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Special Report

Pressure over abuse cases mounts


Sex abuse of minors by priests continued to dominate the news and the conversations of Catholics here into the early days of March as banner headlines daily competed with lead radio and television broadcast reports.

For starters, Cardinal Bernard Law graced the cover of Newsweek magazine, under the headlines: “Sex, shame, and the Catholic Church -- 80 priests accused of child abuse in Boston and new soul-searching across America.”

Since the history of child sex abuse practiced by defrocked priest John Geoghan was told in the media in January, Boston papers have reported that as many as 200 people have hired lawyers claiming abuse by other Boston priests.

The besieged Law also was apparently forced into fuller cooperation with regional law enforcement officials investigating allegations of child sexual abuse.

For weeks, local law enforcement officials expressed “dissatisfaction” with the slow pace of the church’s response to requests for information. “We are unable to proceed until the Boston archdiocese provides the names of victims,” Anson Kaye, spokesperson for the Middlesex County district attorney, told reporters.

The accord reached March 1 came only after mounting public pressure. The accord was hammered out during a 90-minute, face-to-face meeting between Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and attorneys for Law in which the archdiocese said it would waive victims’ confidentiality agreements.

The pressure included the “threat of a grand jury proceeding,” according to a Boston Herald editorial. “It is truly unfathomable that years of cover-ups by church officials of wrongdoing should be followed by needless weeks of stonewalling,” the Herald editorialized. The paper went on to credit Reilly, along with five county district attorneys, for making the church “do the right thing.” But some raised their voices in protest of the decision to hand over names, claiming priests were being denied due process inside the church.

For its part, the archdiocese agreed to release 50 years’ worth of records, personnel files and legal records, including the names of victims of clerical sexual abuse, to law enforcement officials. Church officials agreed to a two-week extension to turn over the relevant information, with a deadline of March 18.

Donna M. Morrissey, the spokesperson for the archdiocese, promised to “improve the flow of information,” adding that anyone with information regarding allegations was released from any previous legal constraints and could talk to prosecutors.

On the other hand, prosecutors said they “would not seek a prosecution without the consent of a victim,” according to The Boston Globe.

In a related story, Fr. George Spagnolia publicly denied allegations that he sexually abused a 14-year old boy 31 years ago. At that time Spagnolia served at St. Francis de Sales Church, located in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.

Of the 10 priests removed from pastoral ministry in the Boston archdiocese, Spagnolia has been the first to refuse to go away without a fight. He not only fought his dismissal as parish pastor, but also resisted eviction from his home in the parish rectory of St. Patrick in Lowell, Mass., where he has been serving.

Spagnolia’s suspension from pastoral ministry (NCR, March 8) comes under Law’s “zero-tolerance” policy for priests accused of abusing children. The cardinal, who announced that policy a month ago, said recently that seven of the first eight priests who were suspended from active ministry had acknowledged responsibility for the accusations against them.

Spagnolia addressed hundreds of parishioners and supporters, speaking from a written text, at a news conference in St. Patrick Church.

“I have done nothing wrong,” said a defiant Spagnolia. “When I was ordained in 1964, my embracing the joys, responsibilities, and burdens of the Catholic priesthood did not abrogate my rights as an American citizen,” he added. “I demand due process.”

In a later interview with a Boston Globe reporter, Spagnolia volunteered that during his two-year leave of absence from the priesthood, he had remained faithful to his vow of chastity.

In an abrupt reversal two days later, however, he told print and broadcast outlets that he had lied about remaining celibate. While the 64-year-old priest maintains his innocence regarding the charges of alleged sexual abuse, he acknowledged having had two same-sex relationships, one lasting a year between 1981 or 1982 and the other lasting four years.

“It was never my intention to deceive anyone,” Spagnolia said, during a news conference. “I honestly thought that I could keep private that brief period of time during my leave of absence, which now has been made public.”

Spagnolia addressed the connection some draw between homosexuality and the cases of sex abuse of children. “My having a straight or gay relationship remains an irrelevant tangent to the facts of the present situation as they pertain to truthfulness of my denial or any allegations of sexual abuse,” he said.

“There is a heck of a lot of difference. Being gay doesn’t mean you’re a pedophile,” Spagnolia said, according to news reports of the local ABC affiliate. “I am saying, yes, I have had gay relationships, but I have never harmed a child.”

At the same time, Spagnolia said he would continue to fight to clear his name, although he no longer opposes being assigned to administrative leave. On March 3, he moved out of his home in the rectory of St. Patrick.

“I am not being pious, but I think the parish will heal faster and so will I if I am not within the confines of the city,” Spagnolia said, according to the Globe.

“I am going to take a leisurely drive and see where the spirit takes me,” he said.

Just as the drama of Spagnolia’s confrontation with the local hierarchy settled down, another flared up -- this time inside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross March 3, during Mass. Striding down a cathedral aisle, Steven Lynch, who alleges that he was abused nearly 30 years ago by a priest now deceased, said to Law, as he was beginning his homily:

“I’m standing before you, Cardinal, and I’m taking my power back that your church stole from me,” according to news accounts.

Law stood still and silent, the Globe reported, as plainclothes police took the 42-year old Lynch into custody. He was arrested and charged with two misdemeanors, disorderly conduct and disturbing a worshiping assembly.

Under the watchful eyes of a Swedish film crew, a handful of protestors outside the cathedral chanted: “Prison for Law” and “Full disclosure, complete accountability.”

Inside, Law thanked Hispanic backers, both in English and Spanish, for their marching to show their support the night before.

“I wish to express my gratitude for the support of your prayers, particularly last night,” he said, according to the Globe. “This source of prayer for reconciliation and peace within the archdiocese at this time is so precious,” he said.

The peace seemed very short lived. Public attention next turned to headlines in Boston’s papers saying that the local priest pedophilia crisis may cost the archdiocese $100 million.

The reports said that based on estimates from Law’s advisers and others familiar with church financing, the combination of all past, pending, and future claims could cost the archdiocese more than $100 million.

Following those reports, two financial advisers interviewed by the Herald under condition of anonymity said that the church could pay no more than $50 million. The archdiocese is negotiating with Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer representing dozens of victims of defrocked priest John Geoghan (NCR, Feb. 1) to settle all the cases for a combined $20 million, leaving about $30 million for the estimated 100 claims made against other archdiocesan priests.

One of the archdiocese’s advisers said that if plaintiffs do not agree to settlement terms, the cases could go to trial where the state’s charitable immunity statute that caps each claim at $20,000 would be invoked.

One lawyer representing 14 people who allege abuse by church worker Christopher Reardon and more than a dozen other plaintiffs against archdiocesan priests seemed dismissive of that possibility.

Lawyer Jeffrey A. Newman told the Herald, “If this church wants to leave as its legacy that it allowed priests to molest kids and destroy lives and then refused to pay judgment on its employees even though their supervisors knew it was going on, let them try and we’ll see them in court.”

Pressure continues to mount for Law to resign over his handling of pedophile priests. The British Catholic magazine The Tablet reported March 2 that it had received a letter to Law signed by 10 Catholic professors at Harvard University calling for him to step down. In the letter, they accused Law of giving comfort “to those who despise the church and see it as a fossilized institution of repression, secrecy and hypocrisy.” Law’s resignation, they said, would serve as an act of penance for all the pain inflicted on the laity, clergy and, most important, on children abused by priests.

On March 6, the Globe reported that three Jesuit priests have been removed from duties following allegations that they molested students at Boston College High School two decades ago. The suspensions marked the first time Jesuit priests had been linked to the scandal in Boston.

Whatever the continued fallout of the clergy sex abuse scandal, one thing appeared clear at press time: Business as usual, as well as ministry as usual, is a thing of the past.

As one layperson, who asked not to be identified, put it, “This is a 911 Enron moment for the Catholic church.”

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002