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Church in Crisis

Boston scrutinizes Law’s depositions


Dog days in August are not supposed to generate banner headlines in New England; unless, of course, they pertain to heat waves and baseball. But even eight straight days of 90 degree temperatures and the Red Sox could not compete for ink and air time with the release of two-days worth of transcripts, several hundred pages long, from Cardinal Bernard Law’s continuing depositions, and yet more allegations of sex abuse by archdiocesan priests.

Like Law’s depositions, the new allegations raise concerns not only about Law’s handling of allegations of sex abuse during his tenure, but also about those advising him. For example, a Boston Globe “Spotlight Report” found that “three days after Bernard F. Law became archbishop of Boston in March 1984, an anguished parishioner from Franklin [Mass.] wrote Law a detailed letter alleging that a parish priest had twice sexually molested his wife and that the parish’s pastor and the local auxiliary bishop treated the couple with hostility.”

That letter written by Gregory B. Nash asked Law to meet with the couple and “open his shepherd’s heart” to them. But Law neither met with nor helped the couple. Instead, he wrote back to Nash on April 3, 1984, saying: “After some consultation, I find that this matter is something that is personal to Fr. [Anthony J.] Rebeiro and must be considered such.” The letter was marked “Confidential,” according to the Globe report.

Doubts about charges

WHDH-TV, the local NBC affiliate, reported on a lawsuit, filed by a man alleging abuse for several years during the 1980s by Fr. Michael Smith Foster, then a newly ordained priest at Sacred Heart Church in Newton, Mass. Paul R. Edwards, 35, alleges that Foster began molesting him when Edwards was 15 years old, the Globe reported.

Foster, now a monsignor, is the archdiocese’s primary canon lawyer and has advised the cardinal on aspects of canon law pertaining to the sex abuse scandal. He is also the author of Annulment: The Wedding that Was: How the Church Can Declare a Marriage Null, and serves as presiding judge of the Metropolitan Tribunal, which handles annulment cases. Foster is the highest ranking archdiocesan official to be charged in the sex abuse scandal. He has denied the allegations, but pending an investigation and resolution to the charges, he has requested to be placed on administrative leave. Law granted the request. At the same time, Foster has become a focus of a group of priests and lay people who have expressed strong doubts about the charges against him and have raised the issue of what can be done when a priest is falsely accused.

Those new allegations and Law’s testimony generated a variety of responses and concerns. Interviews with a dozen people, including priests, a nun, members of the laity, abuse survivors, and spokespersons from the two major church-reform and victim-survivor advocacy groups, indicate that the scandal in the Boston archdiocese continues to take a pastoral, financial and spiritual toll.

On Aug. 13, the day the written transcripts were released to the public, New England Cable News broadcast more than five hours of videotapes of Law’s deposition taken on June 5 and 7. He was questioned then by Roderick MacLeish, a Boston attorney who represents Gregory Ford and his parents, Paula and Rodney Ford, among others, in a civil negligence lawsuit against the cardinal. The case stems from alleged sexual misconduct by Fr. Paul R. Shanley, who also faces criminal proceedings in the rape of four boys and who has denied the charges.

Although Law through his attorneys requested that the depositions not be released until the cardinal had completed his testimony, a judge denied the request, citing widespread public interest as a reason for her decision.

A major portion of the deposition focused on the cardinal’s handling of priests accused of sexual misconduct and their reassignment to parish ministry, without notifying parishioners. Both his policy and practice, Law testified, had been to reassign the alleged offenders.

As a matter of policy

As MacLeish pressed Law on that point during questioning, the cardinal said, “I did not, as a matter of policy in 1984, ’85, ’86, ’87, ’88, ’89, ’90, ’91, ’92, ’93, ’94, ’95, ’96, ’97, ’98, ’99, 2000, 2001, go to parishes on the occasion of dealing with a priest against whom an allegation of sexual abuse of a child had been made.” He added, “Did I think that I should have informed the parish and then done it? No. I simply didn’t have that as part of our response to these cases.”

That policy remained in effect until this year when the clerical sex abuse scandal exploded here, and the archdiocese adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy including the notification of and cooperation with civil authorities. “No priest against whom a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor has been made may hold any assignment whatsoever,” Law said during his testimony.

Still, the prevailing pattern over Law’s tenure as head of the Boston archdiocese since 1984 was to reassign priests accused of sexual misconduct. In at least one case, moreover, Law not only reassigned, but also later promoted to pastor and area vicar a priest who had admitted to charges of sexual misconduct.

Law said that he was aware of a 1988 allegation of sexual misconduct against Fr. David Graham, who admitted molesting an altar boy. The incident took place 10 to 20 years earlier. Parishioners were not told about Graham’s admission, and Law permitted Graham to continue with parish ministry at St. Joseph’s Church in Quincy, Mass. “He was allowed to continue, yes, after intervention by a medical source,” Law said under oath.

By 1990 Law had promoted Graham to pastor. By 1992 another allegation surfaced, what archdiocesan records refer to as “a vague second-hand complaint.” The report of the second allegation made its way to Law’s delegate handling the case and a review board, appointed by the cardinal. In 1995 Law’s delegate recommended that Graham not be involved with parish or youth ministry and that he be engaged in therapy.

But within seven or eight months the board recommended that Graham be engaged in ministry without limitations or restriction and full access to minors. In 1996 Law promoted Graham to area vicar with oversight responsibilities in more than a dozen parishes in Braintree, Quincy, Milton and Randolph, Mass.

MacLeish also questioned Law extensively about his handling of the Shanley case. Despite learning of allegations against Shanley in 1993, Law said that he did not inform St. Jean’s parishioners of them. The cardinal testified that he had appointed Shanley as pastor there, without asking to see his personnel files. Those files, kept under lock and key by senior archdiocesan officials, contained records of several complaints against Shanley. One dated as far back as 1966 when a fellow priest documented an accusation that Shanley had molested a boy.

The cardinal testified that he did not know that an archdiocesan liaison to victims alleging sex abuse by priests wanted parishioners to be alerted about sexual misconduct. As early as 1994 in fact, Sr. Catherine Mulkerrin, who at the time was employed by the archdiocese and worked directly with victims, recommended that church bulletins run notices about priests who had been accused or admitted to sexual misconduct and had served in various parishes.

The cardinal went back and forth when asked whether he had seen a 1985 letter, written by Wilma M. Higgs, of Rochester, N. Y., complaining about a speech by Shanley that approved of sex between men and boys. First the cardinal said that he had seen the letter, but two days later he said he believes it likely he did not read it.

‘Absolutely devastated’

Reactions to the depositions varied. Tom White, development director for Voice of the Faithful, after reading the entire transcript, said he was “absolutely devastated.” He added, “He just doesn’t get it. There is a blind spot, something fundamentally missing from his make up, that you know he won’t ever get it; he’s so desensitized. …What’s missing is a visceral, instinctual reaction to the consequences of sex abuse to children’s lives. A parent in any situation like this would say, ‘Take off the collar; get help. But don’t send them back to the parish.’ ”

A different response came from among some of those who watched the videotapes but had not yet read transcripts of Law deposition. One abuse survivor, who asked not to be identified, acknowledged with “dismay” how well the cardinal came across on television.

Another woman, long active in parish and diocesan ministry and now with abuse survivors, also said Law “looked very good.” She added, “He seemed credible, confident and sincere.”

She also said that part of Law’s testimony, where the cardinal testified that he was never told about complaints against Shanley before his tenure began in Boston in 1984, “really bother me,” she said. “It seems that [Bishop] Daily never fully informed the cardinal.”

It was Thomas V. Daily, now bishop of Brooklyn, who during the 1970s and early 1980s handled many of the complaints against Shanley.

Law testified that he relied primarily on the advice of deputies, Bishop John B. McCormack, now bishop of the Manchester, N.H., diocese, and Daily, in the handling of personnel matters.

That testimony prompted Fr. Tom Carroll, pastor of the Jesuit Urban Center, to write in his weekly insert to the parish’s bulletin: “Some of the quotations from the ongoing deposition of Cardinal Law that have been reported in the press in recent days seem to suggest that the cardinal, our archbishop and ordinary, has not understood this task of selection and supervision of his priests as a primary and personal concern in his episcopal ministry.”

Another reaction to Law’s deposition and testimony was more pointed. “I was looking at the Catholic Bill Clinton,” said Joe Gallagher, a spokesman for the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, a local abuse victim advocacy group. “He was at the top of his game, parsing words.”

During a telephone interview Gallagher voiced concerns, shared by many others, about Law’s seeming aversion to accountability. “When Law was a vicar in Mississippi, dealing with abusive priests, it was the responsibility of his boss, the bishop,” Gallagher said. “Wherever he’s responsible … it’s the responsibility of someone else.”

The local media weighing in on Law’s deposition was largely critical. The Boston Herald ran a lead editorial, under the headline, “Cardinal’s answers no answer at all.” A Boston Globe editorial, “The cardinal’s oath,” once again called for Law to resign.

Fr. Robert Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon, Mass., said in a telephone interview, that he has noticed a drop in church attendance. “The numbers are very much lower,” he said, “appreciably lower.”

In addition to concern about the morale of the people, Bullock and other priests are concerned about the process by which 20 priests accused of sexual misconduct have been removed from ministry. According to Bullock and one other longtime observer of the archdiocese, priests are called to the chancery and with no chance of defense, informed of the allegations and dismissed from active ministry. Even if a priest denies them, he is told to vacate his rectory, they said.

“Ironically, the church treats people worse than civil society. If you are accused in civil society, you at least get a lawyer,” said the observer, who asked not to be identified.

Morale among priests is so low and fear so high that Bullock, on behalf of the Boston Priests’ Forum, has written a letter to Law, asking that he address the due process concerns. “All of us need to know our rights,” Bullock wrote. “What happens to a priest who is falsely accused? How is the accusation determined to be substantial? Who does the investigation and what are the criteria?”

Bullock also wants Law and the regional bishops to meet with the priests. Law has not done so since February.

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002