AS JONES AND ROONEY suggest, the mess in which the Church now finds itself is an old problem that the hierarchy has never quite seemed able — or willing — to solve. Stories about pedophile priests, after all, first gained national attention in the early and mid 1980s, and have been a regularly recurring media staple ever since. At the same time that Cardinal Law called the wrath of God down upon the media in 1992, he also announced tough new policies aimed at rooting out abusers such as Porter. Obviously, those policies didn’t work, and the way Law did — and didn’t — enforce them has a lot to do with that.
Nearly 10 years before contributing to Newsweek’s cover package on Law, the magazine’s religion writer, Ken Woodward, co-wrote another cover story, this one headlined THE SINS OF THE FATHERS. In that story, published on July 12, 1993, Woodward and Carolyn Friday wrote, "In the worst scandal ever to hit the American Catholic Church, as many as 500 priests, by some estimates, have been accused of sexually molesting children. Already, the church has paid tens of millions of dollars to victims, most of whom were abused decades ago, and it still faces dozens of unsettled lawsuits. Worse, the bishops themselves have been accused by critics of coddling known offenders and hushing up victims who complain."
That nothing has changed in 10 years suggests that though the media spotlight is crucial in exposing clerical wrongdoing, it is not, of itself, sufficient to the task of addressing it.
Woodward told me that perhaps things are getting better — after all, the cases of Geoghan and other pedophile priests recently exposed involve acts that took place some years ago. "What the media is basically digging up is not Father Jones in St. Aloysius’s Parish who’s buggering little kids, but stuff that happened in the past," says Woodward. But he adds that the Church’s inability to deal with the pedophiles in its midst after all these years is nevertheless disturbing.
"What people can and are and should be saying is, ‘What the hell, you’ve known about this for a long time. Why don’t you have really good, functioning systems in place?’ That’s the issue, it seems to me," says Woodward. "What about screening? What about monitoring the guys who come into the priesthood now?" Woodward thinks the Boston story also resonates because it shows "that even a man as careful as Law, even he can let this slide."
It was also a decade ago that 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace and a then-new producer, Bob Anderson, struck out for New Mexico to report on a sex scandal that claimed the career of then-archbishop Roberto Sanchez. Sanchez, according to their report, had not only failed to deal with pedophile priests in his archdiocese, but had also been sexually involved himself with three young women (two were 18, one was 19), despite his vow of celibacy.
"The archbishop had heard of various priests over and over," says Anderson of the pedophiles who were brought to Sanchez’s attention. "But the Church would always say, ‘Gee, this is the first time we had ever heard anything about this guy. We’ll look into it.’ When in fact they had heard many things about many of these guys."
In an observation that could be made just as easily today about Cardinal Law and his advisers, Anderson says, "The Church hierarchy felt that their first allegiance was to their clergy, and not to their parishioners. So the children ended up being continued to be abused, while the clergy continued to be protected. And that seemed backwards to me."
Anderson adds: "I think that this is a crucial role that the press is playing, in bringing this thing to light. But I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think this problem will ever be completely resolved."
Indeed, Father Andrew Greeley, a novelist and sociologist, wrote an article for the Catholic magazine America in 1993 in which he estimated that between five and 10 percent of priests were sexual abusers; that they may have victimized as many as 100,000 people nationwide; and that the Church might be paying out as much as "$50 million a year and rising" in legal settlements.
The only real difference now is that the numbers are higher. The Herald and the Globe reported last week that the Archdiocese of Boston alone may have paid some $100 million in settlements, and the Globe reported that the nationwide settlement figure could be approaching $1 billion.
PERHAPS CARDINAL LAW’S most thoughtful defender is Monsignor Peter Conley, executive editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, the Pilot, and pastor of St. Jude’s Church in Norfolk.
Conley certainly doesn’t defend every action Law has taken. In particular, he criticizes the hierarchy for dealing with the pedophilia crisis in legalistic terms, rather than by being open and honest with Catholics. "Usually both sides prefer silence, and get it from the courts," Conley says. "With access to court records, and of course the Geoghan thing, that shifted it to the court of public opinion. You cannot have silence in the court of public opinion. And that transition — from silence to information for the people — has been handled terribly."
Nor does Conley criticize the media’s coverage of the pedophile scandal, although he does think that it "may have been disproportionate."
Rather, Conley urges people to look at Law as someone who’s trying to do the right thing in a difficult position — as someone who inherited problems from his predecessors (indeed, some of Geoghan’s misconduct took place before Law’s 1984 arrival in Boston), who genuinely believed at one time that pedophiles could be successfully treated, and who finally took steps to have Geoghan defrocked — or "laicized," as the process of removing someone from the priesthood is technically known.
"It all collapsed on Law’s desk," Conley says. As for whether Law will resign, Conley predicts that’s not going to happen. "He personally thought about it last fall, I know that," he says. "But the priests, behind all their anger, want him to stay and fix it. Because, first of all, we know he’s capable. If you brought somebody in new it would take him six months to hit the road. He loves the Church more than he loves the position that he’s been called to serve in the Church."
One thing is for sure. It’s been a long, long time since the Boston power structure — including the media — paid the archbishop of Boston the kind of deference that he might like.
James O’Toole, in his 1992 book Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O’Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944, wrote that Cardinal O’Connell was so powerful that state legislators referred to him in hushed tones as "Number One" — as in, We’d better not file this bill until we know what Number One thinks. O’Connell’s opposition helped defeat a pro-birth-control ballot question ("this unholy, unpatriotic, loathsome thing," as the Pilot put it), a legislative attempt to deny state funds to Catholic hospitals, and a lottery, something the legendary James Michael Curley had supported as governor.
O’Connell’s successor, Richard Cardinal Cushing, brought an avuncular, populist spirit to the post, as well as a strong public alliance with the Kennedy family.
But by the time Law’s predecessor, Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, came to Boston in 1970, the city was much less willing to be guided by clerical authority. Medeiros’s half-hearted efforts to support school desegregation in Boston were widely ignored, and some of the more racist elements in the white community mocked Medeiros’s Azorean heritage and his accent.
Medeiros’s nadir came in 1980, when he wrote a letter — read from pulpits across the archdiocese — warning that Catholics who voted for pro-choice candidates shared in "the guilt which accompanies this horrendous crime and deadly sin." The letter was seen as largely aimed at defeating first-time congressional candidate Barney Frank, who was running against a pro-life Democrat in the primary. Not only did Frank win handily, but Medeiros was criticized on the Globe editorial page and elsewhere for injecting himself into politics.