Money and morality intersect, and outrage becomes palpable

August 06, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

BOSTON -- WHEN Cardinal Bernard Law finally testified in open court, he said this sex abuse problem was all a misunderstanding. The cardinal was talking about money. His accusers want to talk about morality. At the junction where money and morality intersect, this city's sense of shame and outrage is palpable.

In the race for district attorney here, a man named Dan Conley runs television commercials every day, boasting, "If I'm elected, no one gets away with abuse -- no matter how long ago it happened." This is accompanied by video of a distinguished-looking man being shoved into a police car. "If you rape a child," says Conley, "you won't be able to hide behind a legal loophole. Not while I'm the D.A." Nobody needs language more explicit than that.

In front of a church on Boylston Street, where the faithful duck inside to escape the weekday afternoon heat and to sense generations of spirituality, a sign reads: "Child Care Available." The words hit like a lightning bolt. In the current climate, even the most innocuous message, intended as community outreach, can instead read like a curse.

In the local bookstores, the distinguished historian Gary Wills makes the rounds to talk about his new book, Why I Am A Catholic. The book is an embrace of the religion, but Wills insists on a clear distinction: To treasure the faith is not the same as embracing those men who have brought shame to the church, and immense pain to its faithful.

In Baltimore, allegations of child sex abuse regarding fewer than a handful of Catholic clergy bring angst and suspicion. In Boston, multiply the figure many times over. And the grief, as well.

When Cardinal Law testified in a Boston courtroom last week, some of the deep emotion seemed momentarily pushed aside. The discussion was all about money. Attorneys for 86 victims of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan thought they had a deal in March for $30 million in compensation to the victims of sex abuse. Two months later, Law said there was no deal.

"I believed this to be a proposed settlement," the cardinal said. The accent was on the word "proposed." It turned out, Law said, that the archdiocese's financial committee said they couldn't afford $30 million. His decision added to the sense of outrage. It was Law who had known of Geoghan's history and, instead of removing him from priestly duties, shifted him from one parish to another, where his sexual abuses continued.

Last week, the conflict over money heated up. Beyond Law's testimony, there was the movement of a new group, called Voice of the Faithful, which proposed boycotting the cardinal's annual financial appeal as a way to express their anger over his handling of the sex scandal.

Instead of contributing to Law's fund-raiser, the group would raise its own money and distribute it to the local offices of Catholic Charities. The cardinal's reaction? He said Catholic Charities would refuse any money raised by Voice of the Faithful. The reaction of Catholic Charities' officials? A high-profile statement that they would, indeed, accept such donations, and explicit criticism of Law for saying he would reject any money that would help the poor.

Voice of the Faithful got its start three months ago with 80 people in a church basement. Two weeks ago, they packed 4,500 people into an auditorium, where a priest named Thomas Doyle told them, "The widespread abuse of power has been sustained by the myth that what is good for that small minority, the clergy, is good for the church. The deadliest symptom of the sexual abuse is unbridled addiction to power. The damage done to bodies and souls of the victims and surviving families comes from this."

So goes the trauma here. This is a wonderful city, in so many ways. Reminders of the greatness of American history are everywhere, balanced by the abundance of universities whose students fill the streets with youth and energy. In a downtown park, Shakespeare is performed late into the summer evenings. Scores of neighborhoods are filled with walkers, without a trace of menace in the air.

But the troubles in the church have cast a pall over things. And those who worship, and those who treasure its teachings, are trying to draw a distinction: between belief in principles of faith passed through the ages, and individual men who claim to speak for God while instead acting only for themselves.

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