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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Misplaced sympathy

11/27/2002

Is it any wonder that female victims of predatory priests are reluctant to report their sexual abuse?

One need only watch the double standard on display this week in the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., to understand why so many women opt for a painful, private silence instead of a punishing, public revictimization.

In the small town of Auburn, the Rev. James Haller has been forced to turn in his Roman collar. Why? To hear the 66-year-old pastor of St. Peter's Church tell it, he is no longer a Catholic priest simply because he ''fell in love.''

He was in his mid-40s at the time. She was ''legally a minor,'' he notes, as if the age of consent were a statutory technicality, not a bold, red line that separates sex from sexual assault.

Haller's letter to his parishioners is a case study in cultural myths about women, sex, rape, and power, and the use of language to reinforce those myths. ''Over two decades ago, I fell in love with a young woman who was legally a minor,'' he wrote by way of explanation for his ouster from the clergy and his investigation by the state attorney general's office. ''I had intentions of leaving the priesthood and marrying her. I was unable to make the decision to leave the priesthood, and the relationship ended. But my involvement has remained a part of my human failure in my past that now affects the future of my life and your future as parishioners of St. Peter's Church.''

The ''relationship?'' Doesn't he mean the exploitation of a girl at least 20 years his junior? His ''involvement'' and his ''human failure?'' Doesn't he mean his possibly criminal abuse of the power of his office?

Haller suggests he was booted from the rectory for nothing more than having engaged in consensual sex. So, he was a middle-aged man in a position of authority and she was an underage teenage girl. You know how forward some girls can be. The little vixen probably enticed him. Even a man of God would be hard-pressed to resist the temptations of some of these Lolitas.

Bishop John B. McCormack, who graduated four years ago from shielding sexually abusive priests in the Archdiocese of Boston to running the Diocese of Manchester, had no choice but to sacrifice Haller to his new zero-tolerance policy, but that doesn't mean he gets it.

''The whole situation is tragic, tragic for the woman, tragic for Father Haller and tragic for all of us,'' McCormack told parishioners at St. Peter's on Sunday, drawing no distinction between a priest's loss of career and a child's loss of innocence.

McCormack's blanket sympathy is preferable, at least, to the gender-based distinctions some of his colleagues have made in this scandal-ridden year.

It was Cardinal Francis George of Chicago who declared in Rome last spring that ''There is a difference between a moral monster like [the Rev. John] Geoghan, who preys upon little children and does so in a serial fashion, and someone who, perhaps under the influence of alcohol, engages with a 16- or 17-year-old young woman who returns his affection.'' And it was Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston who testified in a deposition last month that ''I find the sexual abuse of a minor really qualitatively different and much more intense than'' that of an adult. ''I would think that the evil of child abuse is a far, far worse evil that has to be dealt with.''

Call this a new mystery of faith - why confronting the evil of child sexual abuse requires minimizing the harm done to others who have been sexually abused.

Haller's victim turned him in to the church and to civil authorities on the condition that her name not be made public. Gee, I can't imagine why. Maybe she knew some dope would ask her whether she was in love, too.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/27/2002.
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