It is not easy to read newspaper accounts or watch TV news stories concerning the release of more than two thousand pages of internal Boston archdiocesan documents dealing with sexual abuse and other crimes by priests. Some of the incidents described read like the feverish imaginings found in Maria Monk’s The Awful Disclosures and other notorious anti-Catholic propaganda. However, the documents are not fiction, and they were not penned by the church’s enemies but by its consecrated overseers. It will be a long time before the word "bishop" will not be met with a smirk and a shake of the head. However ghastly the revelations contained in the documents, which have been selectively released by attorneys for the plaintiffs, they still show only one aspect of the story. The decision of a Massachusetts judge to allow the release to the public of the documents, provided by the church to the court and the plaintiffs as part of a civil suit, is not beyond criticism. It is not clear that justice for victims required overruling the church’s claim to confidentiality and privacy under the First Amendment. What organization could function if it faced the prospect that its internal personnel files would be read in the newspapers? Arguably, of course, the church has forfeited its right to privacy in this case. Still, the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ strategy may be to try the cases in the media, thus exerting maximum leverage on the church and a maximum payout. It is likely that only a very few of the documents will be entered as evidence in court. It is also important to remember that the documents released on December 3 dealt with the cases of only eight priests over a forty-year time period. Still, the damage done to victims by the abuse must not be minimized. There seems to be little doubt about the guilt and culpability of Boston’s church hierarchy. Washington lawyer Robert Bennett, who chairs one of the subcommittees for the national review board (the so-called Keating Commission) set up by the U.S. Catholic bishops to investigate the sexual-abuse crisis, appeared to be speaking about Boston when he said that the board was "troubled about recent public revelations which suggest that past abuse and how it was handled was more aggravated than previously thought." Law, along with other bishops, has already been asked to answer questions before the investigative committee. In short, the documents now released contradict Cardinal Law’s statements about both his level of administrative involvement in dealing with sexual-abuse accusations and how recently he had left accused priests in ministry. It looks very much like the archdiocese followed a policy of covering up accusations, ignoring the pleas of victims, and placing priests back into ministry with little concern for children. Worse in some respects is the idea that even after months of damaging revelations, Law still seems unable to tell the whole truth. That, at least, is the conclusion of Voice of the Faithful president James E. Post. "People have a sense that we’re at the edge of an abyss," Post told the Boston Globe. The new disclosures "point again to a pervasive administrative pattern that gave no weight to the injury that was being caused to innocent victims." A week before the documents were released, Post and other VOTF officials had met with Law in an effort to assuage the cardinal’s suspicions about the goals of the lay organization. Post thought the meeting went well, and that progress had been made in informing the cardinal of the group’s benign character. But after examining the December 3 documents, Post feels he had been deceived. "Relationships are based in truth, and these disclosures seriously undermine any basis for trusting the archbishop," Post said. The new documents show that "hundreds of thousands of dollars have been used to support priests on administrative leave because of allegations, used to cover up these actions, used to try to suppress the documents." VOTF is now expected to call for Law’s resignation. As VOTF and other lay groups rightly argue, the bishops can no longer conduct the financial business of the church in secret. Catholics have no obligation to support financially a church whose leadership covers up crimes and is shown to be administratively incompetent or worse. As we go to press, Law has flown to Rome, where it has been rumored that a co-adjudicator will be appointed to Boston or the cardinal will resign. Perhaps by now even the Vatican understands that Law’s continued presence has contradicted every protest made by the church about its acceptance of responsibility for the sexual abuse of minors by its priests. Still, Law’s eventual departure and the most recent wave of publicity are unlikely to clarify the most important questions about the crisis: What is the extent of sexual abuse within the church, why did it happen, and why did some bishops cover it up? Nor is there much hope that the barrage of headlines will subside any time soon so that answers to these questions can be sought. In California, the legislature has suspended the statute of limitations in sexual-abuse cases for a year. Lawyers are actively recruiting clients, and the church anticipates an avalanche of new suits. In this heated atmosphere, legitimate questions about due process for the accused and the fairness of this legal assault on the church are hard to raise. Why is the Catholic Church, and not other churches or professions implicated in the sexual abuse of children, such as teachers, singled out for this kind of scrutiny and liability? Cardinal Law’s departure, endorsed by this magazine months ago, may bring some closure in Boston. New, more open church leadership is needed there and many other places. But Law’s resignation is no guarantee that the church will embrace greater accountability and transparency. It is solely Rome’s prerogative to appoint a new archbishop of Boston, and Rome has done little to indicate that it sees the need for a new style of episcopal leadership or greater lay involvement in church governance. The sexual-abuse scandals of the last year have revealed, and widened, the distance between the bishops and the laity and between priests and their bishops. It has exacerbated already fierce divisions between conservative and liberal Catholics. And perhaps worst of all, it has solidified the alienation and indifference of all too many other Catholics. We are in the midst of an ecclesiological crisis (see "The Church Still in Crisis," page 10) that threatens to take on an unpredictable life of its own, and whose threat to the unity of the church is all too real. Law’s departure will mark the beginning, not the end, of a reckoning that may alter the church irrevocably, and not necessarily for the better. Now is the time for Catholics of good will to step forward to see that victims are justly compensated. It is also the time to make clear to the bishops that a hierarchy incapable of listening to the laity is incapable of leading them. Full cooperation from the bishops with the Keating Commission is a first step.

Published in the 2002-12-20 issue: 
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