Church should take stock after selling out faithful

February 08, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- If you listen closely, you can sometimes hear the citizens of two scandals speaking the same language.

In Houston, men and women who lost their jobs and their retirement savings as Enron collapsed have often used a vocabulary more familiar to the spiritual than the secular world. "I had faith in the company," said one woman, as if the tower that Enron built was a cathedral as well as a corporation.

Now, the institution at the center of a different scandal is one that deals not in energy but in souls. It's the Catholic Church, or simply "the church," as it's called in Boston.

The scandal swirling around the child-molestation cases, around priests as pedophiles, includes everything: a cover-up, a near-bankruptcy, a CEO scrambling to save his reputation. It has all the Enron elements short of a shredder.

But it's not corporate loyalty that's been undermined; it's spiritual loyalty. It's not 401(k)s that have been defiled, but children. It's not employees who were blindsided, but parents. The people who say ruefully that they had "faith" in the church are not talking in a metaphor.

For a time, it seemed that the scandal was just another tragic tale of a renegade priest, a rotten apple. John Geoghan was accused of sexually assaulting more than 100 boys over a 34-year career.

But slowly, through the meticulous reporting of a Boston Globe team -- what did the church leaders know and when did they know it? -- the scandal has exposed a hierarchy that worried more about sin than crime, more about the sinner than the victims.

Geoghan was transferred like bad debts to offshore corporations -- only each time he got a new parish and a fresh crop of boys. He was treated by doctors, some of whom were as "independent" of the diocese as Arthur Andersen accountants were of Enron. And he was offered the prayers of the cardinal: "Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness. ... God bless you, Jack."

Now we know that he was not just one rotten apple. The archdiocese settled child molestation claims against at least 70 priests over the past 10 years. That's 70 priests in a "branch office" that has only 650 active priests in all. That's 70 lumps of hush money paid to those families with children who actually raised their voice.

Across the country over the past 15 years, the church has settled lawsuits of clerical crimes worth an estimated $1 billion.

Tell that to the investors, to the people who put their money in the collection plate.

The scandal that the church did everything to hide has multiplied. Across the city, the question is whether the man who knew is different from any CEO with scandal on his watch. Should Cardinal Bernard Law offer his resignation along with his apologies?

Jason Berry, the author of Lead Us Not Into Temptation, echoes many angered local Catholics when he says, "Absolutely."

Mary Gordon, novelist and Catholic thinker, agrees: "He's the CEO. He could have stopped it and he didn't."

Below the growing drumbeat for the cardinal's resignation, stakeholders are asking whether this is only a problem of flawed men.

"You don't get absolution unless you make a full confession," says Ms. Gordon. "There has to be something wrong with the system. And what is systemically wrong is celibacy."

"If," she says, "you tell people that their very ability to function as ministers of God is based on their inability to be sexually active ... who is the most likely person you can pressure to keep a secret? The most powerless. A child."

"There is a sexual revolution tearing at the heart of the church," Mr. Berry says.

"Celibacy does not cause men to molest children any more than marriage can be blamed for incest," but it has narrowed the pool of applicants, he believes, and skewed the hierarchy. "If there were parents in the hierarchy, if there were mothers in the hierarchy, the scandal wouldn't have reached this level."

The Vatican is not Enron. The Catholic Church is not, of course, a corporation. Nor is it a democracy. There is no SEC or independent counsel or congressional committee to make institutional changes or to demand resignations. And far be it for this non-Catholic to rewrite its rules.

But to many Catholics, the "failure to protect" children, which Cardinal Law has acknowledged, is not just outrageous but heartbreaking. They are not speaking out against the church, but for the children.

The cardinal has said he wants to take responsibility. If so, in Mr. Berry's words, "he should resign and get on the next plane to Rome and spend the rest of his career seeing that the Vatican faces this issue squarely."

As for the stakeholders, there is a powerful vocabulary that travels from one scandal to another. The word now is "change."

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is

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