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Protesters demand that church hear abuse victims


It was a very Catholic moment of prayer and practice.

Their “peaceful protest” had more the feel of a Lenten prayer than an act of civil disobedience, as nearly 150 people gathered across the street from the cardinal archbishop’s mansion on a dreary, chilly New England Sunday afternoon Feb. 17.

They carried signs. They wore purple ribbons to show solidarity with victims of clerical sexual abuse. They sang hymns “Here I am Lord” and “Be Not Afraid.” They prayed. They stood resolute.

“We must hear the victims’ stories stories so terrible that we want to block our ears,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, of St. Agnes Parish in Reading, Mass., the mother of four and one of the protest organizers, during her introductory remarks.

“We must hear them,” she added. “We must recognize the moral authority of victims. Church leaders must somehow surrender a portion of their power and do penance. Let the victims be the architects of this penance. Perhaps Cardinal [Bernard] Law needs to listen as one victim at a time tells him his story in excruciating, graphic detail.”

One of the victims did just that at the gathering and in an interview.

“I can’t fight the church alone anymore,” a grief-stricken and tearful Steve Lynch, of Danvers, Mass., a 42-year-old survivor of clerical sexual abuse, told the gathering. During a telephone interview before the event, Lynch spoke of being molested as a 9-year-old boy by a diocesan priest, Fr. Samuel J. Lombard.

Grief and rage

Lombard is now deceased. But news of the alleged molestation charges surfaced locally in the Boston Herald on Jan. 30 when the local daily ran a picture of Lombard with a description reading, “accused of molestation at St. Thomas the Apostle Church” in Salem, Mass.

It was at St. Thomas Parish, according to Lynch, that he was abused.

Grief was not the only emotion Lynch expressed. Taking aim at Cardinal Law, he said, “I am enraged at the arrogance and the hypocrisy of this leader who considers himself a father.

“A father doesn’t trick or deceive his sons and daughters. A father does not fill his children with fear, shame, guilt or darkness. A father does not disempower his own children in order to empower himself. A father does not live … above the sorrow and grief of his family.

“A father is earthly, human, natural. He stands for his children, not against them. A father values the truth of his sons and daughters above his own reputation, image or the size of his fundraising account.”

The cardinal’s ability to raise money figures prominently in this ever-widening, now regional scandal, as more reports of alleged sexual abuse by Catholic priests surfaced in the western Massachusetts diocese of Springfield, on the same day as the protest.

At least six priests have been removed from parishes there, including one who serves on a marriage tribunal, according to the Springfield Union-News, Sunday Republican, and the Associated Press.

North of the Massachusetts border, Bishop John B. McCormack on Feb. 16 released to the state’s attorney general the names of 14 New Hampshire priests accused of sexual misconduct, The Boston Globe reported.

Meanwhile, the names of nearly 90 Boston priests accused of child sexual abuse over several decades have been given to local district attorneys and police officials a number estimated to be approximately 10 percent of the local archdiocesan clergy.

It is the magnitude of the scandal that has shaken so many of the faithful, transforming some of them into advocates for church reform. Increasing numbers of people have come to believe that withholding pledges and contributions to the Cardinal’s “Promise of Tomorrow” capital campaign is an effective way for the laity to pressure church leaders for change.

Writing on the op-ed pages of the Boston Sunday Globe’s Feb. 3 issue, for example, Mary Jo Bane, a public policy professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, presented “a challenge to lay Catholics.”

“Don’t give money to the archdiocese,” she wrote. “The crisis in the archdiocese of Boston tragically illustrates the consequences of a culture of secrecy and deference in the church. It’s time for lay Catholics who love the church to challenge that culture. We can do so by withholding our contributions to the archdiocese until the church becomes more open and participatory.”

During a telephone interview Bane spoke of her reasons for publicly urging withholding of financial contributions by lay people until “steps are taken to remedy structural and cultural flaws that created the current crisis.”

She was quick to point out that she is “not advocating reductions in contributions to the parishes that nurture us and, with very few exceptions, serve us generously and well.”

Money matters

Money matters are clearly on the minds of archdiocesan officials in charge of fundraising. Ken Hokenson, Law’s chief development officer, told the Associated Press that “less than two dozen” of 4,000 donors to the capital fund have reneged on their pledges.

For his part, Law continues to draw big bucks.

Recently, he presided over a fundraising dinner that raised a record $4.8 million for Catholic high schools and needy students. News reports of the event said the cardinal was “warmly received.”

Some of Law’s loyal supporters have launched a “wear the red cap” project lapel pins “to show support for the cardinal.”

Meanwhile, the laity’s organizing focus is not only on effecting changes in archdiocesan governance. More and more lay Catholics also want Law to resign.

Bane and others are circulating an open letter a signature ad that they hope to place in The Boston Globe. These advocates for reform and Law’s resignation gathered signatures during the protest.

Righting the wrongs

In accord with the Lenten season’s theme of penance, the open letter reads, “Many of also believe, Cardinal Law, that a further step” beyond changes in local church governance, with the laity’s active participation in oversight “is necessary.

“We respect your strong faith and your long career in the church. But we also believe that you must take responsibility for the terrible wrong done to the victims, their families and the People of God. We urge you, in a spirit of genuine contrition and penance, to step down from your position. This would convey to Catholics and the world that the institutional church recognizes the wrongs that have been done.”

Righting the wrongs and telling some of his own truth was clearly on the mind of another victim of sexual abuse, Arthur Austin, who spoke out strongly against Law at the Boston protest.

“For a man who is so absolutely certain about birth control, so absolutely certain about celibacy for the priesthood, so absolutely certain in regard to gay people, so absolutely sure about the non-ordination of women to claim suddenly his heartbroken and bewildered ignorance on the issue of sexually abusive priests, with some nonsense about being on ‘a learning curve,’ is not only ludicrous, it is frankly blasphemy.”

Austin added: “The cardinal and his institution would have us believe that this was and is a labyrinthine issue, too complicated for a simple answer, so complicated, indeed, that only the magisterium can fully understand and judge it.

“That is another lie. It’s not complicated. Evil was being done; they knew evil was being done; they weighed that fact against the luster of their own reputations, and turned away, knowing full well that the murder of souls would continue, escalate, result in irreparable harm to the victims, and could still be swept under the carpet.”

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002