Scandal of Secrecy
by Andrew Walsh
On January 6, a week before a defrocked Catholic priest
was set to be tried for molesting a 10 year-old boy, the Boston Globe’s
Spotlight investigative team rolled out a devastating series on clerical
sexual abuse of children and the hierarchy’s chronic failure to treat
priestly misconduct as criminal. "Since the mid-1990s," the
main story’s lede began, "more than 130 people have come forward
with horrific childhood tales about how former priest John J. Geoghan
allegedly fondled or raped them during a three-decade spree through a
half-dozen Greater Boston parishes.
"For decades, within the US Catholic Church, sexual
misbehavior by priests was shrouded in secrecy—at every level,"
the Globe reported. "Abusive priests—Geoghan among them—often
instructed traumatized youngsters to say nothing about what had been
done to them. Parents who learned of the abuse, often wracked by shame,
guilt, and denial, tried to forget what the church had done. The few who
complained were invariably urged to keep silent. And pastors and
bishops, meanwhile, viewed the abuse as a sin for which priests could
repent rather than as a compulsion they might be unable to
Thus broke the latest phase of the most sweeping,
costly, and damaging religious scandal in the history of the United
States, the seemingly endless 15-year cycle of stories about the
Catholic Church’s struggle to confront and deal with the sexual abuse
of children by its clergy.
In Massachusetts, the public response was extraordinary.
"The daily revelations about priests who sexually abuse children
seems to be sucking the very air out of this community," the Boston
Herald editorialized a few weeks into the scandal.
First Boston, then New England, and then, by late
February, many parts of the nation were caught up in a continuing wave
of breaking news. At Easter, the story was still unfolding and the
newsweeklies were publishing covers with hyperbolic headlines like
"Can the Church Save Itself?"
"‘It’s not often that we witness the death of a
mystique,’ US News & World Report quoted Daniel Maguire, a
moral theologian at Marquette University, on April 1. "Catholic
priests have had the highest possible prestige. Now, you have sick
priests who preyed on children and a hierarchy that aided and abetted
the molestation of children through a deliberate coverup."
This phase of the longer crisis was not, however,
generated by reports of new cases of sexual abuse. The charges against
Geoghan, for example, were already familiar in Massachusetts. Almost all
of the alleged assaults in the Geoghan case took place before 1993, with
many dating as far back as the mid-1960s. The Globe, the Boston
Herald and the weekly Boston Phoenix had reported frequently
about the case at several points over the previous ten years.
But a flat assertion is in order: It was the Boston
Globe that drove this story. Beginning in 1992 with intensive
coverage of the James Porter case in neighboring Fall River (see
sidebar), the Globe has consistently kept its eye on cases of
clerical abuse. For example, because there were both criminal charges
and civil suits before the Massachusetts courts, the Geoghan case
produced ongoing coverage through the middle and late 1990s.
This time, the focus was the Catholic Church’s
leadership. The headline for the Globe’s first-day story
distilled the essence of the charge: "Church Allowed Abuse by
Priest for Years. Aware of Geoghan’s Record, Archdiocese Still
Shuttled Him from Parish to Parish."
The Globe’s key sources were a small group of
plaintiff’s lawyers who were building cases against Geoghan, other
errant priests, and the archdiocese. The newspaper’s own lawyers
entered the fray to oppose a September 2000 ruling by Suffolk Superior
Court Judge James McHugh that granted an archdiocesan request to give
both plaintiffs and defendants in the Geoghan case the right to classify
any documents involved in litigation as confidential—an unusual
decision that conformed to a long history of deferential treatment
afforded the Catholic church by Massachusetts institutions.
The key break in the story came on November 30, when
another Suffolk Superior Court judge, Constance M. Sweeney, ordered the
release of thousands of internal church documents gathered during the
legal process of discovery in dozens of civil suits against Geoghan.
Sweeney ruled that her colleague’s previous order might have "the
unintended effect of impeding the access of the public and the press to
certain aspects of the case."
On January 6, the Spotlight Team turned up the heat. The
first weekend’s stories painted a portrait of Geoghan as a persistent
predator over the course of his 30-year priesthood and of his passage
through six parish assignments and repeated cycles of psychiatric
treatment and reinstatement. The initial package included stark accounts
by Geoghan’s victims and revealed that Cardinal Bernard F. Law—continuing
a pattern set early in Geoghan’s career—had reassigned him to a new
parish in 1984 even though he had received complaints about the priest’s
misconduct with boys.
Inexplicably, the pastor at Geoghan’s new parish in
the affluent suburb of Weston placed him in charge of altar boys and
youth groups. Complaints about the priest continued until Geoghan was
removed from parish ministry in 1993 and finally defrocked in 1998.
"The cardinal and five other bishops have been accused of
negligence in many of the civil suits for allegedly knowing of Geoghan’s
abuse and doing nothing to stop it," the Spotlight Team reported.
The Boston hierarchy should have known the day of
reckoning was at hand. After reviewing internal church documents culled
from court files, the Globe showed that Law and other bishops had
received reports from national church commissions as early as 1984
indicating that pedophilia is a chronic disorder, with high rates of
repeat offenses, even for those who had received intensive psychiatric
treatment. "Until recently," according to the first-day story,
"the church also had little to fear from the courts." But that
has changed, as predicted in a 1985 confidential report on priest abuse
prepared at the urging of some of the nation’s top bishops, Law among
them. "Our dependence in the past on Roman Catholic judges and
attorneys protecting the Diocese and clerics is GONE," the report
Among the thousands of court documents finally released
on January 26 was a letter written to Law in December 1984, a month
after Geoghan’s reassignment to Weston. In it, Auxiliary Bishop John D’Arcy
challenged the wisdom of the assignment in light of Geoghan’s
"history of homosexual involvement with young boys."
In the weeks after the story broke, the Globe had
nine reporters working full-time on the story. Devastating follow-up
stories appeared almost daily. As late as the end of March, the Globe
often printed four or five stories a day on various aspects of the
scandal and its national and global ramifications. This ever-extending
chain of stories, and the huge collection of documents released on
January 26 by the court, profoundly undermined Law’s credibility.
The most damaging blow was self-inflicted. In July of
2001, as the Geoghan case moved toward trial and legal maneuvering over
the release of documents intensified, Law published a column in his own
archdiocesan newspaper defending his record in handing sexual misconduct
charges. "Never was there an effort on my part to shift a problem
from one place to the next," he wrote in the July 27 Boston
Pilot. The first weekend’s stories gave the lie to that claim.
The archdiocese’s first response to the story was to
struggle to maintain its pattern of public silence. "Donna
Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Law, said the cardinal and other church
officials would not respond to questions about Geoghan," the Globe
reported on January 6. "Morrissey said the church had no interest
in knowing what the Globe’s questions would be."
That facade cracked quickly. On January 9, Law faced
reporters for the first time to discuss the Geoghan case. Confronted by
undeniable internal documents, Law apologized "to all victims of
sex abuse by priests, to Geoghan’s alleged victims, and
"particularly those who were abused in assignments which I
made." At the same press conference, Law promised to abandon his
internal policy for handing priests charged with sexual misconduct.
Instead of returning many to ministry after psychiatric treatment, Law
pledged "a policy of zero tolerance for such behavior. Any priest
known to have sexually abused a minor simply will not function as a
priest in any way in this Archdiocese."
Within days, new "zero tolerance" policies
were announced in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and in all three cities
reports followed of priests being removed from ministry as a result of
the stricter policy. Law then went about the task of establishing a
commission of lay and academic experts to advise him on how to proceed.
As January passed, the Globe’s follow-ups
continued to deliver heavy blows, reporting (for example) that in the
1980s Law had relied on medical advice in repeatedly reinstating Geoghan
to parish duty—advice that turned out to come from Geoghan’s general
practitioner and a psychiatrist who had never treated another patient
who sexually abused children.
Some of the revelations bordered on the surreal. On
January 24, the Globe published excerpts from a letter that Law
had written to Geoghan in 1996—three years after he had removed him
from parish ministry and in a period when you knew that Geoghan was
under prosecutorial scrutiny. "Yours has been an effective life of
ministry, sadly impaired by illness…God bless you, Jack."
Pounded relentlessly, Law at the end of the month issued
an even more remorseful statement apologizing for his decisions, but
refusing to resign. "In the terrible instances of sexual abuse, the
Archdiocese of Boston has failed to protect one of our most precious
gifts, our children. As Archbishop, it was and is my responsibility to
ensure that our parishes be safe havens for our children," he
wrote. "In retrospect, I acknowledge that, albeit unintentionally,
I have failed in that responsibility. The judgments I made, while made
in good faith, were tragically wrong."
Polls reported that Boston Catholics were deeply
critical of Law’s handling of clerical sexual abuse and evenly divided
over whether he should resign. The overwhelming sense conveyed in
stories in the Globe, the Herald, the Quincy Patriot-Ledger,
local news broadcasts, radio talk shows, and on street corners was that
Boston’s Catholics were furious, truly off the reservation.
"Cardinal Bernard Law can stay or go as archbishop of Boston,"
Globe columnist Joan Vennochi wrote on January 29. "It
really doesn’t matter. Like Bill Clinton after Monica Lewinsky, he
stands stripped of moral authority. He may cling to the office, but the
power is gone."
Vennochi returned to the scandal on March 12. "For
the first time ever, Boston’s political and business establishment is
standing up to Cardinal Bernard F. Law and all he represents in the
Catholic Church. That does not happen easily in this city. It comes in
recognition of two factors: the shocking scope of the revelations and
the awareness that the media, local and now national, are not backing
away from the original story or further developments."
Other Globe columnists—Eileen McNamara, Ellen
Goodman, Adrian Walker, and, most of all, Derrick Jackson—also blasted
away. Mc-Namara’s January 27 column began, "Cardinal Law is right
about one thing. His resignation would not cure what ails the Roman
Catholic Church." Within a few graphs she shifted to a vigorous
critique of priestly celibacy and the refusal of the church to ordain
women as priests.
Former Boston Mayor and Ambassador to the Vatican
Raymond Flynn was virtually the only prominent figure to mount any
public defense of Law. Appearing on ABC News’ "Nightline"
February 21, Flynn complained that the media "should not try to
bring down the Catholic church here because of a handful of bad apples
in the barrel."
When host Ted Koppel responded that he didn’t think
"anyone’s trying to bring down the Catholic church," Flynn
snapped. "Oh you haven’t been up in Boston then, Ted. You should
take a look at the Boston Globe every single day."
As January turned to February, the focus of coverage in
Boston shifted from whether Law should resign to the numbers of priests
involved. "The newspapers speculate that as many as 50 priests may
eventually be accused," John O’Sullivan of United Press
International wrote on January 30. "That is almost certainly a
large exaggeration. But suppose that the true figure is five. Would that
not be shocking enough?"
Within a week, under pressure from press and
prosecutors, the archdiocese admitted that its files contained
allegations against "more than 70" priests over the past 40
years. The eventual total passed 90, with hundreds of new allegations
still to be evaluated surfacing in February and March.
Then journalists outside Boston began to ask questions
at home, rather than merely covering the spectacle in Boston. Newspapers
(mostly in Catholic population centers) like the Philadelphia
Inquirer, Newsday, the Hartford Courant, the Los
Angeles Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cleveland
Plain-Dealer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Milwaukee
Journal began to break stories in their own coverage areas. The
story also got considerable attention on NPR, and the network and cable
news broadcasts, especially in the week before Easter. ABC’s
"Nightline" devoted three shows to the story in February and
At the same time, the papers in Baltimore, Buffalo,
Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Seattle reported that local archdioceses
were expressing confidence that no priest pedophiles were serving there.
Surveying the scene, Laurie Goodstein and Alessandra
Stanley wrote in the New York Times on March 17 that the
"sexual abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic Church, far from being
nearly over, has only begun. Across the country, in an effort to restore
credibility, many dioceses are volunteering to turn over their records
to prosecutors. The publicity is emboldening more people to step forward
with accusations of sexual abuse. The news media daily are exposing new
cases of priest pedophiles and new reports of cover-ups."
After the first wave of stories broke in the late 1980s,
most American dioceses adopted new policies governing their response to
allegations of priestly misconduct. While these policies vary
considerably in detail, they fall into two general camps.
On the one hand, there were policies produced in the
wake of grave scandals that mandate prompt reporting of allegations to
law enforcement officials, promise openness, and set up special,
lay-dominated commissions to handle investigations and to make
recommendations about how to handle cases of false accusations or
allegations that fell short of the standard of proof required for
The model here has been the policy established by
Cardinal Joseph Bernadin in 1992, which established a nine-member
commission with six lay members, including a victim of priestly sexual
misconduct and the parent of a victim. The Belleville, Illinois policy
went even farther, mandating public disclosure of allegations and
setting up a practice of the bishop appearing at Sunday mass in any
parish where a priest has been suspended to discuss the investigation
and to answer questions. Some even believe that major cleanups rooted
out problem priests in diocese like Chicago, Minneapolis, Baltimore, and
Seattle during the early 1990s.
On the other hand, many policies—like that adopted in
Boston in 1993—were crafted to reserve to the hierarchy the right to
determine internally which allegations were credible and how and whether
priests returning from psychiatric treatment could or should be
reinstated in some form of ministry. By and large, the biggest blowups
in early 2002 have occurred in dioceses that share the Boston model of
hierarchical control and where strenuous efforts were made to keep
allegations and litigation secret, often through requiring
confidentiality requirements as part of legal settlements.
There are also those, such as Mark Chopko, the general
counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCC) who was
frequently interviewed on the scandal in February and March, who have
said that most of the new policies have been implemented quite
effectively over the past decade. Chopko cited many cases in which fresh
allegations have led rapidly to the arrest of priests and the
termination of their public ministries.
So the optimistic scenario was that stories like the Boston
Globe’s, which stand largely on internal church documents from the
1980s and early 1990s, give an accurate but outdated picture of
hierarchical indifference to the problem. If so, the burden is on the
bishops to be far more open then most of them have wanted to be about
their responses to instances of misconduct.
Between January and March, several major sub-themes
floated in and out of the coverage.
• Sheer amazement that so many bishops and other
senior administrators could countenance routine policies of turning a
blind eye to sexual assaults on children. Columnist Kenneth Moynihan’s
remarks in the January 30 Worcester Telegram & Gazette
conveyed the general sense of this: "I think I can understand most
the key elements in the story about Catholic priests abusing children,
getting caught, and then being repeatedly placed in positions where they
could, and did, abuse more children. The part I have the hardest time
making sense of is what the bishops were thinking when they chose to
risk reassigning these men to parish ministry."
Almost no one within the church hierarchy has attempted
to explain that publicly—even Pope John Paul II fell back on an appeal
to "the mystery of evil" to describe the source of priestly
misconduct. The sole exception I could discover was Bishop Donald Wuerl
of Pittsburgh, whose remarks at a March 28 mass were covered in the Pittsburgh
Wuerl, reporter Ann Rodgers-Melnick wrote, "tried
to explain that bishops who returned child molesters to parishes years
ago did not act out of malice. Twenty years ago society did not
recognize that the desire for sexual contact with minors was a
psychological compulsion, so bishops treated it as they would any other
moral problem requiring repentance and forgiveness."
• Debate over the relationship between priestly
celibacy and the sex scandals. In the early weeks of the story, many of
those quoted, especially Catholic lay people, quickly blamed the church’s
celibacy requirement for causing the problem. That explanation,
especially popular on the Catholic left, viewed celibacy as the
foundation of a closed and secretive clerical culture, one that
motivates priests and bishops to hide scandal and to protect one
another. For reasons not entirely clear, celibacy was cited as the chief
problem less often later in January and February.
In fact, during that period, celibacy found its
defenders, including psychiatrists. "An all-too-facile solution I
have heard repeatedly suggested boils down to this formula: If church
officials want to avoid sexual abuse, all they need to do is eliminate
the celibacy requirement," the Jesuit psychiatrist James Gill wrote
in a widely-reprinted column in the February 17 Hartford Courant.
But "it isn’t celibacy that creates pedophiles. Think of the tens
of thousands of American children damaged in incestuous situations in
which parents are responsible for the sexual exploitation of their own
A bit later, however, the liberal critique of celibacy
bounced back into prominence. The most forceful prompting came from an
unlikely source, the Boston Pilot, which on March 15 published an
extraordinary 28-page edition focusing entirely on the crisis in the
archdiocese. Along with the spectacle of a Catholic newspaper carrying a
lengthy account of a string of parish representatives to an archdiocesan
convocation calling for their cardinal’s resignation, the paper
editorialized on "Questions That Must Be Faced." The first
question was "Should celibacy continue to be a normative condition
for the diocesan priesthood?"
On March 24, the Boston Globe Magazine carried
Gary Wills’ learned polemic, "The Case Against Celibacy," as
its cover story. The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, writing on
April 1, expressed the deep suspicion about celibacy that is common
these days: "Divorced from its spiritual purpose and turned into a
job requirement, celibacy becomes either a sham or a suppression of one’s
humanity, or both."
How did Catholic conservatives respond? After a month of
serious confusion and demoralization, they largely followed the lead of
the Vatican’s chief press spokesman and embraced an argument that
homosexuals in the priesthood are at the root of the crisis. Boston
Herald columnist Joe Fitzgerald led the charge. "The old debate
axiom holds that he who frames the question wins the issue, which is why
militant homosexuals and their timorous allies in the politically
correct movement are hell-bent on perpetuating the disingenuous notion
that the crisis engulfing the Catholic Church has its roots in
pedophilia," he wrote in a March column on the subculture of gay
priests. "It does not. It has its roots in homosexuality."
If nothing else, clear battle lines are now drawn.
• Concern about zealous legal tactics. Law and other
Catholic bishops, notably Cardinal Edward Egan in New York and Bishop
Anthony Pila of Cleveland, apparently used such tactics to keep the
lawsuits of sexual assault victims secret and to minimize diocesan
liability to large settlements for damages. Both the Hartford Courant
and the Cleveland Plain Dealer produced major investigative
stories on the aggressive legal tactics adopted by bishops and their
The Courant relied on its own cache of diocesan
documents collected in the legal process of discovery in suits filed
against the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the Plain Dealer
on the complaints of plaintiff’s lawyers for its March 10 story
headlined "Diocese Uses Tough Tactics in Sex Suits. Facing Steep
Liability, Church Plays ‘Hardball’ With Accusers, Critics Say."
Among the complaints: combative depositions, using confidentiality
agreements to prevent victims from testifying on behalf of other
victims, and use of "boilerplate" legal defenses that priests
are independent contractors of the diocese, not employees, or that the
victim shared responsibility for any sexual abuse that occurred.
An editorial, "Cardinal Egan’s State of
Denial," in the March 27 Courant laid down the prevailing
bottom-line demands from media and prosecutors. When charges of sexual
abuse of children are involved the Catholic church must be regarded as
an institution like any other. Alleged perpetrators must be reported to
the authorities and must be kept permanently away from children, never
readmitted to active ministry in any form. "For too long, the
Catholic hierarchy rejected victims’ complaints, transferred priests
to avoid embarrassment and did everything possible to coverup—even if
that meant breaking the law by not reporting suspected abuse to
prosecutors. That culture is changing, but not fast enough."
As Easter approached, the number of Catholic bishops
making statements about sexual misconduct grew. Many of them used the
"Chrism Mass"—an annual event a few days before Easter that
gathers the diocesan clergy to renew their priestly vows—to issue
statements. Virtually all the bishops apologized for the misconduct of
priests and promised to work hard to eliminate the problem. There again,
Many including New York’s Egan, Archbishop Daniel
Cronin in Hartford, and Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk in Cincinnati,
focused on the sins of pedophile priests. But they stopped short of
acknowledging that the current crisis was about their own behavior as
administrators. This approach was epitomized by Cardinal Adam Maida’s
comment carried in the March 25 Detroit Free Press: "I
apologize for their mistakes."
Others moved a bit further. Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua
announced a diocesan "day of atonement and sanctification" for
all of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s priests on April 24. Bishop
Thomas Daily of Brooklyn—who dealt with the Geoghan matters as an
official of the Archdiocese of Boston and who now faced newspaper
stories that say he failed to address complaints of clergy misconduct in
Brooklyn and Queens—included a brief but explicit apology during his
Chrism Mass for his own failure to act.
In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony conducted a
"Mass of reparations." The Los Angeles Times reported
on March 26 that Mahony told reporters that he "accepts full
responsibility as head of the nation’s largest archdiocese for the
sins of the past. ‘I offer my sincere apologies,’" he declared,
and went on to say that he would not hold victims of sexual abuse to the
confidentiality agreements the archdiocese had required them to sign
when lawsuits were settled.
In Western Pennsylvania, Bishop Anthony Bosco of
Greensburg said his diocese had to face up to the scandal. "The
media and our people will not permit us to ignore or deny, nor should
we," he said. "Denial is dishonesty."
But the issue was addressed most directly by Bishop
Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg—a man who, it was revealed, had
recently settled a civil complaint that he had sexually harassed his own
director of communications in the diocese—a charge he discussed openly
with reporters. "The anger and disappointment of the church at this
moment is not directed at you, my brother priests," Lynch was
quoted by the Tampa Tribune on March 27. "It is directed at
those of us called to lead at the episcopal level who are perceived by
today’s standards as having covered up, hushed up, paid off, and
continued to place children at risk."
Lynch then underlined the point: "Only some form of
communal acknowledgement of the error of the previous approach and an
institutional apology to both victims and their parents and to the whole
church can start a long overdue healing process."
How far the "full disclosure" approach will
spread remained to be seen. It was clear, however, that the public
pressure to adopt "zero tolerance" policies is enormous:
Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles fell into place almost immediately
after the scandal broke. Unlike matters such as priestly celibacy,
American bishops do have the authority to frame their own diocesan
policies and to take personal responsibility. But bishops who try to
preserve a large measure of hierarchical discretion in the handling of
misconduct cases and to insist on secrecy will face the question:
"If other bishops follow a policy of mandatory reporting of
allegations to criminal authorities, name names, and give numbers, why
At Easter, attention was also turning in anticipation to
the June meeting of the bishops’ conference, which was slated to
discuss the crisis. As of this writing, it wasn’t known how much of
the bishops’ discussion about the scandal would be public. Meetings of
the conference typically include both public debate and closed-door
sessions. But the bishops had best be prepared for the highest possible
level of media attention and public scrutiny.
Meanwhile, in the torrent of coverage, there were
stories that suggested both how much things had changed because of the
long scandal and that the Catholic church was likely to pass through
this trial and to remain a very large, very strong religious institution
that looks, acts, and operates much as it has.
The Boston Globe sent reporter Tatsha Robertson
to Dallas, where an early 1990s scandal focused on the Rev. Rudolph Kos
eventually involved 11 plaintiffs and settlements totaling $31 million.
Kos is now serving a life sentence and one of his victims committed
suicide in 1992. Robertson’s report, headlined "Renewal of Faith:
Roiled by Abuse, Dallas Diocese Recovered by Reaching Out,"
appeared on March 19.
All Saints Church, where Kos served as pastor, now
"boasts a record number of parishioners and is building another
school. The Diocese of Dallas, which had to mortgage and sell property
to pay the sex-abuse settlement awarded in 1997, has made a comeback,
too. By 2000, all financial debts incurred had been repaid in full.
Collection plates that went unfilled after the scandal have been
overflowing of late." Priests across the diocese have been
forbidden from being alone with children and church policies now mandate
that volunteers, deacons, lay ministers, youth ministers, teachers, and
priests be fingerprinted and subjected to criminal background
On March 26, USA Today reported that the
"Santa Fe Archdiocese Learned Lessons."
The scandal that rocked the archdiocese there in the
early 1990s "hovered for three years of public horrors and private
humiliation—and nearly bankrupted the Archdiocese of Santa Fe."
The New Mexico ordeal involved 187 lawsuits against dozens of priests
and cost the archdiocese and its insurers an estimated $25 million. But,
once again, since 1993, church membership is up sharply and "23
seminarians have made it through AIDS tests and police background
checks" to replenish the priesthood.
Since it seems likely that this story will run for a
while, it is worth mentioning three obvious areas where coverage should
• The Numbers. One of the most shocking and depressing
aspects of the scandal is the sheer number of alleged crimes and accused
priests. The Archdiocese of Boston settled with about 130 plaintiffs in
the Geoghan case. Perhaps more than 90 priests serving over the past 40
years stand accused. Settlements in the Geoghan case may reach $100
million. The total cost of settlements nationwide may reach $1 billion.
But no one has been able to develop reliable numbers or
to put them in accurate context. Stories abound toting up the numbers of
cases or accused priests in this diocese or that one. But there aren’t
reliable statistics anywhere accessible on the total national number of
priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors, or even about the
number or percentage of pedophiles in the general population. Part of
the problem is the highly variable response of Catholic dioceses about
making public accusations and outcomes. A few have been forthcoming;
many others have not and there is no central repository of data.
In January and February, for example, under vast
pressure, Boston eventually dribbled out the numbers and then names of
those priests accused. Philadelphia gave a number for total accusations
over the past 50 years, but not the names of accused priests. New York
refused to give either number or names. The search for basic facts:
number of cases, number of priests, total of settlements, total of
convictions, totals removed from ministry, remains bewildering. And new
"zero tolerance" policies in Boston, Los Angeles and
Philadelphia produced a wave of removals. Perhaps as many as 30 priests
currently holding active ministerial assignments had accusations on
• Nomenclature. Stories early in this cycle, like most
of those published or broadcast over the previous 15 years, referred
almost exclusively to "pedophile priests" and "child
molestation," and focused on assaults on pre-pubescent children. To
some degree, this grew from the case of Geoghan, who was on trial for
molesting a 10 year-old boy.
But as time went on, the discussion became more complex.
By March, stories like a piece in the Globe by Michael Paulson
and Thomas Farragher, "Priest Abuse Cases Focus on
Adolescents," suddenly began to proliferate.
"The vast majority of priests who sexually abuse
minors choose adolescent boys—not young children as their
targets," Paulson and Farragher reported.
Reporters had discovered that psychiatrists don’t
regard sexual relations with pre-pubescent children as manifestations of
the same psychiatric disorder as sexual relations with adolescents.
"Pedophilia Treatable, Not Curable, Condition Experts Say,"
Fay Flam reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Earlier reports
tended to stress that Catholic bishops and their senior staffs
consistently failed to act on scientific information given to them in
the 1980s that pedophilia is incurable. But it is not clear how
important the distinction between adolescents and pre-pubescent children
will be in the public realm.
• Expert Sources. The base of sources quoted by
journalists has been strikingly narrow. So far, Jason Berry, Eugene
Kennedy, and A.W. Richard Sipe have been consulted and quoted almost
everywhere. They are plausible experts. As a freelancer Berry helped
break the 1984 Louisiana scandal story and has written prolifically
about it ever since. Kennedy, a former priest and psychology professor,
is a widely respected interpreter of Catholic matters. Sipe, also a
former priest, is a therapist and researcher who has treated many
priests charged with abusing children. Trenchant critics of celibacy,
they are also vigorous proponents of sweeping liberal reform in the
Catholic Church. Their expertise is real, but they are deeply committed
actors and journalists rarely gave readers or viewers any sense of their
larger reform agendas.
Among the designated defenders of celibacy, Jesuit
psychiatrist James Gill and James Berlin of Johns Hopkins University
Medical School are also much cited. Again, both are legitimate experts,
but are also figures in the controversy. Gill has a complex relationship
with the hierarchy and has been directly involved in the treatment of
pedophile priests. Berlin has outstanding credentials, but virtually
carries the imprimatur of the bishops’ conference. An interview with
him is a key part of the package of responses to the problem put up on
the USCCB website. Berlin’s relationship with the hierarchy has not
been specified in most of the coverage that quotes him.
It is not that they should not be quoted, but that views
of more experts, and less directly involved experts, would be useful.
After Easter, the story seemed to pick up speed. A newly
released set of church documents, this time dealing with the Boston
archdiocese’s handling of a priest named Paul R. Shanley, cast Law in
an even worse light. Shanley not only had a long and well-known history
of abusing adolescent boys, but had openly declared that sex between
adults and children causes no psychic damage.
Yet Law and his subordinates kept this from church
authorities in California and New York, preferring to give Shanley a
clean bill of health and keep him out of their hair in Boston. In 1997,
Law wrote a letter to Cardinal John O’Connor of New York signing off
on Shanley’s appointment as director of a Catholic guest house in the
city, despite "some controversy" in the priest’s past.
"If you decide to allow Father Shanley to accept this
position," Law wrote, "I would not object."
On April 12, Law faxed a letter to Boston priests
blaming the Shanley situation on inadequate archdiocesan "record
keeping." He also said that he would remain in office for "as
long as God gives me the opportunity"—a phrase he reiterated a
few days later after an unannounced trip to Rome. But no one in Boston
was betting that the opportunity would be there for long.
A new poll found that 65 percent of Boston area
Catholics wanted his resignation. Petitions circulated de-manding it.
On April 15, a few days after signaling a hands-off
policy, the Vatican summoned all American cardinals to Rome. On April
16, the Vatican issued a statement saying that the purpose of the
meeting would be to "examine problems created in the church in the
United States by scandals connected to pedophilia and to indicate
guidelines meant to restore security and serenity to the families and
trust to the clergy and the faithful."
In Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick suggested
that both a national policy on sexual misconduct and more openness about
the administrative errors of the past were necessary.
"We have to make sure that we’re all on the same
page and that every credible allegation gets to both the diocese and to
the civil authorities," McCarrick told the Washington Post
on April 17. "If the Holy Father says, ‘I think everybody should
do this, then we all tend to do it.’"