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January 7, 2004
Terms leave archdiocese facing new strains
By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 9/10/2003
The Archdiocese of Boston's agreement yesterday to pay up to $85 million to settle 552 clergy sex abuse claims should, if accepted, end the devastating legal and financial uncertainty that has gripped this region's largest religious denomination for more than 19 months.
But the price of peace is very steep, and the church must now raise money and, potentially, cut services even as it attempts to heal the wounds opened by the scandal.
"Just because there's a settlement, that doesn't mean the pain has gone away from the church, and it doesn't take the pain away from those who have been hurt," said Monsignor George F. Carlson, pastor of Holy Name Church in West Roxbury. "This moves us, thank God, into another phase, but there are so many phases to this crisis."
Around Boston and the nation, Catholics hailed the emerging settlement as hugely positive for an archdiocese that has been devastated by revelations that nearly 250 local priests have been accused of molesting minors over the last six decades, and that, in multiple instances, those priests were allowed to remain on the job by bishops who knew of the alleged abuse.
"This is an important agreement," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who said the Boston cases were among those that "precipitated 20 months of soul-searching by the church."
"It demonstrates that the church is committed to working out just settlements which seek to meet, to the extent possible, the needs of people who have suffered terribly," Gregory said. ". . . We are visibly seeking to heal our wounds caused by sexual abuse and moving forward as promised."
But some warned that the Boston settlement may have more impact symbolically than practically, as lawsuits in other dioceses around the nation will have to be addressed on their own terms.
"There was a big settlement in Dallas, and a big settlement in Santa Fe -- it's a different climate now, so this will get a lot more attention, but it's not entirely clear that this will have ramifications for the entire church," said John T. McGreevy, an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. "There do seem to be quite radically different patterns in terms of the amount of litigation the dioceses are undergoing."
As dioceses around the nation attempt to settle litigation arising from the sexual abuse of minors by priests, one pattern is emerging -- the settlements, if not ruinous, are costly enough to force cuts in church programs. In the Archdiocese of Louisville, which this summer agreed to pay $25.7 million to settle sex abuse lawsuits, church officials recently announced spending cuts, an increase in the amount parishes must pay the diocese, property sales, and cancellation of grants for programs including the expansion of an archdiocesan high school.
"The consequence of paying out these large amounts is going to be reduced services by the church and greater burdens on the parishes," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly. "These large settlements are going to have consequences for dioceses for years, if not decades, to come, because we don't have a printing press for money in the basement. This money that's being paid out is money that will not go to support church services in the future."
In Boston, church spokesman the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne said the archdiocese will attempt to come up with the $85 million first from the church's insurance carriers and by selling surplus real estate. He said he did not know how the church would come up with the balance, but that it would not use money people have given to parishes, to the church's annual appeal, or to a recent capital campaign.
"This is not the end," Coyne said. "This is one good step toward bringing some kind of a resolution to the crisis, but many of the issues that have arisen, most especially the issues around the survivors and their families, still need to be addressed."
Despite knowing that the sex abuse crisis opened wounds that are not yet healed, and worrying about where the $85 million will come from, many Boston-area Catholics welcomed the deal.
Many interviewed yesterday credited Boston's new archbishop, Sean P. O'Malley, for settling the cases -- a task his predecessors were unable to accomplish.
"Without a fair and just settlement, you would never be able to begin the healing process in the Catholic Church, and certainly Archbishop O'Malley should be congratulated for being a man of his word," said Raymond L. Flynn, the former mayor of Boston and former US ambassador to the Vatican. "But you're taking away $85 million, on top of what has already been paid out, and this money comes out of the poor box. This has to be paid -- it's a responsibility and an obligation of the Catholic Church -- but the Catholic Church will now call on the people who can least afford it to really make the sacrifice."
Several people said the settlement amount is so large, they find it hard to fathom how it might affect church services.
"The numbers are beyond our imagining at this point, so you just say, `Only time will tell,' " said the Rev. John A. Dooher, pastor of Saint Mary Church in Dedham. But Dooher said even a steep settlement will ultimately help the church.
"The only way we'll ever get over the crisis is if the victims reach a point in their lives where they're able to forgive, and they can only do that if they feel their injury is understood and there's some healing," he said.
The Rev. John McGinty, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Lynn, agreed.
"With my little budget here, those dimensions are beyond me -- we take in about $5,000 a week," he said. "But this has to be a step toward a resolution of the terrible past that we have, and we've been waiting for it a long time."
Many people worried about where the money will come from.
"Anyone who has got their head screwed on right has got to feel that this is good news for the Catholic Church -- it's good news for survivors and good news for Boston, and it makes it possible for the archbishop to address a very large backlog of serious problems in the archdiocese," said James E. Post, the president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization. "But Archbishop O'Malley has got to make peace with the laity because these financial commitments are a mortgage on the future of the Archdiocese of Boston, and I don't think he can possibly do this without bringing the laity together in ways that haven't happened yet."
The money will not come directly from Catholic Charities or hospitals, both of which are largely financed by government grants and independent fund-raising. But clearly the crisis has hurt church services to the poor in a number of ways -- for example, the church's capital campaign performed less well than hoped, and a fraction of that campaign had been earmarked for charitable work.
"The way we were hurt in the scandal was with people who were reluctant to write checks to us because they were concerned the money might flow to the diocese, which it never has," said Neal F. Finnegan, chairman of the Catholic Charities board of trustees. "If the church regains its footing as a result of the settlement, and is viewed more positively by the faithful, contributions will rise, and Catholic Charities might be helped,"
Several people interviewed said they believe the church will now have an easier time raising money, even as it takes on huge debt.
"The archbishop has created a very significant amount of good will, and a lot of people are beginning to say, `How can I be of assistance,' " said Jack Connors Jr., the chairman of the advertising agency Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos.
"There is a new spirit, and a new sense that at least some of the bleeding has stopped, and now we begin to rebuild," he said.
Connors said he expects to see parish and school closings, but driven by economic and demographic factors, not by the settlement, and others agreed.
"If the scandal never happened, and if we didn't owe a nickel, we would still be faced with the question of what parishes can remain open and what schools can remain open," said Peter Meade, the vice chairman of Catholic Charities. "But I think there's a sense that we have an enormous task, and Archbishop Sean has literally been a godsend, and through a combination of faith and hard work we'll be able to deal with this."
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com.