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Spotlight Report

  Roderick MacLeish Jr.  

O'Malley helps church walk the walk

9/27/2003

THE RECENTLY announced ''settlement'' between the Archdiocese of Boston and victims of clergy abuse (240 of whom I represent) will bring no closure or peace for those who lost their innocence at the hands of child molesters masquerading as clerics. There is nothing that could properly compensate most of the victims and countless others who will never come forward.

It really is not a settlement at all. Fundamentally, it simply provides victims of abuse with the option of ''opting out'' of the court system and having their cases decided within certain parameters by an arbitrator. There are those who will not accept its restrictions and some may take their cases to trial.

So what does this agreement mean and why should Catholics and non-Catholics alike support the archbishop who made it possible?

Over the past 20 months, a group of attorneys and their clients have spent an enormous amount of time uncovering horrific stories of atrocities committed upon children for decades. Equally appalling was the coverup by high church officials and their incomprehensible decision to put these monsters back into settings where they could commit the same crimes again.

At our law office, we have more than 400 square feet of space dedicated to more than 50,000 pages of records and deposition transcripts that document these assaults; records of 143 priests, most of them still alive and all but three or four immune from prosecution because of inadequate laws on child protection.

For those of us involved in these cases, there is a feeling of numbness. There is very little that could shock us now. Out of this numbness, we have lost perspective. Boston has been the epicenter of this scandal, and what we do here and how we do it is being watched around the world. It is being watched in other Catholic dioceses, and it is being watched by schools, day care centers, hospitals, and youth organizations, which have harbored, sometimes unwittingly and sometimes not, sexual predators.

We can safely say that what we have accomplished in Boston has made the world a great deal safer for children. While child molesters will never disappear, their sanctuaries are drying up. If the secret archives of the Catholic Church can be penetrated, there is little chance for any other organization to evade its responsibilities to children.

Moreover, after years of collective insomnia, legislatures around the country are finally starting to wake up to the inadequacy of our child protection laws.

And now we have a new archbishop. I first met Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley 11 years ago when he was the bishop of Fall River, one of the poorest dioceses in the country. I represented 101 victims of now convicted rapist Fr. James Porter. While Cardinal Law was loudly denouncing everything about the case -- including this newspaper's coverage -- on the grounds that the names of good priests were being besmirched, he was harboring priests suspected of abuse, almost 100 of them, according to the nun who worked in his delegate's office.

It was a very different time. Most of us wanted to believe that Fr. Porter was unique. The case could have dragged on for years, particularly since O'Malley had an array of technical legal defenses that well could have prevailed. But that did not appear to be the bishop's concern. He recognized that it was not enough to announce future reform while the victims of failed past policies still lay wounded on the battlefield. So the case was resolved -- not just with money, but with a fair degree of compassion and understanding and with a state of the art policy on child protection that has served the parishioners of Fall River well.

Bishop Sean, as he likes to be called, was way ahead of the rest of the church. So Cardinal Law is now in retreat at a convent in Maryland and Bishop Sean is in Boston. In his short time here, he has met with a great number of victims and their families. He has made important reforms in how the archdiocese treats victims, and he has done his best to provide a mechanism of relief for victims whose lives have been in crisis for almost two years.

The agreement announced on Sept. 10 also contains critical nonfinancial terms that will ensure greater victim participation in treatment programs; survivor representation on archdiocesan review boards and inter-denominational spiritual counseling for those who need it.

O'Malley needs the support of this community. He needs it because, despite all of the horrendous events that have come to light, the paradoxical reality is that the Catholic Church has historically been the safety net in this and other communities for the poor and the ill and disabled, particularly when government defaults on its portion of the social contract. He needs it because Catholics whose spiritual and social lives have revolved around the church need affirmation that the actions and inactions of church leaders -- human beings -- are no reason to question the fundamental tenets of their faith. He needs it because what we do in Boston will be watched by everyone, everywhere.

Some of these cases may well be tried. ''Healing'' is a long way off. We have the lowest church attendance of almost any major diocese in the country. The archdiocese is in financial crisis, not because of victims or their lawyers, but because people exercised their feelings with their checkbooks.

Church leaders created this disaster, but we now have a new leader. He is different. There are those within the church who wish to see him fail, but we cannot allow that to happen. O'Malley not only needs the support of this community, he has earned it.

Roderick MacLeish Jr. is a principal shareholder in the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, LLP.


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