It's a cardinal sin to blame a child for his abuse

May 05, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

I THOUGHT I was done with this.

Felt I'd said all that needed to be said - for a while, at least - about the Catholic Church sex scandal.

After all, I wrote a column recently blasting a New York City priest who blamed American tolerance of homosexuality for the problem of pedophiliac priests. Enough said, I figured.

I was wrong.

Because while it's awful enough for the church to accuse homosexuality of causing priests to abuse children, the line of legal defense that has been taken by a church official in Boston is even more offensive.

The position of Cardinal Bernard Law is that blame for child molestation should be laid upon the child.

In other news, the Japanese are blaming Hawaii for Pearl Harbor, the Nixon family argues that the Democratic National Committee is responsible for Watergate and Osama bin Laden says Sept. 11 was New York's fault. Why not?

In a world where a priest claims a child allowed himself to be molested, anything is possible.

But there it is in black and white in Monday's Boston Globe, part of Cardinal Law's legal response to a lawsuit by the boy and his parents.

They claim the Rev. Paul Shanley began abusing Gregory Ford when the boy was 6 and that Cardinal Law, Mr. Shanley's church superior, knew or should have known the priest was a longtime advocate of sex between children and adults.

Cardinal Law's defense, filed in April and recently obtained by The Globe, reads in part: "The defendant says that the Plaintiffs were not in the exercise of due care, but rather the negligence of the Plaintiffs contributed to cause the injury or damage complained of." English translation: The boy and his parents allowed it to happen.

Let me say a couple of things here in the interest of fairness. One, it's not at all clear that Cardinal Law's lawyers consulted with him in preparing this defense on his behalf. And two, experts say the strategy of blaming the victim for negligence is legal boilerplate in proceedings like these. It would not be remarkable in any other case.

But you know something? It doesn't matter.

If Cardinal Law didn't know his attorneys were going this route, he should have. Because this is not "any other case." It is, rather, a case that centers on a subject of extraordinary sensitivity. Meaning the abuse of children, yes. But meaning also the abuse of people's trust in an institution that's supposed to serve as an earthly representative of the Almighty.

That's the other troubling issue here. Observers are describing Cardinal Law's defense tactic as "appalling," "horrific," "insensitive" and "stupid," all of which it is. It is also, however, one damning thing more: a betrayal. The latest in a series.

The church, after all, is not - or at least is not supposed to be - like other institutions. Cardinal Law tacitly acknowledged that in February while responding to calls for his resignation. He reportedly told parishioners, "Archbishop is not a corporate executive. He's not a politician. It's a role of a pastor. It's a role of a teacher. It's a role of a father. When there are problems in the family, you don't walk away. You work them out together with God's help."

Exactly. So how disappointing it is, then, to see the church behaving like any other institution caught with its figurative pants down. With its weaselly legal defenses and its increasingly laughable efforts to shift the onus - Blame society! Blame homosexuality! Blame the victims! - it brings to mind Gary Condit bobbing and weaving against Connie Chung and Bill Clinton parsing an intransitive verb for a grand jury. There is an echo of Enron executives and cigarette CEOs practicing looks of wounded innocence before Congress.

Bad enough that you get that sort of behavior from representatives of institutions to which you've entrusted your health, your money or your nation's leadership. Worse when you get it from the representative of an institution to which you've entrusted your soul.

I'd have thought the church was better than that. Would have sworn its officers served a cause higher than the preservation of their own skin.

Now I find myself wondering if I was wrong about that, too.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may reach him via e-mail at or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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