Religion Today

By Denise Lavoie
Downloaded March 21, 2003

BOSTON (AP)--The allegations have been sordid, the details shocking and the numbers higher than anyone expected.

A Roman Catholic priest who molested more than 130 children. Another who pulled boys out of religious classes and raped them in a confessional. Another who seduced girls studying to become nuns by telling them he was "the second coming of Christ." Still another who fathered at least two children and later left the children's mother alone as she overdosed.

In just over a year's time, the personnel files of 138 priests in the Boston Archdiocese have been made public--thousands of pages released at the behest of attorneys representing alleged victims suing the church--training a spotlight on a host of accusations of molestation, rape and sexual misconduct involving boys, girls, and some adults.

The onslaught has changed the perception of the archdiocese and clerical sex abuse far beyond Boston.

Observers and victims' advocates who watched the Boston situation unfold and have had time to absorb the documents say that, taken together, the material shows it was common for church officials over decades to try to cover up scandalous behavior, no matter how disturbing. It is little wonder, they say, the revelations sparked a national crisis over clerical molestation.

"What was so significant about the documents is that the system began to be exposed. The church could no longer say this is just a few bad apples," said A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and author of "A Secret World," a 25-year study on celibacy in the priesthood. "The documents revealed that they themselves were deeply implicated."

The fallout was felt from church pews to the highest levels of the Boston Archdiocese, culminating in mid-December with Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation as archbishop.

Last year, weekly Mass attendance fell 14 percent, and 27 priests were removed from ministry as Boston implemented a toughened policy for dealing with errant priests.

"The fact that a scandal did occur is our own fault in the sense that those who are supposed to be most concerned for the weakest and the most vulnerable in our society were not," said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese. "We have no one to blame but ourselves for what happened here."

The church documents revealed that Law and other top-ranking officials routinely transferred accused Boston priests from parish to parish, rather than removing them from positions where they would have access to children.

"There's been remarkable consistency over the years and across the country in that, almost uniformly, church officials' concern has been for the reputation and resources of the institution," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

The scandal erupted in January 2002 when The Boston Globe reported that documents showed the Rev. John J. Geoghan was shuffled between parishes throughout the 1980s even though church hierarchy knew he had abused children.

Geoghan was later named in more than 130 lawsuits filed by people who said he had molested them when they were children. The archdiocese and 86 alleged victims reached a $10 million settlement last September; Geoghan remains in prison for groping a 10-year-old boy in a swimming pool.

But it became evident that the scandal was far broader than one wayward priest.

In May, the Rev. Paul Shanley was charged with raping four boys at a Newton church from 1979 to 1989, allegedly taking them out of Catholic education classes and raping them in the rectory, a church bathroom or the confessional.

Church documents showed that Shanley was allowed to remain in parish work even though the church had received allegations against him dating back to the 1960s, and knew about public statements he made advocating sex between men and boys.

Other stories followed, causing more outrage: In all, more than 20,000 pages were released, covering cases over five decades.

Through the documents, it's possible to trace the archdiocese's evolving policy for dealing with abuse allegations against priests. Up until the 1990s, most priests accused of abuse were initially sent away from their parishes, usually for treatment at an alcohol clinic or psychiatric facility. But they were soon returned to ministry in another parish.

"What the papers reveal is that so many people knew what was going on and never dealt with it directly," said Rodney Ford, the father of Greg Ford, who claims Shanley raped him repeatedly beginning at age 6.

When allegations surfaced in 1992 that the Rev. James Porter had molested children in five states in the 1960s and 1970s, the archdiocese implemented a policy to remove priests accused of sexual abuse. After that, more priests were removed from duty, but some still were transferred to a new parish.

Early in the crisis, Law blamed poor record-keeping for the archdiocese's failure to remove priests after they were accused of molesting minors.

But the documents--many of them handwritten notes and memos detailing sordid allegations--made it clear that the church kept voluminous records on complaints they received against priests.

Church lawyers vigorously fought against the release of the files. But a judge ordered the once-confidential records turned over to lawyers involved in approximately 500 civil lawsuits against the archdiocese.

Now, even church officials acknowledge the impact the documents have had on shaping change.

Said Coyne, the archdiocesan spokesman: "One of the good things that has come out of the fact that all of this has been unearthed is that it forces us to get away from dealing with the situation on a case-by-case level, or having it so compartmentalized that no one really got a sense of the enormity of the situation and the problems that the church needed to face."


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