Looking beyond the priest scandal
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI
When it comes to the clergy-sexual-abuse scandal that has embroiled the Archdiocese of Boston and rippled throughout the nation, there’s one thing upon which the Catholic hierarchy and the faithful can agree: every tragedy, no matter how terrible, has a silver lining. That, at least, seemed to be the general consensus at a Kennedy School Institute of Politics forum Tuesday night.
To debate the scandal’s ramifications for the Church, the Institute convened archdiocesan spokesperson Father Christopher Coyne, Harvard public-policy professor Mary Jo Bane, former Vatican ambassador and Boston mayor Ray Flynn, and moderator David Nyhan, formerly a Boston Globe political columnist. What came out was that while the crisis has cost the archdiocese credibility and faith, the scandal presents an opportunity for the Church to emerge as a better institution. For Church officials, the question comes down to restoring trust and building anew.
Coyne — whose face and name have recently been plastered in newspapers as the archdiocesan voice on this matter — made no excuses for the Church’s long, shameful history of protecting sexually abusive priests. On the contrary, he extended an olive branch to the reporters who filled the audience, saying Church leaders had no one to blame but themselves for the media scrutiny. He kept his remarks focused on the positive: the scandal, he explained, represents a "judgment on the Church," especially the clergy. Lay people have come to realize that priests are just as fallible and human as anyone else. As a result, clergy members will be held to the same high standards as teachers, doctors, day-care workers, and other secular professionals who care for children. All of which will protect not only the faithful, but also the clergy.
On the topic of reform, Bane, a regular churchgoer who serves as a parish-council member in Dorchester, stood out as the most radical of the group. Last February, she published an op-ed piece in the Globe urging lay people to withhold contributions to the archdiocese "until the Church becomes more open and participatory." The laity, Bane argued, now realizes that it makes up the Church, not the hierarchy. People understand that they have a responsibility to speak out and raise questions about Church doctrine on questions of celibacy and women’s ordination — doctrine that, she believes, has contributed to a culture that perpetuated child molestation by priests.
A hush settled over the 100-plus-person crowd when Bane called for the resignation of Bernard Cardinal Law. The move put her in a select group of prominent local Catholics who have suggested that the cardinal step aside, including WCVB-TV Channel 5 station president Paul La Camera, Boston Herald owner Pat Purcell, and John Hancock CEO David F. D’Alessandro. For Bane, true leadership means accepting responsibility for one’s mistakes, and Law would prove himself to be that leader by stepping down.
Flynn, on the other hand, expressed anguish over Law’s fading stature. That, he said, is just as painful for him as the realization that the cardinal and his underlings secretly shuffled abusive priests from parish to parish for decades. Law, Flynn argued, remains a good, decent man who made a colossal mistake. He added, "I ask people to try to remember the cardinal’s whole record."
The former mayor drew the ire of some audience members when he tried to distinguish a classic pedophile from a molester of minors. Flynn, who also serves as the president of the Catholic Alliance, referred to an early-1990s study conducted by the Archdiocese of Chicago that examined the records of 2200 priests over a 40-year period. The survey found that only 40 of the priests — or 1.8 percent — had faced allegations of sexual assault. Of that number, only one had turned out to be a serial pedophile who preyed on prepubescent children. Flynn wondered aloud about the extent of pedophilia in Boston. When Nyhan brought up the fact that some 80 priests’ names have been turned over to prosecutors because of past allegations, Flynn’s reply — "But were all of those priests pedophiles?" — sparked hisses from the crowd.
Later, however, Flynn expressed remorse over the sordid story, and summed up the sentiment of the night: "This is a painful period of time for many Catholics, who have had to discuss issues we’d never imagined.... I just hope we can move constructively to bring about reforms that make the Church better than in the past."
Issue Date: March 21 - 28, 2002
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