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Law's words frame new play

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Spotlight Report

Law looks to rebuild public trust

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 3/5/2002

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, seeking to restore public trust shaken by his handling of sexual abuse by priests, has chosen one of his closest aides to oversee the scandal and is preparing to triple the size of the office charged with investigating allegations and reaching out to alleged victims and accused priests.

The cardinal's chief secretary, the Rev. John J. Connolly Jr., has taken on what he described in a 12-page letter to priests over the weekend as ''the long-term project [of] the restoration of trust.''

Connolly said the cardinal today will meet with priests to consider ''alternative strategies'' for his ambitious $300 million

fund-raising effort, which some priests have suggested should be delayed or scaled back.

He also said the cardinal has chosen a telegenic and articulate priest, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, to represent the archdiocese in television interviews, which the church had refused for the first several weeks of the crisis.

And Connolly acknowledged that some small fraction of the Sunday collection from parishes is being used to pay for liability insurance that covers, in part, sexual abuse by clergy, and that the cost of that liability insurance has risen because of settlements paid to victims of sexual abuse.

The letter represents part of an intense effort by the cardinal to reach out to priests, whom he views as essential to his ability to weather the crisis. Connolly wrote that ''the cardinal recognizes that the people's trust in him is and will be in great measure mediated through the trust of the priests in him.''

Law has held five regional meetings with priests, and sponsored workshops yesterday and today at Boston College for priests struggling with stress over the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

''A clear message that has been received, from priests and laity alike, is that trust, on many levels, has been severely damaged,'' Connolly wrote in the letter, which was dated Saturday and faxed to priests over the weekend.

''The trust that people placed in the archdiocese as an institution and in the cardinal personally has been shaken. The trust that many priests have in the cardinal has been similarly impacted.''

Connolly wrote that over time, ''the anger, the sadness, the confusion, even the pain will dissipate and go away.'' However, he wrote, ''what will remain as the long-term project will be the restoration of trust.''

The letter was welcomed by priests, many of whom are feeling depressed that their vocation has become so closely associated with the abuse of children. Some priests also fear Law has become too quick to oust priests before fully substantiating allegations.

''The letter was very open - it admits there in black and white that there is a lack of trust by some priests in the bishop - and it is an attempt to reach out to priests personally, and I applaud that,'' said the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton and one of the leaders of the nascent priests' organization.

Cuenin also praised the selection of Connnolly to oversee the clergy sexual abuse effort and reach out to priests, saying, ''John is a wonderful man and very sensitive in dealing with priests, so he's a real ace in the cardinal's hand.''

Connolly's letter is addressed to priests, but the cardinal has also been trying to reach out to other constituencies. This Saturday he will meet with an estimated 2,500 parish leaders during the church's annual convocation, and he has met with Catholic business leaders. Law has said he will seek to reach out to victims as well.

Connolly did not detail how the capital campaign might change, but wrote, ''Cardinal Law recognizes that there is a widely held view that some reconfiguration of the capital campaign is in order, and he has already indicated that an adjustment will be made.''

He then outlined a series of ways in which the church is responding to the crisis. He said the cardinal has chosen several priests to coordinate a spiritual response, is about to announce a reconfiguration of the office that investigates actual claims, and has hired a crisis communications firm in the hopes that ''our public and media relations will improve.''

He said the church needs to improve communication between parishioners and priests, and priests and bishops.

And Connolly said the church is moving ahead with its effort to establish a committee that will review the archdiocese's policy on sexual abuse and consider establishing a national center for the study, treatment and prevention of child sexual abuse. Church officials say that Dr. Michael F. Collins, the president of Caritas Christi Health Care System, is assembling the panel and trying to make sure it includes women, who were not represented on the initial panel of medical school deans assembled by Law.

The church is also preparing programs for the training of clergy, staff, and volunteers on their obligations as mandated reporters of suspected sexual abuse to state authorities, and is seeking to continue settling lawsuits against the church and provide assistance to victims who are not litigating their allegations.

Connolly urged priests to keep ''this devastating situation in perspective.''

''Despite all the attention being given this issue, there has not been, as yet, any new allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor by clergy in ministry today,'' Connolly wrote. ''What we have been dealing with is the fallout of cases of past misconduct. The recognition of this fact does not negate the terrible gravity of the past acts, but it does, I pray, provide some measure of hope.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/5/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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