by clergy were filed in courts across the country; that number soared to 400 by 1993. At that point, attorneys who had been following such cases stopped counting; today, no other group keeps track of such information. Conservative estimates put the number of victims at more than 10,000; in the meantime, an estimated 3000 priests have been indicted for sexually assaulting minors, according to victim-support groups.

Doyle, who worked at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, DC, in 1984, recalls that for many leaders of the Church, the feverish climate following the Gauthe case felt like " driving a Sherman tank through a minefield. " " Reports of clergy sexual abuse were cropping up on a daily basis all over the place, " he remembers. " This was a super-hot issue for the bishops. There was a lot of talk about what to do. "

The furor prompted the creation of a definitive document, later used as evidence against the Church in hundreds of sex-abuse lawsuits: an internal 1985 report on the extent of pedophilia among the clergy. The 100-page proposal, known simply as " The Manual, " was written by three esteemed Church insiders: Doyle; Father Michael Peterson, a now-deceased psychiatrist who treated pedophilic priests; and Ray Mouton, a former attorney who defended Gauthe in criminal proceedings. (Mouton, who now lives in Frankfurt, Germany, could not be reached for comment.) Doyle and his co-authors outlined the " growing problem " of clergy sexual abuse and warned that it would escalate if the Church failed to take certain steps. Most notably, they recommended that the Church establish a national " policy and planning group " to create mandatory, uniform procedures for all 188 US dioceses.

The report reads as though Doyle, Peterson, and Mouton were doling out friendly advice to bishops forced to contend with an unpleasant problem. For instance, the authors appeal to Church officials not to consider their effort an affront: " Please do not feel ‘preached to’ or that your past views and ways of dealing with this disorder have been ‘wrong.’ The purpose of this document ... is to educate you as much as we can in our professional capacities and help keep you abreast of developments in this sensitive and devastating area of human behavior. "

Throughout 1985, Doyle lobbied Church leaders to present the report to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), a canonical body that makes recommendations to the American Catholic hierarchy on pastoral practices, interreligious affairs, and government policy. Doyle recalls approaching Cardinal Law, who headed the NCCB Committee on Research and Pastoral Practices at the time, and asking for his support. Doyle had known the cardinal since the late 1960s, when Law served as bishop of the Diocese of Springfield–Cape Girardeau in Missouri. The Boston archbishop, Doyle believed, could be counted on as a sympathetic ear. " I told Bernie, ‘This is our report,’ " Doyle recalls, " ‘These are our recommendations. We need to get the conference to study this.’ " Law " was very supportive, " says Doyle, and pledged to call for a special ad hoc committee to study the problem. Weeks later, at a June 1985 meeting at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, the NCCB was quietly briefed on the report’s contents. But according to Doyle, the NCCB committee headed by Law never followed through on the promise to create an ad hoc committee.

For Kristen Lombardi's other writings about the Catholic Church, see:



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Issue Date: October 4 - 11, 2001

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