WESTON, Mass. -- St. Julia's Church in this Boston suburb is only half-filled, but this Wednesday night's Mass is so important that the parish priest will not give it. The local bishop, Emilio Allue, has the honors, and he pauses and swallows and pauses again, searching for words that have not come easily to him or his Roman Catholic Church.
"Victims of sexual abuse have been seriously sinned against," says the bishop. "To any person who has suffered abuse from a minister of the church, we apologize for what has happened and ask for forgiveness."
Such a statement might be expected to be commonplace by now, in a decade that has seen hundreds of cases of sex abuse by priests become public. But the Catholic Church, by the admission of its own officials here, has been a reluctant confessor. The apologies offered by the Archdiocese of Boston during special Masses, such as the one in Weston, are unprecedented, according to church leaders and victims' groups.
"What Boston is doing is unique in the country: The Masses are an important step," says David Clohessy, the Missouri-based national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "The church has done so little for so long that anything has to be viewed as progress."
The effort in Boston has come in two parts. This fall, bishops from all five of the archdiocese's regions have sponsored a series of "healing" Masses for victims of sex abuse by priests. "In the past, we have this kind of healing Mass only for victims of war or severe natural disasters," says a Boston bishop, John B. McCormack.
'I beg forgiveness'
And last month, the Boston archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, issued a public letter that victims and church officials called extraordinary. "I know of nothing that has caused greater pain to the church than this phenomenon of abuse," the cardinal wrote. "With all my heart, I beg forgiveness of all who have been hurt by these acts of abuse."
The letter was striking because the archbishop had long expressed skepticism about allegations of sex abuse in the priesthood. In 1992, when former altar boys filed charges against Massachusetts priest James Porter -- and the issue of sex abuse by priests exploded into the public consciousness -- Law was defensive. In one speech, he called down the power of God on the news media for daring to report on the Porter case.
But the hundreds of allegations since have changed the cardinal's thinking, associates say. Fourteen priests in the nearby Worcester diocese have been sued or charged criminally in sex cases. In 1994, John Hanlon, a priest in the Boston Archdiocese, was sentenced to life in prison on abuse charges.
The Rev. Andrew Greeley, a Chicago priest, author and sociologist, has estimated that 2,000 to 4,000 American priests have abused young people, leaving about 100,000 victims.
The sheer number of charges has taken a considerable financial toll. Experts say the Catholic Church is spending $50 million a year over the past six years to settle sex abuse claims in the United States, and some dioceses have had difficulty renewing liability insurance policies. This year, a Texas jury found the Diocese of Dallas guilty of "gross negligence" in its handling of a priest accused of sexual misconduct and awarded a record $119.6 million to the victim. The church is appealing.
"I don't want to rain on anybody's parade, but there may be more than a little self-interest behind the special Masses in Boston," says A. W. Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest who has written extensively on church sex abuse. "The church wants to apologize, receive forgiveness and to move on. I wonder if this isn't a public relations ploy."
But Sister Rita McCarthy, a nun and Boston Archdiocese official who counsels victims of abuse by priests, says the Masses are a sincere effort "to ask for God's healing power for the victims, and for the church, which has been greatly harmed by this." She first suggested holding the healing Masses more than a year ago and slowly won over the cardinal.
"There was a lot to consider. Some in the archdiocese wondered: 'Could this reopen old wounds?' " says McCarthy. "But it turns out that people like the openness and honesty. We need more of it, in the church and in society."
Praise and criticism
Reaction to the Masses has been mixed. Roderick MacLeish, a Boston lawyer who has represented hundreds of sex abuse victims, has praised the archdiocese. And during the first Mass, held at a suburban church where two former pastors have been accused of abuse, an elderly woman stood up and said: "I have waited 40 years to hear those words, and I am most grateful."
But Jack Regan, the father of a sex abuse victim, calls the Masses "totally scripted" and "pure public relations." Phil Saviano, who was abused as an altar boy and now heads the New England chapter of SNAP, refuses to attend, saying that he and other victims are "too angry to go near a church."