Pedophile priest cases erode cardinal's status

Archbishop of Boston acknowledges mistakes, but it might be too late

February 15, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON - He is the nation's most senior Roman Catholic leader, closely connected to the pope, with a reputation as powerful and politically astute.

In 18 years as archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law has forged friendships with such politicians as former President George Bush, won prominence for visiting Cuba and taking an interfaith group to Israel, and been responsible for appointments of bishops around the country.

In a city where the Catholic Church has been so central for so many years, Law has become an integral player in Boston's power structure.

But now, the 70-year-old cardinal has become the focal point of the anger and betrayal boiling up from a scandal over pedophile priests in Boston.

In a poll of Boston Catholics last week by The Boston Globe and WBZ-TV, nearly half of those surveyed said that Law should resign. A majority said he had done a poor job of handling the problem of sexual abuse in the church, and nearly three-fourths of weekly church-goers said the archdiocese has covered up cases of priest pedophilia.

And three times, most recently this week, the cardinal has felt compelled to explain why he refuses to step down.

"I think he's probably lost his moral authority," said Francis Schussler Fiorenza, a Catholic theologian at Harvard Divinity School. "Even if he stays on, he will be a wounded leader."

Law has also drawn criticism for the way his archdiocese responded to the scandal. He had to be pressured to turn over the names of suspected pedophile priests to law enforcement agencies.

He asserted, wrongly it turned out, that there were no active priests in the archdiocese suspected of abuse.

And prosecutors say the information they have received from the archdiocese to date, concerning allegations against some 80 priests, is so sketchy that investigations are virtually impossible without additional details.

The scandal has its roots in the case of John J. Geoghan, a now-defrocked priest accused of molesting more than 130 children over 30 years, while archdiocesan officials transferred him from parish to parish.

Last July, in the midst of a flood of lawsuits from people asserting that Geoghan abused them, Law acknowledged that in the 1980s, he allowed Geoghan to be assigned to yet another parish even though he knew about his past.

Then, in January, after the Globe reported that documents from the Geoghan lawsuits detailed the complaints and cautions the archdiocese had had about Geoghan, Law publicly apologized, saying he had been relying on psychiatric assessments that indicated that Geoghan had recovered.

Questionable doctors

The Globe later reported that one of the doctors who examined Geoghan had no psychiatric training and another doctor had settled a claim that he had sexually molested a patient.

In recent weeks, the scandal has widened, and so have the questions about how the archdiocese handled the cases of other priests accused of sexual abuse over the past several decades.

Parishioners are asking how much the church knew about the other accused priests, how many of them were reassigned despite complaints, why the church has secretly settled lawsuits against dozens of priests, and how much responsibility belongs to Law rather than to his predecessors.

In a metropolitan area where about half of the population of 4 million is Catholic, many parishioners say they are increasingly uncomfortable with the church leadership, even as their faith in Catholicism and their commitment to their own parishes remain strong.

"I've found some people who say that Law should be the one that goes to jail," said Larry Kessler, who belongs to Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton.

"Some say Law should resign. Others say he should resign as archbishop and take a more symbolic position. Right now it's kind of embarrassing to be a member of the church of Boston."

In some instances, parishioners are talking about donating less money to the church - about 20 percent of the 800 Catholics polled said they were giving less.

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese did not grant a request for an interview with Law and did not return repeated phone calls seeking answers to other questions.

Qualified apology

The cardinal made his most recent public statement Sunday at a Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

"We have acknowledged - I have acknowledged - that in retrospect - and that's a very important word, retrospect - we made, and I made mistakes," he said.

At the Mass, some parishioners supported the cardinal by wearing stickers shaped like a red cardinal's hat. But elsewhere in the archdiocese, other parishioners said they were concerned, not only about the handling of past abuse cases, but about whether good priests were being implicated in the rush to report anyone accused of sexual misconduct.

On Sunday, the cardinal said he respected the views of those who wanted him to resign, "but I must tell you that, before God, that is not the conclusion which I reach."

"It's important to remember," he said, "that a bishop is not a corporate executive, is not a politician."

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