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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

A matter of choice

1/26/2003

The Catholic Church cannot extend a pastoral hand to victims of sexual abuse while pummeling them with a legal fist.

From the beginning of the sexual abuse scandal, the leadership of the church has insisted on having it both ways. Seeking credit for hiring therapists for parishioners raped by priests while insisting on its right to use those counseling sessions against the victims in court is only the latest example.

First came the expressions of remorse that clergymen had raped children. Then came the legal defense that the boys and girls were the ones guilty of neglect for putting themselves in harm's way.

First came the acknowledgment that the victimized should be compensated for their injuries. Then came the deliberations about whether a bankruptcy claim could help the church dodge payment and responsibility.

First came the concession that church officials should report incidents of sexual abuse to police. Then came the courtroom argument that the First Amendment prohibits civil authorities from interfering with a bishop's supervision of his priests.

Say this for the Catholic hierarchy: at least it is consistent in its inconsistency.

The church's two latest legal maneuvers, mining victims' counseling records in hope of unearthing information that might undermine their credibility, and arguing that the separation of church and state requires the dismissal of almost 500 civil lawsuits against the Boston Archdiocese, is bad news for anyone who harbored hope that a change in leadership meant a change in tactics.

Like Cardinal Bernard F. Law before him, Bishop Richard G. Lennon is letting the lawyers call the shots.

The Catholic Church is entitled, of course, to mount a vigorous legal defense against increasingly credible allegations that bishops were negligent in shuffling predatory priests from parish to parish rather than remove them from ministries where they could continue to prey on children. But there is no evading the fact that by exercising that legal right, the church is also making a moral choice.

Lennon would have us believe that his assertion of First Amendment protection is nothing more than an effort to persuade the church's insurance companies that it is availing itself of every possible legal defense before settling the cases. If this is just a pro forma motion, why did the church import a First Amendment expert from Colorado to argue the point last week before Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney instead of relying on its usual stable of lawyers?

Lennon further would have us believe that his mission as apostolic administrator is to bring healing to the victims and to this shattered archdiocese as expeditiously as possible. If that were his primary goal, why would he endorse a legal strategy -- no matter how standard in similar cases -- that undermines the fragile trust of vulnerable people who have been repeatedly betrayed by the church? If Lennon is so intent on settling these cases, the question has to be asked, why hasn't he done it?

Contrast the conduct of the Boston Archdiocese with that of the Jesuits when confronted with a similar set of circumstances. No stonewalling. No retraumatizing of the victims. Instead, 15 men, 11 of them former students at Boston College High School, will receive payments of $5.8 million to compensate them for sexual abuse by Jesuit priests who taught there and in Portland, Maine.

Those cases were no less painful than the lawsuits now pending against the Archdiocese of Boston. What differs is the commitment of the Jesuits and the schools to mediate a prompt and just settlement to spare the victims further pain.

We are a year into revelations about criminal behavior by priests and indefensible cover-ups by bishops that were barely imaginable 12 months ago. Abuse victims have come too far to accept that one hand of the Body of Christ would embrace them while the other hand bludgeons them. The church has to choose.

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 1/26/2003.
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