Eyes on the Prize

The Pilot [Boston MA]
Downloaded April 16, 2003


As expected, The Boston Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for public service for the ''courageous, comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests, an effort that pierced secrecy, stirred local, national and international reaction and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church."

While the Globe's coverage has certainly been extensive, it was far from being comprehensive.

The coverage greatly emphasized the discovery of documents that undoubtedly showed a protective culture in the Church. But, many times the interpretation of those documents offered by plaintiffs' lawyers appeared in Globe stories as straight facts. Often times sensational sounding documents were separated from the context of other documents or alternate explanations were swept aside. Globe authors routinely assumed ill intent on the part of members of the archdiocese, particularly Cardinal Law.

Further, the coverage paid little attention to the context of sexual abuse of minors in society at large, particularly in those professions and activities that involve contact with children. A reader who was informed of the scandal primarily through The Boston Globe might have easily arrived at some of the following conclusions:

Sexual abuse of minors is predominantly perpetrated by Catholic clergy.

The abuse featured in hundreds of stories (dozens of which appeared on the front page) is, for the most part, a current event.

The steps by bishops to deal with the issue (often termed "cover ups") were similarly recent steps, and so reflect their current thinking on the subject.

Those priests who had been accused were routinely reassigned without psychiatric evaluation and were apt to return to full ministry.

Most abusers preyed on very young children, clinically known as pedophilia.

If the Globe's coverage had been truly comprehensive it would be widely understood that:

The incidence of sexual abuse of minors by clergy is comparable to the rate of other professionals who have contact with children, and that 89 percent of abuse is perpetrated by close relatives.

The vast majority of cases reflected abuses that happened 20, 30 or more years ago.

The bishops' understanding of and response to the problem evolved over time, very much in the same way society as a whole came to understand the issue. Nationally, the first measures were put in place by the Conference of Bishops in 1985, following the advice of psychiatrists and other professionals. Moreover, here in Boston, since 1993, cases were evaluated by a lay review board and their criteria were routinely followed by the archbishop.

Following that evolving response, for many years psychiatric evaluations were at the base of most, if not all, decisions made about the disposition of accused priests. Recidivism among priests considered "rehabilitated" was below 2 percent.

There are two distinct aspects to this problem. Only a minority of abusers, though the most notorious, could be referred to as clinical pedophiles - serial abusers who would prey predominantly on pre-adolescents. John Geoghan, and Fathers Paul Shanley, Paul Birmingham and Ronald Paquin would allegedly belong in that category. The allegations against most priests, however, involve homosexual relations with adolescents, many of whom were 16 or 17 years old. Many of those alleged abusers had one or few episodes of homosexual behavior with minors. While both are heinous, as no minor has the ability to freely choose to have sexual relations, the nature and treatment of the problems are inherently different.

Still, with all its short comings, the Globe coverage provided the Archdiocese of Boston and the rest of the Church in America with an opportunity to improve its policies. As the Pulitzer board justly notes, the coverage has "produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church." The coverage has prompted a reaction in the Church, strengthening the actions against perpetrators and, most importantly, expanding outreach to the victims and putting in place programs to assure the safety of our children. As Cardinal Law used to say, Church officials have come to the realization that there is no other way than to put the safety of children first.

If only for that, the Pulitzer Prize for public service, the gold medal of the Pulitzers, would have been deserved.

We congratulate our colleagues and we challenge them to broaden the effort to present the issue of sexual abuse of minors in society as the horrifying problem it is. If they stop now, complacent with their prize, history may interpret their work not as a public service effort, but as the convenient alliance between plaintiffs' lawyers and the press to pursue their own objectives: astronomical settlements for the plaintiffs and the advancement of a reputed anti-Catholic agenda by Boston's leading newspaper.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.