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Church in Crisis

On Good Friday, protesters pray for victims of sex abuse


The Boston archdiocese has experienced a Lent and Triduum like no other. A variety of Catholic viewpoints converged at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston’s South End neighborhood on Good Friday and again on Easter Sunday. Inside, Cardinal Bernard Law, spiritual head of the nation’s fourth largest diocese, prayed for the victims of clergy sex abuse and pledged to restore “trust among the faithful.”

Those themes were spoken about in churches and cathedrals throughout the country as U.S. Catholics moved through Lent bearing the shame of the scandal that has rocked the church. The cardinal presided over a Good Friday midday prayer service that included readings of the Last Seven Words of Christ. To recall Christ’s suffering, Law carried a large wooden cross down the center isle of the cruciform neo-Gothic structure.

Outside on Friday, Catholics displayed a mixture of prayerfulness and protest as hundreds celebrated the Good Friday Passion of Christ from a different perspective -- that of support of and solidarity with the victims of clerical sexual molestation.

As the public prayer and protest organizers assembled in front of the cathedral, Law’s spokeswoman Donna M. Morrissey said, “I’m observing and taking this all in.” She added, “They certainly have a right to be here.”

History in the making

One priest urged the laity on the outside to come inside to pray. Few did. Most opted to remain in the fresh spring air, under bright and sunny New England skies, as temperatures climbed in the 50s for most of the afternoon. There was a sense of history in the making, not only for the local church here, but also the church universal.

A founder of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, underscored the event’s significance. “This is the first time in [the network’s] history that Catholic lay people have stood up publicly in support of victims,” said Barbara Blaine, of Chicago, an abuse survivor, who flew to Boston for the day to address the gathering.

“Your recognizing us means more to us than you will ever know. We appreciate your being here, your caring for and embracing us,” she added.

A key focus of the lay-led prayer service “of solidarity with victims of clergy sexual abuse” was the Stations of the Cross, set up along the sidewalk on Washington Street in front of the cathedral. After each scriptural passage for the various stations, lay presiders led prayers specific to the station and suffering of all those affected by the scandal, especially the victims. For instance, at the 10th station when Jesus is stripped, the prayer focused on human vulnerability. They prayed: “God of salvation, heal our brothers and sisters who have been stripped of their dignity and self-worth, exposed to the world in total vulnerability. Raise them up with Christ, and restore to them their dignity as children of God.”

Boston police officers estimated the crowd at 350. The Boston Globe put the number between 350 and 400. In any event, it was the biggest public turnout of the laity here since the scandal exploded on the front pages of the Globe and the Boston Herald nearly three months ago. The numbers were large enough for the faithful to nearly encircle the cathedral for a veneration of the cross that made its rounds along the chain of people lining the cathedral’s perimeter.

‘Powerful witnessing’

Both planners and participants spoke of the prayer service experience as “powerful” and “respectful.” Verona Mazzei, of Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, Mass., who spoke to the gathering after the service, said, “It was a powerful witnessing to the victims.”

Mazzei’s connection to the local scandal dates back to her time during the 1980s and early ’90s at St. John the Evangelist church in Newton, where she directed the children’s religious education program. It was there that Fr. Paul R. Shanley abused many boys and young men, according to allegations from a number of victims.

“This priest was in my house,” Mazzei thundered from the speaker’s podium, with tears running down her face. “I ran the educational program in which this man’s son [Greg Ford, son of Rodney Ford] was abused.”

Greg Ford, a 24-year old, alleges that Shanley raped him and molested numerous others during his nearly 30 years as a popular “street priest,” according to the Globe. Ford, who filed a civil law suit against Shanley in February, now has taken steps toward bringing criminal charges against him, according to local NBC-affiliate Channel 7’s recent “Night Team” report.

Both print and broadcast media also reported, by midweek, that Shanley had been serving as a volunteer with the San Diego Police Department’s senior patrol in a job that included fingerprinting children. He was dismissed from that job.

“The criminal process is now going forward,” Ford’s lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr. told the Globe.

The significance of Ford’s charges lie in the fact that, because Shanley left Massachusetts in 1990, the criminal statute of limitations on Ford’s allegations has not yet expired. Advocates for Ford and other victims have been calling for the archdiocese to release church documents pertaining to Shanley.

“We believe that the record should be littered with documents that establish that before my client was raped by Paul Shanley, the archdiocese had full knowledge about his pedophilia,” MacLeish told the Associated Press.

Although a court order forced the archdiocese to hand over documents relevant to the Shanley case, local church officials are seeking to halt the public release of the accused priest’s file.

After the prayer service when several abuse victims spoke, Mazzei asked the crowd: “Do you think that I go to bed at night without crying? I go to bed every night thinking about the victims, every one of them, the families, because I feel that I was part of this.”

She pleaded with the gathering: “Do not let these victims be victims by themselves.”

The face and voice of women who are the victims of clerical sexual abuse began to surface locally on Good Friday. In addition to Blaine’s story of sexual abuse by a priest, a Provincetown, Mass., woman came forward with her story.

Telling how she has spent “more than 30 years in hospitals and therapy, to heal and make changes in my life,” Donna Mahan said, “The effects of sexual violation are not over, they will always be a part of my history and being.”

What is encouraging she said is that “So many women and men have broken the silence of their sexual abuse by priests, something not new to survivors, but newly heard by Catholics in the human community.”

From the speaker’s podium Mahan went on to read a Feb. 2 entry in her journal, recalling the memories of a priest’s “trespassing on [her] two-year-old innocent body.”

Mahan spoke of her “keeping the silence as the church taught me and the millions of believers,” she said. “The believers trampled me with their belief and denial as to what was done to me and so many others. But our truth is being spread all over Boston and all over the world.”

Like Mahan, several other abuse survivors who told their stories spoke through their fear and anger and pain. Steve Lynch, for example, sounded a prophet’s note: “You are about to witness the greatest resurrection before your very eyes,” he said in remarks pointed at Law and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York.

Grief and sorrow

“You will be swept away by the courage and strength of those who are wounded. Their resurrection will be in the beauty, health and freedom that is theirs to claim.”

Arthur Austin asked some Catholics to reconsider concerns about being “polite” when telling of his sexual abuse story. “Why is it too much for you to hear? No one in the church worried that it might be too much for any victim to bear the abuse, over and over, in hopelessness,” he said. “There is nothing polite about rape.”

While the victims expressed anger and outrage over the way church leaders dismissed their suffering, the overall tone on Good Friday was that of profound grief and sorrow. Many men and women were visibly moved and saddened, crying while listening to the victim’s stories.

Other voices and faces of women also began to surface in public on Good Friday. At least four different women’s religious orders -- including sisters of Mercy, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, the Sisters of St. Anne, and the Sisters of St. Joseph -- were represented outside the cathedral.

They were there, they said, to show solidarity with the victims and press for church reform. “There aren’t even words to tell you how many changes we need,” Sr. Jon Sullivan of the Sisters of Notre Dame told the Globe.

Not everybody held a favorable view of the outdoor prayer service. “What we are witnessing is the exploitation of a tragedy by dissident groups with an agenda,” C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Action League, told the Boston Herald.

About a dozen protesters returned to the cathedral on Easter Sunday. Despite having to pass by signs reading “House of Rape,” “Hold on to Your Children” and “Power Corrupts, Truth Heals, Law Resign,” many worshippers celebrated Mass with the cardinal presiding.

“Even through we carry in our hearts those who bear the wounds of betrayal through abuse inflicted by others, especially by clergy, even though we experience the pain of dissent within the church, we fix our gaze with unshakable hope on the risen Lord. He is our light,” Law told parishioners.

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002