February 28, 2004
January 9, 2004
Antidote to abuse
HE SETTLEMENT announced yesterday by the Archdiocese of Boston is different from the earlier legal agreements that provided compensation for John J. Geoghan's sexual abuse of young people. This time the settlement was not done to prolong the cover-up of archdiocesan officials' complicity in Geoghan's actions, but was part of a disclosure process that is essential to ending the scandal of clerical abuse.
This time there was nothing like the gag orders that kept plaintiffs in earlier cases from talking about the abuse. The 86 people involved in the latest settlement will not be prevented from describing what happened to them and their families when Geoghan, then a diocesan priest, entered their lives.
The courts also lifted a veil of secrecy late last year when, at the request of the Globe, they forced the archdiocese to open up Geoghan's personnel records. These revealed a pattern of denial and cover-up as Cardinal Bernard F. Law and other administrators shifted him from parish to parish. Once their pattern of administrative abuse was clear, the archdiocese had to settle these cases on generous terms to prevent further losses in open court, restore credibility among lay Catholics, and focus single-mindedly on preventing further instances of abuse.
Despite the advantage of full disclosure, the archdiocese is balking at opening the records involving the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, who allegedly molested young people in his Newton parish. The archdiocesan lawyer is saying these records can be kept secret because of the First Amendment protection of religious freedom. Judge Constance M. Sweeney rejected this argument in the Geoghan case, and it is doubtful the archdiocese has any legal standing to keep the Shanley records secret. It certainly has no moral standing to do so. Personnel records are not sacred documents.
Full disclosure ought to be standard practice throughout the Catholic Church in the United States. Sexual abuse by priests has become the worst scandal ever to tarnish the church in the United States precisely because these cases were kept secret for so long.
Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said that the Shanley motion was only a "standard filing" and "has little bearing on our commitment and determination to settle these cases as expeditiously as possible."
Until the Geoghan disclosures, the standard approach in dealing with abusers was to reassign them and, when it came to a lawsuit, to quietly put priest on inactive duty and pay hush money to the victims. Henceforth, the archdiocese ought to commit itself to generous open settlements and full disclosure of the practices that encouraged the perpetuation of sexual abuse.
This story ran on page A18 of the Boston Globe on 3/13/2002.