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How many? How long?

By David Mehegan, Globe Staff, 2/03/2002

I remember Father John Geoghan rather well, though he would not remember me. I was in my 20s, and married, when he was a priest at St. Paul's parish in Hingham. He was a friendly, perky little fellow, and I remember his complimenting me on a story I wrote for Boston Magazine in 1973 about the crushing debt of the archdiocese. He once lent me an alb and cincture -- part of a priest's vestments -- to use in an Easter pageant at another church.

A few years later came Father John Hanlon, a new pastor warmly endorsed by his departing predecessor. He too was a friendly person, jocular and nonjudgmental, and kind to me personally. I remember his telling me once how much he had enjoyed studying moral theology in the seminary. "I loved moral," he said. In 1994, he was sentenced to life in prison for raping a 13-year-old boy.

It is a coincidence that I knew two of the notorious priests convicted of molesting children. But having known two in one parish, one can't help but wonder if there were others I knew or at least met, at other times and places, who had that predilection. I think back to the 1960s or '70s. "What about him?" I think. "Or that one? He was definitely odd."

Though it's good that these terrible truths are out in the open, I still cannot help but feel sorry for Cardinal Bernard Law. Not that he did not make a huge mistake -- he surely did and is not denying it. But it's unfortunate that his generation has to take the heat.

Pedophilia was not invented recently, after all, and it is impossible to believe that there were not hundreds of pedophiliac priests in the past. Does anyone really think that Boston's Cardinal William O'Connell, known as "Gangplank Bill" for his annual Caribbean cruises in the 1930s, did not know of such things among his priests? What about the beloved Cardinal Richard Cushing, he of the gravelly voice, who had such a devotion to the mentally retarded and who touched a nation's heart when he called out at the end of President Kennedy's funeral, "May the angels, dear Jack, lead you into paradise." Did he know nothing of this sort of thing?

I believe they must have known, and must have handled it "discreetly," which is to say, secretly, thereby perpetuating it. They could do that because, after all, who in those innocent times would believe that priests could do such things? Hardly anyone outside the priesthood, which is why children who knew did not speak up, or if they did, were shushed or punished.

So how did this climate develop? My sense is that there were at least three elements: first, exaggerated fear of damage to the church through exposure of the abuses; second, an excessive faith in the restorative power of forgiveness; third, a tragic insistence on treating serious crime as a pastoral problem. Separately, those errors perhaps could be understood. But together they add up to a disaster of epochal proportions, which makes the wholesale flight of men from the priesthood in the last 25 years seem insignificant by comparison.

Fear of scandal is to some degree to be expected. Maybe not if you think of the church as a corporation, political party, or a sort of social club, like the Order of Odd Fellows. But to churchmen of an older generation, the instinct to protect the good name of the larger church is bred in the bone. It was not necessarily so simple as an intention to put priests before other people, even if in the end it amounted to the same thing.

Nor should the idea of forgiveness in itself be shocking. Christianity of every flavor is rooted in the idea of repentance, conversion, mercy, and forgiveness. No Christian church is going to stop thinking that way. But the blunder here was in not recognizing the grave acts for which forgiveness is the whole community's job, not just the church's, and which can only come after the acts are stopped and justice is done.

Worst of all was the parochialism and shortsightedness of handling sexual abuse as a pastoral problem. That error was not a matter of irresponsibility, but just the opposite: too much of a sense of responsibility. What would the bishops have done if they had discovered that Father Geoghan had been putting on a stocking mask and knocking over banks on his day off? They would have called the cops. But this, well, this involved Catholic priests, people, and parishes. This was all in the family, like having a crazy brother.

I often drive past the bronze statue of a priest on Day Boulevard in South Boston, at the corner of L Street. The priest, dressed in an old-fashioned cassock, has his hands lovingly on the shoulders of a small boy. I look at that statue and think, "What priest today would risk putting his hands on a young boy or girl, for whatever loving reason?" Only the best, strongest, and most self-assured. One hopes, by the time this nightmare is over, there will be enough of them to go around.

David Mehegan is a member of the Globe staff. He can be reached by e-mail at Mehegan@globe.com.

This story ran on page C2 of the Boston Globe on 2/03/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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