IT’S PERFECTLY understandable that all 86 victims of convicted pedophile priest John Geoghan chose to accept an out-of-court financial settlement that could total as much as $30 million. If that figure is correct, it would bring the total amount paid to Geoghan’s victims to a mind-numbing $45 million.
Those plaintiffs who were most grievously damaged could be awarded as much as $500,000, while those with lesser claims would most likely receive awards in the lower five figures. At the upper end of the scale, the settlements are 25 times what any single plaintiff could receive through victory at trial — since under Massachusetts law, financial judgments against not-for-profit institutions are limited to a relatively painless $20,000. (Some, of course, will go to lawyers, and it will be interesting to see how much.)
As with any financial payment for irreparable human damage, whether physical or psychological, money can neither repair nor salve the pain and suffering. In civil matters, extracting a large sum of money from those at fault at least brings some sense of justice and satisfaction to the victims.
Yet there is also the gnawing reality that by accepting this payment, the plaintiffs are allowing Cardinal Law and the other high-ranking clerical defendants to achieve what they want most — release from having to testify in open court, before Catholics and non-Catholics alike, about their indefensible behavior.
Certainly, by getting Cardinal Law personally named as a defendant — thanks to a brave and unprecedented ruling by a Superior Court judge — the plaintiffs blew the lid off a cauldron of self-serving secrecy that allowed the Archdiocese of Boston to maintain its negligently venal policies of not only protecting a frighteningly large number of child-abusing priests, but, even more heinously, knowingly providing these priests continued access to children.
Given their years of pain and suffering and their dogged determination to pursue their cases, these plaintiffs have done all and more than anyone could want or expect of them. They have fought long and hard for their sense of personal vindication and justice. Still, one cannot help but wish that the Church’s always-successful settlement approach had been rejected by just one among them, and that Cardinal Law, as a result, had been brought before the bar of public justice, as he deserves to be.
That opportunity may yet emerge. According to reports, as many as 200 more victims of abuse are prepared to come forward. All it would take is one uncompromising individual to force Law to testify. Just as the civil-rights movement slowly but surely battled the forces of segregation in the 1950s and ’60s, and, in the years that followed, the women’s-rights crusade and the movement for gay and lesbian rights forced societal change, so too could a grass-roots movement of Catholics force much-needed change on an unresponsive institution.
Rank-and-file members of the Church are clamoring for change. The reactionary hierarchy that leads them opposes that change. Years ago, it would have been folly to think that the court system could be an agent for reforming the Church. Actual legal intervention in the affairs of the Church would be unconstitutional. But threats of further civil action against Church leaders and criminal prosecution of priests who are sexual predators may force a change even in this recalcitrant institution.
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