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Cardinal Law on the ropes
Ten years ago, in the midst of an earlier pedophile scandal, Cardinal Law called down the wrath of God on the media. Now the media are giving him hell.

A NEWSWEEK COVER featuring Bernard Cardinal Lawís haggard face and the headline SEX, SHAME AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH. A New York Times editorial fastidiously avoiding the suggestion that Law resign ó but concluding that "voluntary retirement ... might be an appropriate way to demonstrate how seriously the church is taking this matter."

A nationally syndicated column by that quintessential Boston Catholic, Mary McGrory, arguing that Law has "lost moral authority," and thus cannot "expect to continue in office."

A cartoon by Tom Toles in which an offstage critic hectors Law, "When the problem is repeatedly failing to protect your children, a fatherís role is usually prison time."

And just to show that Toles isnít the only commentator whoís envisioned the cardinal in stripes, an "Explainer" in Slate headlined WHY ISNíT BOSTONíS CARDINAL LAW IN JAIL? (The answer: Massachusetts is not among the 18 states that "require all persons to report knowledge or suspicion of child abuse.")

For Cardinal Law, things have gone very bad very quickly. It was only a couple of years ago that he was named in a lawsuit by those accusing former priest John Geoghan of sexually abusing them when they were children. At the time, the notion of dragging Law into the case seemed like it might be either a publicity ploy, a Hail Mary pass (pardon the metaphor), or both.

But the local media began chipping away. The Boston Phoenix published the first breakthrough story last March: a piece by staff writer Kristen Lombardi showing that, for years, archdiocesan officials hushed up Geoghanís pedophilic ways and transferred him from parish to parish. Lombardi wrote several follow-ups, including a story last August detailing the Churchís heavy-handed legal tactics against victims of pedophilia by its priests (see the Phoenixís coverage online at

Then, in January of this year, the Boston Globe set in motion what was to become an avalanche. Many of the Globeís stories ó reported by Spotlight Team editor Walter Robinsonís shop ó were based on previously secret legal documents that the newspaper obtained by going to court, detailing how Law and other archdiocesan officials covered up the depredations of Geoghan and numerous other priests. The Boston Herald has made important contributions, too. The most recent was a piece last week reporting that New Hampshire and federal authorities may bring criminal charges against several Massachusetts priests who brought their victims across state lines.

The latest count: 10 priests suspended by the Archdiocese of Boston for what have been described as credible allegations of sex abuse; and perhaps 80 former, retired, or deceased priests who have been similarly accused.

According to Mondayís Globe, the counting continues.

ALMOST EXACTLY a decade ago, Cardinal Law lashed out at the media for what he saw as their excessive coverage of another notorious pedophile priest, James Porter. "We call down Godís power on our business leaders and the political leaders and community leaders. By all means we call down Godís power on the media, particularly the Globe," Law was reported as saying in an angry outburst during ó of all things ó an antiviolence march.

Now the mediaís power has been called down on Law and the Catholic Church. And though it might seem like hell to the hierarchy, the result has been to expose a myriad of heinous acts ó many of them crimes ó that had long been kept secret. Thatís good for everyone.

Regionally, the Portland Press Herald, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the Manchester Union Leader, and the Springfield Union-News have all covered the story extensively, pushing local Catholic officials to identify and suspend alleged pedophiles in their own churches. The Providence Journal has gone so far as to call for Lawís resignation ó a step neither of the Boston dailies has yet taken, although the Phoenix did recently (see "Cardinal Lawís Shame," Editorial, February 1). This past Sunday, WCVB-TV Channel 5 broadcast a tough editorial in which president and general manager Paul La Camera declined to call for Lawís resignation, but said that "he may need to accept that resignation might serve as the ultimate act of reconciliation for him and his Church."

Nationally, whatís happened in Boston has spurred not only media attention from the likes of the Times and Newsweek, but also local coverage of whatís going on in communities across the country. The trade magazine Editor & Publisher reports that papers such as the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Morning Call and the Wausau (Wisconsin) Daily Herald have followed up the Boston stories by reporting on whatís happening in their own back yards. The Boston scandal, with its ripple effects, has also convinced some Church leaders that secrecy is no longer an option. "We could have had reporters climbing ropes outside of their building, and we would not have gotten the same information we got because of the Boston story," Philadelphia Daily News editor Zack Stalberg told E&P.

Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvardís Kennedy School, told me that the Law scandal has provoked a national outcry because itís one of those stories that had smoldered just below the surface for years before it finally burst into flames.

"I think whatís happened is that something thatís long been known to exist and has been a scandal has finally been dragged into the full light of day," says Jones. "I think this is long overdue. Itís very much like the elephant at the table to a certain extent."

Emily Rooney, host of WGBH-TVís Greater Boston and a former local and national television news director, says of the media: "The biggest role theyíve played is theyíve cut right through the heart of this, which is the secrecy. Itís all crumbled now." With Porter and similar cases, she adds, "we all believed it was an anomaly. But itís not, and thatís the thing thatís so distressing."

Rooney believes that the long-term effect of the mediaís exposure will be a positive one, both for the Church and for society. "From now on," she says, "anything thatís reported will be made public. Thatís good."

The question, though, is whether it will lead to real, permanent change on the part of the Church. The two-decade-old track record is not encouraging.

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Issue Date: March 7 - 14, 2002
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