February 15, 2002
Pedophile Issue Shakes the Authority of Boston's Cardinal
By PAM BELLUCK
BOSTON, Feb. 14 - He is the nation's most senior Roman Catholic leader,
closely connected to the pope, and a man who has gained a reputation as
powerful and politically astute.
In 18 years as archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law has forged
friendships with politicians like former President George Bush, won
prominence for visiting Cuba and taking an interfaith group to Israel,
and been responsible for appointments of bishops around the country. In
a city where the Catholic Church has been so central for so many years,
Cardinal Law has become an integral player in Boston's power structure.
But now, the 70-year-old cardinal has become the focal point of the
anger and betrayal boiling up from a scandal over pedophile priests in
In a poll of Boston Catholics last week by The Boston Globe and WBZ-
TV, nearly half of those surveyed said Cardinal Law should resign. A
majority said he had done a poor job of handling the problem of sexual
abuse in the church, and nearly three-fourths of weekly church-goers
said the archdiocese had covered up cases of priest pedophilia. And
three times now, most recently this week, the cardinal has felt
compelled to explain why he refuses to step down.
"I think he's probably lost his moral authority," said Francis
Schussler Fiorenza, a Catholic theologian at Harvard Divinity School.
"Even if he stays on, he will be a wounded leader."
Cardinal Law has also drawn criticism for the way his archdiocese has
responded to the scandal. He had to be pressured to give law
enforcement agencies the names of suspected pedophile priests. He
asserted, wrongly it turned out, that there were no active priests in
the archdiocese suspected of abuse. Prosecutors say the information
they have received from the archdiocese to date, concerning accusations
against some 80 priests, is so sketchy that investigations are
virtually impossible without additional details.
"It is extraordinary," said Thomas H. O'Connor, the university
historian at Boston College. "It's not been handled well. I guess at
the best there's been a great deal of bumbling about it."
The scandal has its roots in the case of John J. Geoghan, a now-
defrocked priest accused of molesting more than 130 children over 30
years, while archdiocesan officials transferred him from parish to
parish. Last July, in the midst of a flood of lawsuits from people
asserting that Mr. Geoghan had abused them, Cardinal Law acknowledged
that in the 1980's he allowed Mr. Geoghan to be assigned to yet another
parish even though he knew about his past.
Then, in January, after The Globe reported that documents from the
Geoghan lawsuits detailed the complaints and cautions the archdiocese
had had about Mr. Geoghan, Cardinal Law publicly apologized, saying he
had been relying on psychiatric assessments that indicated that Mr.
Geoghan had recovered. The Globe later reported that one of the doctors
who examined Mr. Geoghan had no psychiatric training and that another
had settled a claim that he had sexually molested a patient.
In recent weeks, the scandal has widened, and so have the questions
about how the archdiocese handled the cases of other priests accused of
sexual abuse over the last several decades. Parishioners are asking how
much the church knew about the other accused priests, how many of them
were reassigned despite complaints from victims, why the church has
secretly settled lawsuits against dozens of priests, and how much
responsibility belongs to Cardinal Law rather than to his predecessors.
In a metropolitan area where about half of the population of four
million is Catholic, many parishioners say they are increasingly
uncomfortable with the church leadership, even as their faith in
Catholicism and their commitment to their own parishes remain strong.
"I've found some people who say that Law should be the one that goes to
jail," said Larry Kessler, who belongs to Our Lady Help of Christians
in Newton. "Some say Law should resign. Others say he should resign as
archbishop and take a more symbolic position. Right now it's kind of
embarrassing to be a member of the church of Boston."
In some instances, parishioners are talking about donating less money
to the church - about 20 percent of the 800 Catholics polled said they
were giving less.
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese did not grant a request for an
interview with Cardinal Law and did not return repeated phone calls
seeking answers to other questions.
The cardinal made his most recent public statement on Sunday at a Mass
at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
"We have acknowledged - I have acknowledged - that in retrospect - and
that's a very important word, retrospect - we made, and I made
mistakes," he said.
At the Mass, some parishioners supported the cardinal by wearing
stickers shaped like a cardinal's red hat. But elsewhere in the
archdiocese, other parishioners said they were concerned, not only
about the handling of past abuse cases, but also about whether good
priests were being implicated in the rush to report anyone accused of
At St. James the Great parish in Wellesley, where last week the Rev.
James F. Power was abruptly suspended after the archdiocese said it had
discovered an accusation that he engaged in sexual misconduct,
parishioners, surprised at the allegation, were pained and confused.
Some, like Corinne Monahan, the religious education coordinator at the
church, said Cardinal Law's "credibility has been jeopardized" because
he had shown "more concern for the priests than for the victims."
But Ms. Monahan and parishioners like Frank Miklavic said they were
also troubled by the sudden removal of Father Power, whom many
The Rev. George D. Vartzelis, the pastor of St. James, said in his
Sunday address: "The whole situation is an incredible menace. And it is
badly handled on every side. And an allegation about something is still
an allegation, and it has destroyed a man's life."
On Sunday, Cardinal Law said that he had removed even those priests
accused of abuse years ago who had been deemed "not to pose a threat,"
and had since caused no problems.
In 1993, a year after the Rev. John Porter, a priest in the nearby
diocese of Fall River, Mass., was accused of molesting 100 people,
Cardinal Law instituted a policy under which some priests with
histories of sexual abuse, including Mr. Geoghan, were removed from
It was only after his first apology last month that Cardinal Law
announced that the archdiocese would report future accusations of
priest sex abuse to law enforcement authorities, but would not report
past ones because many victims thought they were making confidential
accusations. Then, under pressure from the Legislature and prosecutors,
he changed his mind.
Prosecutors, complaining about the vagueness of the church's
information, say lawyers for the archdiocese have said that they are
trying to contact victims to get their permission to give their names
"The most glaring omission is the lack of the names of the victims,"
said David Procopio, a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney's
office, which has received the names of 24 priests suspected of 60
incidents of abuse. "It is somewhat sketchy as to where some of the
allegations took place and when. Some of them we just have a year or a
range of years."
On Sunday, the cardinal said he respected the views of those who wanted
him to resign, "but I must tell you that, before God, that is not the
conclusion which I reach."
"It's important to remember," he said, "that a bishop is not a
corporate executive, is not a politician."