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Law’s disgrace
After what they’ve been through, who among the victims of clergy sexual abuse can feel good about all the sympathy lavished on Cardinal Law by the press?

CONSIDERING THAT he deliberately covered up child molestation by scores of deviant priests and enabled the molestation of children to take place time and again, coverage of Bernard Cardinal Law’s resignation from his post as archbishop of Boston has been amazingly sympathetic.

The morning after Pope John Paul II accepted Law’s December 13 resignation, the Boston Herald trumpeted compassion across its front page, with the headline forgive me over a photo of a presumably contrite Law speaking with the pope. The Boston Globe, too, led an 11-page spread on the news with the feel-good headline a church seeks healing. Page after page, article after article, the dailies played up the cardinal’s "tattered" legacy as actually chock full of kind deeds and stellar achievements. In its December 14 editorial, the Globe — which likes to claim that its dogged investigation broke the biggest sex-abuse scandal in the city — took a shockingly measured approach: Law’s resignation, the paper argued, marked "a sad but necessary day" resulting from Law’s failure to "grasp the criminality of a few" — a few? — "of his priests." The heart-tugging treatment continued in the paper’s December 15 edition, which was fronted with a piece — ‘i have no hatred,’ law says — detailing the cardinal’s forlorn trip back to Boston from Rome. The reporter portrayed Law as "exhausted and sad," uncertain about his future, undone by a "feeling of great sadness."

There can be no doubt that the cardinal’s sudden and dramatic departure — precipitated by a sustained uprising among lay people and priests — is big news. But to hear the media tell it, the event marks a sad day for the cardinal, a sad day for the Roman Catholic Church, and a sad day for the faithful. Indeed, it’s almost as if Law’s demise has propelled him into martyrdom. Yet Law is anything but a martyr. His long and shameful record in handling clergy sexual abuse — a record replicated by Church leaders in Boston and across the country — speaks to just how far the Catholic Church has to go before it can put the horror of clergy sexual abuse behind it. As Boston attorney Carmen Durso puts it, "People will say, ‘Oh, poor cardinal.’ But this is not about the cardinal. It’s about child abuse. And he is not the victim. He created the victims."

THE SYMPATHETIC coverage of Cardinal Law’s resignation could hardly have been anticipated just two weeks ago. At that time, thousands of pages of newly released Church documents had revealed damning information about allegations of sexual misconduct against 65 priests. And they showed the cardinal to be a liar, exposing how he played a far greater role sheltering abusive priests than he had previously acknowledged. The files contained reports of one rogue clergyman who had beaten up his housekeeper, another who had plied young parishioners with cocaine for sex, and a third who had seduced aspiring teenage nuns by calling himself the "Second Coming of Christ."

The sickening details set off a chain of devastating events for the archdiocese. Although demands for Law’s resignation have persisted since January — when the cardinal staged an apology for his "tragically incorrect" mistakes in handling convicted child molester John Geoghan — he enjoyed a reprieve in the fall. He polished up his image by meeting in October with 75 people who claim to be victims of the late Reverend Joseph Birmingham. But the latest revelations served as the tipping point. The Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), a moderate Catholic lay group formed in response to the clergy sex-abuse crisis, had declined to take a stance on its spiritual leader’s fate — until last Wednesday. On that day, the group finally demanded that Law step down because, as VOTF spokesperson Luise Dittrich points out, "We came to find out that he had lied to us." Likewise, after months of virtual silence on the matter, 58 archdiocesan priests penned a December 9 letter asking their leader to step down.

The protests apparently convinced Vatican officials, who had refused to let the cardinal go last April, that his continued reign in Boston had become untenable. Even Church defenders attribute Law’s move to resign — and the pope’s move to accept it — to the recent furor, especially that among the clergy. At a December 13 press conference announcing the leadership shake-up in the Boston archdiocese, Father Christopher Coyne, an archdiocesan spokesperson, recognized that the public outrage had made a difference. "Honestly," Coyne told reporters, "when all this started to come out a few weeks ago and the public furor and upset started to come forward again, in fairness, that did have a large impact on the cardinal’s decision."

Although Law’s departure understandably looms large in the minds of Boston residents, it’s just a sideshow in the grand scheme of things. For all the talk of this resignation marking a new era in the Catholic Church, those familiar with the Church’s record on clergy sexual abuse over the past two decades cannot help but doubt the emergence of an enlightened hierarchy. Explains David Clohessy, the executive director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who claims that a Missouri priest molested him for four years as a boy, "As an abuse victim, I have learned that one should never get one’s hopes up that Church leaders will do the right thing" regarding clergy sexual abuse.

Father Thomas Doyle, an outspoken priest who has advocated on behalf of clergy sex-abuse victims for 18 years now, puts it more bluntly: "I don’t believe the Vatican has come anywhere near understanding this problem. The scandal is not over yet."

To be sure, history shows that the Catholic hierarchy has yet to learn its lesson when dealing with pedophile priests. When the problem hit Boston in 1992 — after Massachusetts priest James Porter was convicted of molesting 28 children in three Bristol parishes in the 1960s — scrutiny of the Church grew so intense that Law infamously called down "God’s power on the media." But despite the negative headlines, the cardinal, we now know, did little to rid his archdiocese of sexual predators and thus prevent further public-relations fiascoes. When the Diocese of Dallas fell to its knees in 1997 — after a jury awarded 11 clergy sex-abuse victims $119.6 million for its negligent supervision — American bishops lamented that the award would cripple the American Catholic Church. But despite the financial threat, the bishops, we now know, did little to set up a system-wide policy to root out abusive clergy.

Church leaders, it seems, have even failed to grasp the meaning of simple, symbolic nods toward reform. In 1998, for instance, Bishop Keith Symons, of Palm Beach, Florida, became the first US bishop to resign because of child molestation by priests. Symons left the Diocese of Palm Beach after admitting that he had molested five boys. Rather than appoint a squeaky-clean successor, the Vatican named Bishop Anthony O’Connell, who, it turns out, is equally marred by sexual impropriety. Last March, O’Connell was forced to resign after confessing that he, too, had assaulted adolescents at a Missouri seminary. As Clohessy rather sarcastically summarizes: "If I had a nickel for every time that I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, Church officials surely won’t cover up the abuse of children again,’ I would be a very rich man."

Even today, throughout the current crisis, the Vatican has sent plenty of mixed messages about its views on clergy sexual abuse. On the one hand, the pope has condemned child molestation by priests as "an appalling sin" and a crime. On the other hand, Vatican officials have blamed the scandal on everyone and everything but the Church — indeed, they have blasted the press, the victims’ lawyers, homosexual priests, and Americans’ obsession with sex. On the one hand, the pope has proclaimed that there’s "no place in the priesthood" for child molesters. On the other hand, Vatican officials have refused to authorize the zero-tolerance sex-abuse policy passed by US bishops last June. Not only that, but they significantly undercut the policy by eliminating a mandate that bishops and priests report all sex-abuse allegations to the police.

Even in the US, bishops continue to behave as they always have, despite their supposed resolve to come clean. The Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, announced in February that it would not report all charges of priestly abuse to the police — a haunting echo of the attitude that had fueled this crisis in the first place. It took four months and intense pressure from Vermont attorney general William Sorrell before the diocese promised to report all "credible" allegations to the state. Meanwhile, in dioceses across the country, from New York to Phoenix to Los Angeles, bishops have tried to stonewall criminal investigations and withhold Church documents detailing abuse — just as Law did for months.

Make no mistake: were it not for the vigorous efforts of the victims’ lawyers — the real unsung heroes who rooted out the details of the Church’s role in the scandal — the Boston archdiocese would never have released 11,000-plus pages of internal records. Were it not for these legal actions, the public would never have discovered that, time and again, the cardinal and his bishops protected abusive priests at the expense of vulnerable children. So while the hierarchy professes to have taken responsibility, it has, in effect, not moved at all. Offers attorney Durso, who represents some 70 people in sex-abuse lawsuits pending against the archdiocese, "The Church has known about this situation for years and has never done the right thing.... It’s not a new day for the Catholic Church."

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Issue Date: December 19 - 26, 2002
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