Law & Disorder

Boston's priest-pedophile crisis

The Archdiocese of Boston has been reeling for two months from continuing disclosures about pedophilia among priests, and from documentation of how members of the hierarchy, up to and including Cardinal Bernard Law, attempted to mute the voices of the victims of abuse and protect the priest perpetrators. The Boston Globe ran a series of articles beginning January 6, many of them based on documents submitted to the court during the criminal child molestation trial of one of the priests, John Geoghan (now defrocked). The Globe investigation made public a series of letters from the 1980s in which the hierarchy responded sympathetically to Geoghan and documents disclosing that Geoghan had been reassigned to parish duties despite knowledge about his abuses.

Further investigative reporting by the Globe established that in the last ten years the hierarchy had settled cases of alleged abuse by at least seventy priests who had served in the archdiocese over a forty-year period. In response, Cardinal Law apologized to the victims, instituted a new zero-tolerance policy, agreed to refer all future allegations of abuse to criminal prosecutors, and also, under pressure from the media and the state legislature, to refer past cases of abuse, going back forty years, for prosecution. As a result, the names of about eighty priests have been sent to prosecutors. (Currently there are about six hundred and fifty diocesan priests and seven hundred religious order priests in the archdiocese.)

The cardinal also assured the faithful that as a result of actions begun the early 1990s, no priest against whom a credible accusation of abuse had been made was currently in active ministry. However, on February 2, two pastors were removed because of past accusations of pedophilia; since then, eight more priests have been removed.

Many Catholics in the archdiocese now question whether full disclosure has yet occurred, and see the cardinal’s actions as too little too late. On February 8 the Globe reported a poll of a sample of about eight hundred Boston Catholics, in which 78 percent said they believed that church leaders have tried to cover up cases of abuse, and 64 percent said they believed church leaders care more about protecting priests who have abused children than protecting people. Only 24 percent expressed a favorable opinion of Cardinal Law. Forty-eight percent agreed that the cardinal should resign; 38 percent disagreed. A number of lay Catholics, including me, called publicly, through op-eds and letters in the Globe, for the cardinal’s resignation, and for changes in church policy to get at the deeper roots of the current crisis.

This crisis has focused attention on several important, broader issues: Are there cultural, structural, and policy practices in the church that generate or exacerbate such abuses? What reforms might address these problems while respecting the unique sacramental nature of the church? What role can and should lay people play in reforming these practices? What means should lay people use?

ne of the most devastating aspects of the disclosures has been the documentation of the closed, secret, and self-protecting nature of the decisions made by the hierarchy. The documents reveal a culture of secrecy and deference in which the top decision maker is surrounded by aides who seem to be more concerned with protecting their reputations and that of their allies than with the mission of the organization or the welfare of those it serves. They attempt to control information, prevent public disclosure, and silence dissent, even, in this case, the anguished cries of abused children and their families.

Cultures of this sort are not unknown; one thinks of recent corporate and governmental scandals. Tendencies toward centralization of power and control of information exist in all institutions. But over time organizational structures have been created by which governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations curb some human abuses before they can result in serious harm. Well-governed institutions ensure full disclosure of information, institutionalize checks and balances on the exercise of power, and establish independent boards to advise and participate actively in choosing the chief executive officer.

The church is no ordinary institution. The great Vatican II document, Lumen gentium, described the church as a sacrament, and as the People of God as well as a hierarchically organized institution. The church is God’s gathered people, guided by the Holy Spirit-a community in which God’s saving work is accomplished and God’s kingdom proclaimed. But the church is also a human institution, managed by humans with all their failings, including susceptibility to the corruptions of power and mistaken judgment.

It would seem to follow then that the church, consistent with its mission and its sacramental nature, could make use of some of the practices adopted by secular institutions to check inevitable human abuses. Three examples come to mind. One has to do with formal grievance and appeals procedures. Some of the most heart-wrenching testimony from abuse victims were their reports of having nowhere to turn when their priest was part of the problem, and of their attempts to engage others within the church which were ignored or rebuffed. Similarly, Catholics have no formal recourse when their pastors are insensitive or incompetent. Surely, a formal grievance and appeals process, with recourse to independent outside bodies, could serve the People of God well.

A second example comes in the area of financial management. The Archdiocese of Boston conducts an annual appeal and is currently in the midst of a large capital campaign. The cardinal has said that no money from contributors has been or will be used for settlement payments or damages to abuse victims-which could easily have amounted already to tens of millions of dollars ($10 million seems to have been paid out in the Geoghan cases alone). Law’s statement is simply incredible to anyone who realizes that money is fungible and that insurance is not free. But church funds are not subject to the disclosure and auditing rules that other organizations must adhere to, and there has been no voluntary disclosure of the detailed financial information that would allow contributors to exercise responsible stewardship. Financial disclosure and an independent expert board to oversee and account for archdiocesan spending are seemingly obvious practices that could help change the culture and restore trust.

A third example comes in the area of personnel policies. Pressures to reassign rather than remove priests and to cover up both abuses and incompetence are certainly exacerbated by the serious shortage of priests. Many have suggested that the long-term solution to this problem can come only with the ordination of married men and of women. But even in the short term, creative solutions to the problem have been ignored. In Boston, for example, lay men and women are not permitted to administer parishes or encouraged to take responsibility for nonsacramental pastoral duties, leading to situations where parishes are closed or incompetent pastors retained simply because a priest must be in charge. Lay Catholics in Boston, as elsewhere, are well educated, talented, and eager to exercise church leadership. Here too, borrowing good practices from other sectors would suggest ways of using independent boards and expert groups to solve problems, ensure that abusive and unqualified priests are not exercising ministry, open up the institution, and allow the laity to use their gifts in the service of their church.

More openness, participation, and incorporation of good practices developed in other institutional spheres would not, I am convinced, compromise the sacred character of the church. Should we not trust that the Holy Spirit is with the People of God and works in the church through many hands and voices, lay and clergy, and perhaps even through formal structures of participation and accountability?

There will no doubt be accusations that Boston’s lay Catholics are using the current crisis to advance their own agendas for church reform, which is, of course, partly true. But Vatican II made very clear that we are all, lay and clergy, called to holiness and to ministry. Despite the long-ingrained tendency of lay men and women to defer to the hierarchy, lay people have both the right and the responsibility to make their voices heard. Many of us are now tragically aware of the consequences that follow from the concentration and misuse of power and lay deference to hierarchical authority. The proposals I offer here are responsive and responsible. Those who love the church grieve over what has happened to it in Boston but persist in hope for what it can become.   

Published in the 2002-03-08 issue: 

Mary Jo Bane is the Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she has been on the faculty since 1981. From 1993 to 1996 she was assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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