by the investigative staff of the Boston Globe
Betrayal is the story of a large number of Catholic priests who abused the trust given them and the children in their care. It is the story of the bishops and the cardinals who hired, promoted, protected, and thanked those priests, despite overwhelming evidence of their abusive behavior. It is the story of a powerful, proud Church thrown into crisis by the misdeeds, mistakes, and misjudgments of its own clergy. It is the story of victims who suffered in silence for years before finding the voice to publicly challenge their Church. And it is the story of the desire of that Church’s many faithful members to learn from the crisis and bring about change.
In the winter of 2002, when the initial reports about how the Catholic Church had handled priests who sexually abused children surfaced in the Boston Globe, the stories seemed almost too horrible to be true. The reports showed that members of the Church hierarchy—including Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, the most influential American Catholic prelate in the Vatican—were not only aware of the abuse but had gone to enormous lengths to hide the scandal from public view.
The extent of betrayal—of children’s innocence, of parents’ trust, of priestly vows, of bishops’ responsibilities, of the Church’s basic tenets—was unnerving. Most shocking to everyday Catholics, and most damaging to the Church, was the incontrovertible evidence that Cardinal Law and other leaders of his archdiocese had engaged in such a massive cover-up. Rather than protect its most vulnerable members, the Church had been putting them in harm’s way.
Soon newspapers all over the United States and overseas began demanding answers from their local dioceses. Empowered victims stepped forward. Lawyers who once played by the Church’s rules in secretly settling cases did a public about-face, declaring that those agreements were no longer in their clients’ or the public’s interest.
Next, law enforcement officials, who along with their predecessors were wary of going after the Church that many of them belonged to, demanded records so they could decide whether to prosecute priests whose only previous sanctions were transfers to new parishes, being stashed away in hospital chaplaincies, or, for the worst offenders, being placed on a bureaucratic shelf. Chastened Church leaders were confronted with overwhelming evidence that the Archdiocese of Boston placed a premium on protecting the Church’s reputation at the expense of its victims.
Across the country, and across the Catholic world, priests implicated in abuse were pulled from assignments—176 in the United States alone in the first four months of 2002. Bishops resigned in the United States, Poland, and Ireland. Even in Rome, where Vatican leaders had studiously avoided previous outbreaks of scandal, the Pope used his annual Holy Thursday letter to priests to weigh in on the subject, although only to comfort good priests rather than the victims of bad ones.
To the victims of abusive priests, the Pope’s fleeting reference to the scandal—using a vague Latin phrase, "mysterium iniquitatis," to describe a crime he called a sin—failed to mention the victims at all, and thus offered little comfort. To many, the Pope’s statement seemed to be more evidence of an aloof, arrogant, out-of-touch hierarchy whose inability to see beyond its own needs had the effect of rubbing salt into raw, open wounds.
The following day, in his Good Friday letter, Cardinal Law also touched on the theme of betrayal, but more explicitly. "Betrayal hangs like a heavy cloud over the Church today," he wrote. "While we do not presume to judge anyone’s relationship with God, there is no doubt that a betrayal of trust is at the heart of the evil in the sexual abuse of children by clergy. Priests should be trustworthy beyond any shadow of a doubt. When some have broken that trust, all of us suffer the consequences."
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Public opinion polls found a deepening sense of disillusionment among parishioners with Law’s handling of the problem. By mid-April a Globe–WBZ-TV poll found that 65 percent of the Catholics in the archdiocese believed the cardinal needed to resign.
Some Catholics began withholding money from the archdiocese. Churchgoers turned their backs on the cardinal’s Annual Appeal, which funds many Church programs. And an ambitious $350 million capital fundraising campaign virtually ground to a halt. There was renewed discussion about the wisdom of a priesthood restricted to celibate men, and some wondered whether there is a link between the high incidence of sexual abuse of teenage boys and the high percentage of gay men in the priesthood.
After three months of mounting scandal, the Vatican seemed to awaken: the Pope summoned all the American cardinals to an extraordinary emergency meeting in April 2002. At that meeting, the Pope changed his tune, and his tone. He said the sexual abuse of minors by priests was not only an "appalling sin" but a crime. The Pope also responded to complaints that the Holy See appeared indifferent to the suffering of victims. "To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern," the frail, eighty-one-year-old pontiff said.
While the meeting was remarkable, and unprecedented, it remained unclear how tangible and far-reaching the reforms promised by the Vatican would become. There are still many within the Vatican who view sexual abuse by clergy as a peculiarly American phenomenon.
The issue of the Church failing to take seriously the sexual abuse of children by its clergy had surfaced now and then since 1985, when the first big case exploded in Louisiana. But the Church had engaged in largely successful damage control, taking advantage of the widespread deference toward it to dismiss the scandals as anomalies being blown out of proportion by anti-Catholic elements in the news media, in collaboration with Catholic dissidents who wanted to discredit the hierarchy.
But the Church’s ability to deflect the issue began to crumble in the face of documents in the Boston cases that showed Cardinal Law and his top aides were repeatedly warned about dangerous priests, but continued to put these sexual abusers in a position to attack children.
The Geoghan case became a potent symbol of the compassion and gentle treatment the Church afforded its own rogue priests at the expense of the victims. Geoghan was an incorrigible pedophile. Nearly two hundred people who claim they were raped and fondled by Geoghan have filed claims in the last several years. Experts believe he probably molested three to four times as many people as have come -forward. Geoghan calmly explained to therapists how he would single out his prey, the needy children of poor, single mothers—struggling women who were thrilled to have a man in their sons’ lives, especially a priest. Occasionally complaints would arise, but Geoghan’s superiors would simply move him to another parish and a fresh set of victims.
And it was not just Geoghan. Law, his bishops, and their predecessors had moved abusive priests around like pawns on a chessboard. Some were allowed to relocate out of state, foisted on other dioceses. If parishioners were in the dark about the predators cast into their midst, so too were some of the abusers’ new pastors. In one case, in the process of arranging for an alleged child rapist named Rev. Paul Shanley to be transferred to a new parish in California, Cardinal Law’s top deputy wrote a letter of assurance to Church officials in San Bernardino, vouching for the integrity of someone the Boston archdiocese knew had been accused of engaging in sexual abuse. Even after the archdiocese had paid off some of Shanley’s victims on the condition that they keep quiet, Cardinal Law wrote Shanley a glowing retirement letter and said he would not object to his appointment to head a Church-run guest home in New York whose clientele included young people.
The problem in the Archdiocese of Boston was a microcosm of a festering sore in the body of the entire Church. If to some defenders it seemed like merely a brushfire, it was to others the greatest conflagration to face the Church in generations. It stretched across the North American continent, back across to Europe, scandalizing Australia, and stretching to the very tip of the earth, to Tierra del Fuego, a remote archipelago in Chile.
Since the Louisiana case, most of those implicated were ordinary priests. But now the scandal has broadened, ensnaring not only the priests who abused children but the bishops and cardinals who protected those priests. In 2001 a bishop in France was prosecuted criminally for failing to report pedophile priests to police, and in Wales, a bishop was forced to resign because he protected abusive priests. In the spring of 2002, a Polish archbishop close to the Pope was forced to resign after being accused of sexually harassing seminarians. Three days later, Bishop Brendan Comiskey of Ireland resigned after admitting he had not done enough to control a priest whose rampant sexual abuse of minors led to the suicide of several victims and, ultimately, of the abusive priest himself.
But it was Boston that became the epicenter of the scandal, because the story broke there, because of the sheer number of priests implicated there, and because of the Catholic character of the city. More than 2 million of the 3.8 million people who live in the metropolitan Boston area are Catholic. It is the only major archdiocese in the United States where Catholics account for more than half the population. In no other major American city are Catholics more represented in police precincts, in courtrooms, in boardrooms. Nowhere else has the impact of the scandal been more deeply felt. And nowhere else has the erosion of deference traditionally shown the Church been more dramatic.
In 1992, when a scandal erupted over James R. Porter—a pedophile priest who attacked more than one hundred children in southeastern Massachusetts, outside the Boston archdiocese—most Catholics accepted Law’s assurance that Porter’s transgressions were not the fault of a caring Church but "an aberrant act" of one depraved man. He also said the Porter affair had been deliberately overblown because of anti-Catholic bias in the secular media. "By all means," the cardinal said at the time, "we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe."
The newspaper, founded by members of the Protestant Brahmin ascendancy that once ran Boston, had been accused of anti-Catholic bias before. But the documents about Geoghan unsealed by Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney—showing the level to which the cardinal and his bishops went to conceal the pattern of abuse from the public eye—produced a sea change in attitudes among most Catholics. Rather than blame the messenger, most Catholics focused their anger on Church leaders. They wanted answers from their cardinal. And by the time he departed for the April 2002 meeting with the Pope and the other American cardinals, even Law wasn’t blaming the media anymore. "The crisis of clergy sexual abuse of minors is not just a media-driven or public-perception concern in the United States, but a very serious issue undermining the mission of the Catholic Church," he said.
In the past some politicians, police, prosecutors, and judges had enabled the cover-up of priestly misconduct, both great and small. But the scope of the archdiocese’s actions on behalf of abusive priests emboldened those in law enforcement and politics to push aside a culture of deference that was more than a century in the making. The Massachusetts attorney general and five of the state’s top prosecutors, all Catholic, demanded and eventually obtained Church records showing that more than ninety priests in the archdiocese had been accused of sexual abuse by hundreds of victims over the previous forty years. That figure didn’t include priests who had died. Almost all the cases were beyond the statute of limitations, meaning most could not be prosecuted. But whatever the archdiocese was able to dodge in a court of law bedeviled it in the court of public opinion.
Boston may be the quintessential American Catholic city, yet the scandal soon proved to be far more than a local story. It became an international story about how the rights of powerless individuals are pushed aside in the interests of a powerful institution, about how mortals can damage an immortal faith. By most accounts at least 1,500 priests have faced public accusations of sexual misconduct with minors since the mid-1980s.
The costs so far have been high. Donations to the Church have fallen. Few people have sworn off their faith, but many have sworn off the hierarchy. Harder to measure are the human costs to the victims. There was the eleven-year-old who, during confession, was asked by a priest whether he masturbated, then was asked for a demonstration; the thirteen-year-old who was seduced by his priest and, in an era of far less tolerance toward homosexuality, was left to wonder whether he was gay; and the boy who was handed train fare by a priest who had just anally raped him and left him bleeding.
If there are any heroes in this squalid tale, they are the victims, who found their voice, who found the courage, after years of suffering in silence and isolation, to step into the light and say, as one did, "This happened to me, and this is wrong."
Fourteen years ago, Peter Pollard wrote Cardinal Law a letter telling him that he had been sexually abused by a priest when he was in his teens. He asked Law to get the priest into treatment, to make sure that he was never alone with a child again, and to begin an outreach program for other victims. But Pollard said one of Law’s deputies—who is now a bishop—told him that after a five-day evaluation, the Church had concluded the priest was not a danger to children. He suggested the sexual activity was a mere display of affection. Now a father of one and a social worker who works with neglected and abused children, Pollard is encouraged by the recent empowerment of other victims, whom he calls survivors. While he endorses the Christian concept of bearing witness, he is less enamored with another principle in Church teaching.
"To those who ask that we forgive and forget, please understand," Pollard wrote in an opinion piece for the Globe. "The survivors, each of us in his own way, have spent our lives trying to move on, always weighing those two options. For some of us, suicide, substance abuse, or violence ended the struggle early.
"To varying degrees, those of us who have survived have begun to heal. We reclaimed dreams, earned degrees, formed families, went to work, even sought solace in spiritual practice. But we cannot escape the effects of the betrayals that were committed against us in God’s name. They are inexorably woven into the texture of who we have become.
"That betrayal may not be a chargeable offense in a court of law. But there is no statute of limitation on its impact. And there should be no forgetting."