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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

A shepherd and his flock

1/9/2002

CATHOLIC BISHOPS, when they appear in public, carry a crosier, or shepherds's staff, to symbolize their responsibility as successors to the Apostles and as a reminder of Jesus saying, "I am the good shepherd." Cardinal Bernard F. Law and other church officials, in a test of their pastoral responsibilities, failed to protect the most impressionable members of his flock from the depredations of the pedophile priest John Geoghan.

Law had just been appointed archbishop of Boston in 1984 when the first reports of sexual abuse by priests began appearing in the press across the country. But leaders of the Boston archdiocese had been hearing allegations that Geoghan had attacked young boys since the early 1970s. Law removed Geoghan from St. Brendan's parish in Dorchester in September 1984 after the latest round of complaints.

Geoghan had a history of worming his way into the affections of a vulnerable family and then attacking the children. Sexual abuse of a child is a horrific crime under any circumstance, but it is made worse when the perpetrator is a priest, who relies on the trust reposed in him by a Catholic family to strike at its most innocent members.

Despite frequent reports of abuse, detailed persuasively by the Globe Spotlight team this week, Geoghan moved from parish to parish - a priest in good standing - throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, even though auxiliary bishop Thomas Daily had forced him out of St. Andrew's in Jamaica Plain in 1980. Much like other institutions in American society, The Catholic Church throughout the United States failed to develop policies that would identify pedophiles in its midst and make sure they would not use the power of their office to prey on young people.

Geoghan was treated by two doctors after his removal from St. Andrew's, but it apparently did no good, since the same complaints surfaced at St. Brendan's. And then it was on to St. Julia's, where the same doctors cleared him for a return to parish service. This refusal to face the intractability of Geoghan's offenses prompted a protest from auxiliary bishop John D'Arcy, but Geoghan remained at St. Julia's.

Geoghan's new assignment coincided with stirrings of concern among US bishops about the increasingly public scandal of clerical abuse. In 1985, Law encouraged the writing of a report that said priests who abuse children probably could not be cured. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops shelved the report without taking any action, and Law kept Geoghan at St. Julia's. This was a key moment in the sexual abuse scandal for Law and the American church as a whole. The bishops had enough information to know that some priests were using the esteem inherent in their office to prey on young people, and yet the church did not act with the urgency that this crisis demanded. By doing nothing, church officials put children throughout the country at risk of abuse.

In Geoghan's case, there were more half-measures and brief treatment regimens ordered by archdiocesan officials. It was only in January 1993, after the widely publicized case of Father James Porter in the Fall River diocese had made all people in New England aware of the dangers of a predator priest, that Geoghan was removed from St. Julia's.

Pedophiles constitute a tiny minority of the priesthood, and since 1993 bishops throughout the United States have done much to ensure that any suspected abuser is removed from parish work. But the question remains why it took so long when the extent of the abuse was clear by the mid-1980s, and in Geoghan's case far sooner.

Law hasn't answered any questions about this, although he may do so today. So far, he has stood by a column for the archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, last summer in which he said that "never was there any effort on my part to shift a problem from one place to the next." But that is exactly what happened when Geoghan was assigned to St. Julia's over D'Arcy's objections. Catholics in the archdiocese and anyone concerned with child protection are justified in wanting to know why this was done.

"It is fair to say . . . that society has been on a learning curve with regard to the sexual abuse of minors," Law said in the column. That may be true, but it is reasonable to wonder why Law in 1984, even with the doctors' letters in front of him, did not err on the side of protecting children instead of keeping Geoghan in his accustomed job. As the prophet Jeremiah said, "Shame on the shepherds who let the sheep of my flock scatter and be lost!"

Criminal charges and civil suits have produced numerous archdiocesean documents, and Judge Constance Sweeney has decided these will been made public on Jan. 26, despite a campaign by lawyers for the archdiocese to keep them private.

Child abusers know that the greatest protection for their crimes is the silence of their victims and the inaction of the people and institutions that have influence over their lives. Those who have come forward to accuse Geoghan are to be commended for their courage, and the church owes them every support as they seek treatment for the harm done to them. Many might have been spared the trauma of abuse if the church had spoken out about sexual misconduct by priests years ago. Silence over the scandal has harmed the church.

The Vatican has finally gotten around to issuing worldwide procedures for the removal of pedophile priests, but, disappointingly, the proceedings are to be held in secret.

It's time for the secrecy to end, both about the past and about whatever happens in the future. The cardinal owes Catholics an accounting of what really happened in the chancery when Geoghan's name came up and why the welfare of one tarnished priest, and of the church itself, outweighed the welfare of dozens of young members of Cardinal Law's flock.


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