Inside the story that shook the church
By Eileen McNamara, Globe Staff, 11/03/1992
Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children
By Jason Berry
Doubleday, 407 pp., $22.50
hen reports surfaced last spring that a former Massachusetts priest had allegedly molested scores of schoolchildren at a Fall River parish, Cardinal Bernard F. Law was silent about the Church's culpability but fierce in his denunciation of the media for focusing "on the faults of a few." Law's reaction to the charges against James R. Porter -- to blame the messenger and minimize the damage -- is at the heart of a crisis now confronting the Catholic Church.
In "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children," Jason Berry makes clear that the worst culprits may be not the men who harmed children but their superiors who consistently and systematically covered up their crimes.
In case after case across North America, from Louisiana to Newfoundland to Seattle, Berry recounts the reactions of pastors and bishops alerted by parents to the evil in their midst. With numbing regularity, miscreant priests were simply transferred to distant dioceses and into the paths of other unsuspecting young victims.
Since 1984, Berry estimates that the Catholic Church has paid out more than $400 million in civil settlements to victims of abuse by more than 400 priests. Projections are that the church's liability could reach $1 billion by the end of the decade.
Berry, who covered many of these lawsuits as they unfolded for the National Catholic Reporter, spent seven years immersed in his topic. That is both the book's strength and its weakness. His exhaustive research sometimes leaves the reader exhausted. There are too many names of too many lawyers in too many cases in too many parishes in too many states.
"I began this book by focusing on one community in French Louisiana, with no idea that what happened there was being replicated in so many other regions," he writes at the book's conclusion. One wishes he had kept his original focus, telling us in more detail the consequences for the children, the church and the wider community of Lafayette, La., and in less detail the scope of the crisis nationally. His narrative is at its richest when describing the bayous and swamp basins of his home state; it is at its most stilted when providing travelogue descriptions of Chicago and St. Paul.
The impulse to share everything he learned could have been stayed by more deft editing. A third of the book veers off the subject of child molestation and official coverups to deal with the issue of celibacy and the increase in homosexuality in the priesthood. These are worthy and not entirely unrelated topics but would have been better served in a separate book.
One wonders, as well, why the author found it necessary to repeat so often that he is a devout Catholic and that the crisis in his church sparked a personal crisis of faith as well. One would have been surprised if it had not done so, but the repeated references to Berry's personal religious faith are a distraction. While it establishes the author as a believer with no ax to grind against the Catholic Church, it assumes a level of reader interest in reporters' lives that one suspects does not exist.
These are relatively small complaints about a remarkable body of work that already has made a difference. Pushed to act by the lawsuits that Berry's reporting helped publicize, a few dioceses have begun to acknowledge the crisis.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, the second-largest Catholic diocese in the United States, announced in September the formation of an independent board to investigate priests accused of child abuse. The archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is revising its policies as well. And a few weeks ago the Fall River diocese issued guidelines for handling such cases, including prompt reporting of charges like those against James Porter to civil authorities.
It is just a beginning. Seven years after Berry tells us that the National Conference of Bishops was quietly briefed on the extent of pedophilia among priests, there is still no national policy. Individual dioceses are left to move at their own pace in confronting an epidemic of child abuse.
In Boston, a review of personnel records for all clergy is under way but no new procedures have been announced. Cardinal Law, however, did acknowledge recently that perhaps his anger at the media was misplaced. The abuse of children by priests, he said, indeed "constitutes a heinous crime."
This story ran on page 29 of the Boston Globe on 11/03/1992.