Priests & Pedophilia

The Archdiocese of Boston lies under a siege of criticism over the way cases of molestation of minors by priests have been handled. Boston Catholics have been stunned by stories in the Boston Globe that priests with records of pedophilia continued to be placed in parishes as recently as the 1990s. Their outrage is understandable. Jesus warned his disciples, "It would be better for you if a millstone where hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble" (Luke 17: 2). Millstones may be in short supply by the time the full extent of this scandal is known.

Harsh criticism, especially of Cardinal Bernard Law and his auxiliaries, over what appears to be indifference to the well-being of children is understandable. But anger alone is not enough, and can even obscure our understanding of the facts and an accurate assessment of the situation.

At the center of the controversy in Boston stands John Geoghan, a convicted pedophile and now defrocked diocesan priest who has been accused of molesting more than a hundred victims over a forty-year period. Despite knowing of Geoghan's record of pedophilia, Law transferred him in 1984 to yet another parish where he continued to prey on young boys. That decision has been widely publicized by the Globe, which obtained documents from civil suits brought against Geoghan. Law has acknowledged his error in judgment and apologized publicly to Geoghan's victims. In explaining his actions, the cardinal said that at the time he relied on expert medical advice in determining whether it was safe again to place Geoghan in a position of authority over children.

Disturbing questions have been raised not only about the quality of that medical advice, but about the appropriateness of using such advice rather than pastoral concerns as the standard of decision making--a standard that should have been protecting children above all. After his first apology to the victims and his assurances that no clergy with records of molestation were still active in the archdiocese, Law's credibility was further undermined when ten more priests had to be removed from pastoral and administrative positions. Many Boston Catholics have called for Law's resignation, and some for the withholding of financial support from the archdiocese.

As a result of the Boston scandal, bishops in other dioceses have come forward and turned over to civil authorities their own lists of accused priests. The instinctive reaction of the cardinal and the bishops to protect themselves and the church by removing these priests from ministry could become another pastoral disaster if it turns out that the accusations were or are not credible. Abandoning their priests now after having ignored so many children over the years smacks of consulting with too many lawyers.

Almost twenty years after the first stories of priest pedophilia in Louisiana appeared in the National Catholic Reporter and after a decade of scandal across the United States, Catholics are outraged over the failure to resolve what may be an endemic problem in the priesthood. They are equally appalled at the inadequate, even self-serving and catastrophically ineffective response of too many bishops. It is estimated that the American church will eventually pay more than $1 billion to victims and their lawyers. Recent Vatican efforts to have pedophilia cases referred to Rome for secret judicial hearings suggest that the Vatican remains clueless about the nature of the crisis and the damage done by two decades of secrecy followed by exposes. As Mary Jo Bane argues elsewhere in this issue, what the church needs now is more transparency and openness, not more Roman or hierarchical mismanagement ("Law & Disorder," page 11).

Too often, the church has reacted slowly and ineptly to this crisis both when it was first revealed and even today, when many Catholics believe the issue had been largely resolved by diocesan reporting mechanisms, new state laws, and systematic investigations by independent review boards. …

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