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Cover story

Fueling Boston’s fires of outrage


The quiet but determined revolution underway here among the Catholic laity is gaining momentum, if numbers are any measure, even as the beleaguered leader of the archdiocese tries to clamp down on lay organizing.

As one measure of the growth of lay discontent and organizing, the most recent meeting of a leading local church reform advocacy group, the Voice of the Faithful, drew more than 500 people, standing room only, on the evening of April 29 at the St. John the Evangelist Parish Hall in Wellesley, Mass.

Playing once again on themes from the American Revolution, the organization’s chairman, Jim Muller, explained: “While the media and trial lawyers held the Boston Tea Party, Voice of the Faithful is the Constitutional Convention. … Two hundred years ago, Americans gave representative democracy to the secular world. We’re attempting to do the same thing again, this time for the church.”

While the crowds swell at Voice of the Faithful gatherings, another attempt to organize an association of parish councils has run into interference from the chancery. An archdiocesan official, on Law’s orders, wrote to all priests of the archdiocese directing them to ignore a proposal calling for an archdiocesan-wide association made up of members from parish councils.

Further, despite the bad press the church has endured in recent weeks, it virtually ensured more blasts when its lawyer filed papers claiming that negligence on the part of one of the victims and that the victim’s parents contributed to the abuse of the boy when he was 6 years old.

The Voice of the Faithful meeting included short statements from two survivors of clerical sex abuse, as well as proposals to support priests of integrity.

One survivor, Bill Gately, a newcomer to Voice, spoke about being “religiously homeless for many years” and explained that dealing with the effects of his abuse was a “painful, lonely time.” Yet, he said, “I continue to hang in there.”

The founder and leader of the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, described 10 years of experience in the Worcester diocese, dealing with sexual abuse on the local and national levels. “In all those years,” he said, “this is the very first time I have ever been asked by any group of parishioners to come and introduce myself and say hello.” The audience applauded, and he said, “It’s a tremendous honor for me.”

With all that has happened recently, he said, “I think that you all have a better idea why sexual abuse victims here in Massachusetts have been so angry and so frustrated for so many years.”

Yet he added, “I feel for the first time a sense of solidarity with the general public of Catholic parishioners. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Parish Voice now organizing

While a large group of Voice of the Faithful members met, a subgroup of 120 people gathered in a basement hall of St. John’s Church not far away. While the larger group viewed schematic diagrams depicting new roles for laity in balancing hierarchical power with lay voices and significant participation by the laity in church governance, the subgroup discussed how to build reform groups in other parishes. This effort, called Parish Voice, seeks to sustain the emerging movement at the grassroots level.

Terry McKiernan, who is also spokesperson for another church-reform, victim support and solidarity advocacy group, the Coalition of Concerned Catholics, is spearheading the Parish Voice effort. He said people from dozens of Boston-area parishes have already expressed interest in forming local chapters.

Earlier in the week, two lawyers for more than a hundred victims who allege sexual abuse by clerics held another news conference. Roderick MacLeish Jr. and Robert Sherman represent Gregory Ford, who contends that Fr. Paul R. Shanley molested him. Flanked by Gregory’s parents, Paula and Rodney Ford, the two attorneys released an additional 800 pages of documents relevant to the Shanley case.

Fr. Christopher Coyne, an archdiocesan spokesman, expressed embarrassment at finding the new records. “Any of us who are reasonable people can look at this and say this case was not handled well,” he said, as quoted in The Boston Globe. “We did not oversee [Shanley’s] ministry or life well. This just adds more evidence to support that fact.”

These new records were as shocking and disturbing as the initial 800-plus pages, in which Shanely, the “street priest,” advocated sex between men and boys and defended incest and sex with animals.

One letter Shanley wrote to the late Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, dated Feb. 16, 1979, protested the cardinal’s removal of him from his street-priest ministry. In that letter, Shanley said that he would go public with details about activity in Boston’s archdiocesan seminary, St. John’s, details that would be “far more shocking than my poor offerings.”

It is not clear who drafted Medeiros’ letter of reply, which downplayed Shanley’s apparent blackmail attempt. Medeiros wrote: “I shall pass over in amazed but laughable silence, the threats you invoke against me concerning further public pronouncements -- this time about our seminary.” He added, “I urge and direct you to take a parish assignment as so many of our priests do.”

The new records, which include personal writing from his journal, also show that Shanley had contracted venereal disease and that he instructed teenagers on how to inject IV drugs.

About his venereal disease, Shanley wrote: “One of the first things I do in a new city is to sign up at the local clinics for help with my VD.” He added, “There is next to no confidentiality -- your name is bellowed out for all to hear (I meet a lot of old friends this way).”

Chancery correspondence

The new records also show that Shanley’s views on man-boy sex and homosexuality prompted frequent chancery correspondence. One prominent Catholic business leader complained to Medeiros in writing.

“As a Catholic, a parent and a citizen, I cannot remain silent and tolerate the action of Father Shanley,” wrote realtor Thomas F. Flatley of Boston to Medeiros in 1975. “I am writing to you in the hope that you could talk to this man before he introduces young people to a way of life that could be very sad for them.”

Reactions to the “explosive documents” have “pushed Cardinal Bernard F. Law to the brink of resignation,” the Globe reported. MacLeish said that the records suggest that Shanley “was blackmailing Medeiros.” He said, “There is no other way to explain the nurturing, caring and feeding” of him.

The Fords also reacted strongly to the new avalanche of records. “This is a conspiracy of the archdiocese of Boston,” Rodney Ford said. “This isn’t the church that I know. This is organized crime.” Ford has urged State Attorney General Thomas Reilly to convene a grand jury to investigate the scandal.

Paula Ford, said, “I think God has just about had it with these guys.”

In addition to the organizing meetings, Catholics from throughout the archdiocese attended prayer services and eucharistic celebrations for healing and in solidarity with victims of sexual abuse by priests.

The day after the news conference and release of additional Shanley documents, Catholic students from the Harvard Divinity School held an afternoon prayer service outside the chancery in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston.

That evening, Law and other cardinals attended a $1,000 a plate fundraising dinner for The Catholic University. They dined on crabmeat parfait, filet mignon, Chilean sea bass and champagne sorbet in Philadelphia.

At the same time, in Wellesley, Boston’s revolutionary western suburb, nearly 800 attended a “Mass for healing” at St. John the Evangelist Parish. Jim Post, a spokesperson for Voice of the Faithful, commented on the contrasting events in Boston and Philadelphia. “The cardinal is wining and dining in Philadelphia,” he said, “while 800 of us are here for the healing and reconciling of the entire American Catholic laity.”

Susan Troy, a lay minister and another leader of the Voice group, spoke in her welcoming remarks of the “abuse and betrayal” and the “pouring out of disgust and grief.” She said, “There is an amazing and powerful spirit among the victims and survivors and all of us who long to hear.”

The first reading of the liturgy was from Lamentations: “My soul is deprived of peace. I have forgotten what happiness is; I tell myself my future is lost, all that I hoped for from the Lord.” Reflecting on that reading, Kathleen Muller, a mental health clinician, said that parts of Lamentations struck her as “Biblical language for posttraumatic stress syndrome,” a common psychological phenomenon among abuse victims.

Two days later, marking his first public appearance since returning from the meeting of American cardinals in Rome, Law presided during yet another “Mass of Hope and Healing,” on Sunday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston’s South End neighborhood. Law played up in positive light his two days at the Vatican. “We’re moving in the right direction,” he told the small gathering, estimated at 200. “I come back very encouraged.”

The cardinal also called for a special day of prayer -- to be held during the week of Pentecost -- about sexual abuse by clerics. “Each of us is wounded, and each of us is called to be a healer.” In a remark that seemed to be directed at several dozen protesters outside the cathedral, Law said, “When we are not [healers], we degenerate into anger and division. That’s not who God calls us to be.”

Law sidestepped the thorny issue of calls for his resignation, but he spoke about the effect of the current crisis. “I stand before you as one who prays for that increase in hope and that increase in healing in my own ministry,” he said. “I am sure you can appreciate these are not easy days to serve in the pastoral role that is mine.”

Stormy weather

Outside the cathedral, stormy weather appeared to match the turbulence swirling within and around the nation’s fourth-largest archdiocese. Several dozen protesters, bundled up in foul-weather gear against wind and rain, were armed with placards and freshly printed “Cardinal Law must go!” bumper stickers.

After the Mass, protesters on the outside were greeted by Law supporters who exited the cathedral singing songs and saying prayers (the rosary) in Spanish. They held signs in English, expressing solidarity with and support for the cardinal. “True Catholics seek unity, love and forgiveness,” read one poster. Another read, “The good shepherd does not abandon his flock.”

The cause of protesters and lay organizers was fueled by a disclosure over the weekend that Law had instructed one of his top aides, Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, moderator of the archdiocesan curia, to send an archdiocesan-wide letter to parish pastors, instructing them not to “endorse” or “recognize” a proposal calling for an association of parish councils.

Citing the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Edyvean wrote, “As a pastor or a vicar, you are not to join, foster or promote this endeavor among your parish pastoral council members or the community of the faithful.” He said there already exist four “canonically recognized” bodies -- Presbyteral Council, the College of Consultors, the Archdiocesan Finance Council, and the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council. “The latter represents the people of God of the archdiocese (Canon 512) and renders the proposed association superfluous and potentially divisive.”

“This is astonishingly stupid,” said Mary Jo Bane, a Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government public policy professor. Bane serves on the parish council at St. William Church in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Along with others, Bane helped draft the plan for the proposed association, which was the brainchild of attorney David W. Zizik, of Sherborn, Mass., where he serves on the parish council of St. Theresa Church.

Back at St. John’s in Wellesley, the topic of Edyvean’s letter surfaced at the Monday night meeting of Voice of the Faithful. Although he was unable to attend, Zizik sent a written statement that was read to the group.

“I will continue to work toward the establishment of a mechanism -- consistent with ecclesiastical tradition and archdiocesan synodal legislation -- that will unite members of the laity, the hierarchy, parish priests, and women and men religious throughout our archdiocese in a genuine and ongoing dialogue, with the goal of healing our local church and accomplishing the gospel mission that underlies everything we do as Catholic Christians,” Zizik’s statement read.

Edyvean’s April 25 letter, he said, is having a chilling effect not only on the laity but also on archdiocesan parish priests. “There are signs that the clergy is being cowed,” said McKiernan, a parishioner at Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, Mass. At the Voice meeting, McKiernan brought greetings from a priest who “needs to be anonymous,” he said. But, McKiernan said, this priest urges you “ ‘Don’t be discouraged. Fight the good fight.’ ”

A final bit of news that further fired up protesters and organizers was a Boston Globe report on April 29 that legal papers filed by Law’s attorneys claim that “negligence” on the part of Greg Ford and his parents in part contributed to the alleged abuse.

Legal observers here were quick to point out the cardinal’s defense contained a common legal strategy. Boston attorney Carmen Durso, who represents other victims who have come forward with allegations of clerical sex abuse, told the Globe that the legal maneuver “is dumb beyond belief.” Echoing Bane’s comment about stupidity, Durso said, “It is a stupid argument to make when you know that Catholics are already angry at you.”

Rodney Ford, father of Greg Ford, expressed stronger sentiments. “To say that my son is legally responsible for his own abuse at the hands of this monster Shanley when my son was only 6 years old is horrific.”

Ford family lawyers are preparing to depose Law here on June 5.

Meanwhile, Shanley was arrested in San Diego May 2, according to the Middlesex County District Attorney in Cambridge, Mass. The Associated Press reported that the charges are based on allegations that Shanley raped the male accuser, now 24, between 1983 and 1990 at St. Jean’s Parish in Newton, outside Boston.

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, May 10, 2002