No Learning Curve
29 July 2001
The national media's fixation on the latest Washington sex scandal obscured an important story published in the July 27, 2001 issue of a Boston weekly, The Pilot. Published by Bernard Cardinal Law, head of the Archdiocese of Boston, The Pilot is America's oldest Catholic newspaper. In the article, Cardinal Law denied that he acted to cover up child molestation by priests and endanger the safety of other children. Law has been named as a defendant and charged with negligence in connection with a number of sexual molestation charges levied against Father John Geoghan, a former Catholic priest who was defrocked by Law in 1998. It is alleged that Geoghan molested 70 young boys between 1962 and 1995. The Law article ran alongside a letter to the editor from his attorney, Wilson D. Rogers Jr. The letters were in classic "good cop" and "bad cop" form, with Law taking the high road and Rogers attacking the attorney for the alleged victims while defending the archdiocese's defense tactics.
The victims allege that Law, and others in the Church hierarchy, covered up repeated acts of child molestation over a number of years, transferring molesters to new parishes where they were free to abuse more victims. A reading of Law's article left me feeling that he was engaging in a public relations offensive:
It is fair to say, however, that society has been on a learning curve with regard to the sexual abuse of minors. The Church, too, has been on a learning curve. We have learned, and we will continue to learn. Never was there an effort on my part to shift a problem from one place to the next. It has always been my contention that it is better to know a problem and to deal with it than to be kept in ignorance about it . . . In the final analysis, after we have done all that we humanly can do to ensure that persons who are a threat to children are isolated from them, and after we have done all that we can do to bring some measure of healing psychologically and emotionally to all who have been traumatized by the sexual abuse of minors, it is only the peace which is the gift of the Risen Lord that can quiet our minds and hearts. His is a message of reconciling love, and to the extent that we can accept that message, to that extent we can all find healing.
As a lifelong resident of suburban Boston, Law's denials appear absurd on their face. Many of us remember Cardinal Law's reaction to news coverage back in 1992 of the charges against Father James Porter. Porter, a priest from Massachusetts, was charged with sexually abusing 28 children. Some of the incidents of abuse went back decades. He was found guilty and sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison. The Porter story came to light when one of his victims called the former priest and taped his confession. The victims charged that Church officials had known about Porter's abuse of children and did nothing to stop it. Cardinal Law attacked the Boston Globe for its coverage, claiming that the Church as a whole was being blamed for the misdeeds of a few individuals. Law actually threatened the Globe with the wrath of God. Back in 1992, Cardinal Law's public reaction was one of denial, not that of a leader looking to protect children from molesters. Law's tone has softened over the years. Alas, he is still in denial.
The abuse that has come to light has not been isolated acts. It involves decades of abuse and has been well documented. A number of parents have come forward and charged that they informed senior officials within the Church of the abuse of their children by priests, only to see the same priests continuing to serve in positions with access to children. Many of the abusers were in and out of treatment programs, run by or paid for by the Church. Is it possible that Cardinal Law was kept in the dark on these issues? I cannot imagine a subordinate to Law keeping him in the dark. Law is one of eight cardinals in the United States in a Church that relies on strong central control. It is more likely that Law's public statements are intended to float out the archdiocese's case that he acted with due care and was not negligent.
An outsider might wonder why it took so long for Law, who has been Archbishop of Boston for over 17 years, to be held personally accountable for the negligence that led to the abuse of children. If these cases go forward, and Law takes the stand in his defense, the drama will be compelling and the national media will flock to the story. Don't hold your breath waiting. It is unlikely that Law will ever take the stand. I wish he would. The most important story here is not about sick individuals abusing children. The most important story is about how a powerful institution and its leaders systematically covered up the most heinous crimes to protect their image and power, while perpetuating the abuse of young boys and girls.
Is it any wonder why the politicians and national media have avoided discussing this case?
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