Priests & pedophilia

The Archdiocese of Boston lies under a siege of criticism over the way cases of molestation of minors by priests have been handled. Boston Catholics have been stunned by stories in the Boston Globe that priests with records of pedophilia continued to be placed in parishes as recently as the 1990s. Their outrage is understandable. Jesus warned his disciples, "It would be better for you if a millstone where hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble" (Luke 17: 2). Millstones may be in short supply by the time the full extent of this scandal is known.

Harsh criticism, especially of Cardinal Bernard Law and his auxiliaries, over what appears to be indifference to the well-being of children is understandable. But anger alone is not enough, and can even obscure our understanding of the facts and an accurate assessment of the situation.

At the center of the controversy in Boston stands John Geoghan, a convicted pedophile and now defrocked diocesan priest who has been accused of molesting more than a hundred victims over a forty-year period. Despite knowing of Geoghan’s record of pedophilia, Law transferred him in 1984 to yet another parish where he continued to prey on young boys. That decision has been widely publicized by the Globe, which obtained documents from civil suits brought against Geoghan. Law has acknowledged his error in judgment and apologized publicly to Geoghan’s victims. In explaining his actions, the cardinal said that at the time he relied on expert medical advice in determining whether it was safe again to place Geoghan in a position of authority over children.

Disturbing questions have been raised not only about the quality of that medical advice, but about the appropriateness of using such advice rather than pastoral concerns as the standard of decision making-a standard that should have been protecting children above all. After his first apology to the victims and his assurances that no clergy with records of molestation were still active in the archdiocese, Law’s credibility was further undermined when ten more priests had to be removed from pastoral and administrative positions. Many Boston Catholics have called for Law’s resignation, and some for the withholding of financial support from the archdiocese.

As a result of the Boston scandal, bishops in other dioceses have come forward and turned over to civil authorities their own lists of accused priests. The instinctive reaction of the cardinal and the bishops to protect themselves and the church by removing these priests from ministry could become another pastoral disaster if it turns out that the accusations were or are not credible. Abandoning their priests now after having ignored so many children over the years smacks of consulting with too many lawyers.

Almost twenty years after the first stories of priest pedophilia in Louisiana appeared in the National Catholic Reporter and after a decade of scandal across the United States, Catholics are outraged over the failure to resolve what may be an endemic problem in the priesthood. They are equally appalled at the inadequate, even self-serving and catastrophically ineffective response of too many bishops. It is estimated that the American church will eventually pay more than $1 billion to victims and their lawyers. Recent Vatican efforts to have pedophilia cases referred to Rome for secret judicial hearings suggest that the Vatican remains clueless about the nature of the crisis and the damage done by two decades of secrecy followed by exposés. As Mary Jo Bane argues elsewhere in this issue, what the church needs now is more transparency and openness, not more Roman or hierarchical mismanagement ("Law & Disorder," page 11).

Too often, the church has reacted slowly and ineptly to this crisis both when it was first revealed and even today, when many Catholics believe the issue had been largely resolved by diocesan reporting mechanisms, new state laws, and systematic investigations by independent review boards. The Boston case shows that skepticism toward the hierarchy’s self-exonerating claims is necessary and appropriate. Much has been covered up over the years. But skepticism is warranted as well toward other principals in this drama including a media seeking exposés and trial lawyers looking for large settlements. Whether all of the accusations now being aired in newspapers and on TV are credible or significant remains to be seen. Some of these now being publicized go back thirty and forty years and often implicate retired or deceased priests. The Globe has ridden this story hard-not always we think with the goal of fairness and of fostering genuine public understanding of the problem. The lawyers are circling and more accusations and suits are likely.

Furthermore, not all bishops have been negligent, especially when they fully grasped the victims’ tragedy of neglect and rejection. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, himself falsely accused of molesting a young seminarian, Stephen Cook, showed compassion to his accuser. Earlier, in 1992, he had established policies for the Archdiocese of Chicago that included an independent review board. Other bishops followed suit. Indeed, Cardinal Law also set up a lay-dominated board in 1993 to examine charges of priest pedophilia. Subsequently, the U.S. bishops’ conference issued guidelines that some, but not all, U.S. bishops implemented. Finally, in an effort to remove priests, the American hierarchy long pressed Rome to accelerate the process by which guilty priests could be defrocked, only to be ignored.

There is easy talk about how a celibate priesthood, the church’s "retrograde" sexual teachings, and its hierarchical structure conspire to produce crimes like Geoghan’s. Certainly the church is in need of rethinking and reform in these and many other areas. But linking them to pedophilia should be viewed for what it is: mere speculation and often highly partisan speculation at that. Just as priesthood is no excuse for sexual crime, so it is no explanation.

The news stories have also neglected a long and convoluted effort to deal with sexual abuse of minors. Not many decades ago, nobody wanted to hear or do anything about it. Police, prosecutors, and, yes, even newspaper reporters wouldn’t touch the subject. Cardinal Law has been judged severely for his reliance on now questionable psychological evaluations of Geoghan, but the fact is that the understanding of this deviancy has changed over the last forty years. Once a psychological "cure" was thought possible (not to mention a theological view that held that sheer willpower and prayer could help priests overcome this sin). Later it was believed that continuing therapy plus supervision would allow priests to return to active ministries. Similarly, ideas about the value of "secrecy" in such cases have also evolved. For many years, it was not just the church, but also the victims and their advocates, who sought to avoid publicity. The legal strategies employed by various bishops over the period are equally complex. It is not self-evident that Law, who has removed dozens of offenders from pastoral positions over the years, is not telling the truth when he says that he believed Geoghan had been successfully treated for his "illness." Was Law wrong? Yes. Was he insensitive to Geoghan’s victims? Only Cardinal Law knows that.

Victims of priest-pedophiles deserve justice and compensation, and the church should lead in the fight for both. But it is not as evident as many news stories imply and all too many people suspect that the Archdiocese of Boston, or the Catholic Church, is honeycombed with pedophiles. Nor will victims be helped by an atmosphere in which every accused priest is assumed to be guilty, any more than victims were helped when every accusation against "Father" was assumed to be false. When dealing with something as vile and explosive as the abuse of children, blanket condemnation is as likely to tar the innocent as flush out the guilty. It is now commonly assumed that celibates are disproportionately predisposed toward pedophilia. But, there is no reliable social scientific evidence suggesting Catholic priests are more likely to abuse children than any other professional group of adults that works with the young. Certainly, more studies need to be done, and the church must encourage and cooperate in them. If some darker truth about the relation between celibacy and pedophilia is uncovered, let it come to light.

In the meantime, Catholic priests and bishops as well as the church as a whole have much work to do in caring for the victims of these crimes and living up to the high standards of the gospel we profess. Finally, it seems to us that both Cardinal Law’s apologies and the calls for his resignation fall short of what is necessary at this moment and what would seem to come naturally to a sacramental church that sees in outward symbols signs of interior dispositions. Lent calls us all to repentance: the cardinal and his closest associates and advisors should join in an extended act of public penitence that acknowledges and expresses remorse for their sins of omission and commission.

Published in the 2002-03-08 issue: 
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