Most in Poll Would Prosecute Law
Area Catholics Back Settlements

By Michael Paulson
Boston Globe
May 12, 2003

Most Boston-area Catholics want to see Cardinal Bernard F. Law prosecuted for his failure to remove sexually abusive priests from ministry, according to a new Boston Globe poll.

Responding to a series of questions about the impact of the clergy sex abuse crisis, a majority of those polled also say they want their church to settle the 500-plus claims brought by alleged abuse victims and to deal with any church money woes by selling chancery property, where the residence and offices of the archbishop are located.

Also, the poll found that the lay organization Voice of the Faithful has gained broad popularity among area Catholics and support for its goal of lay involvement in church finances.

The issue of clergy sexual abuse continues to weigh heavily on the once-powerful Archdiocese of Boston. Even five months after Law's resignation as archbishop of Boston, a plurality of area Catholics says that sexual abuse of minors remains the most important problem facing the archdiocese; they give Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the archdiocese's interim administrator, his weakest marks for his efforts to address the abuse crisis.

Law, who has moved to a tiny convent in Maryland, is now less popular than ever in Boston, where he presided for 18 years as the spiritual leader of an estimated 2 million Catholics and the most influential American prelate in the global church.

Pope John Paul II accepted Law's resignation Dec. 13, as priests and laypeople in Boston clamored for his ouster.

Seventy-five percent of Boston-area Catholics now have an unfavorable view of Law -- an astonishingly high percentage for any public figure and particularly one so well-regarded earlier in his tenure.

A 1992 Globe poll, taken after the first highly publicized clergy abuse case in Massachusetts, found that only 15 percent of Catholics statewide viewed Law unfavorably.

The overwhelming majority of area Catholics -- 88 percent -- say they agree with Law's decision to resign last December.

More than 80 percent of each demographic grouping in the poll, including generally conservative constituencies such as senior citizens and weekly communicants, now support Law's resignation.

Complete results of this poll, along with results from previous surveys, are available online at And, even in a church that emphasizes healing and forgiveness, anger at Law appears to be high.

Fifty-seven percent say Law, who repeatedly decided not to remove allegedly abusive priests from ministry, should face criminal prosecution for his handling of cases of sexual abuse by priests.

''It was a coverup, and if anybody else did that, they would be taken in,'' said Donna M. Fasciano of Lynn, one of the poll respondents who agreed to be interviewed in a follow-up telephone call. ''He's a man, just like anyone else, and he knew about these priests and sent them all over the country. It was really criminal.''

State Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly has repeatedly suggested that he does not believe Law violated any state laws.

Reilly has convened a grand jury to look into the church's handling of sexual abuse by priests, but has tried to lower expectations for the results of that panel, which is generally expected to issue a report critical of the archdiocese but not to indict top church officials.

Boston Catholics seem moderately satisfied with Reilly's handling of the case. Asked to describe the job Reilly is doing, 53 percent say Reilly is handling it ''about right,'' while 35 percent say he is ''not tough enough.'' Only 3 percent of Boston-area Catholics rate Reilly's performance as ''too tough.''

The poll, the first to measure public opinion toward Voice of the Faithful, finds the public generally supportive of the new lay organization and critical of the church's handling of the group.

Voice of the Faithful was formed last year in Wellesley by Catholics unhappy with the sexual abuse crisis and is now a national organization, headquartered in Newton, claiming 30,000 members.

The group is banned from meeting in all or part of seven dioceses, including Boston, and Lennon has refused to accept money raised by the organization.

In the poll, 61 percent of Boston-area Catholics say they have a favorable view of Voice of the Faithful, while 16 percent have an unfavorable view.

''I'm just glad somebody's taking some action,'' said John G. Burrows, a 51-year-old postal worker from Weymouth. ''They [Voice of the Faithful] want more say in what the church's policies are, and I think that's a good idea.''

A majority -- 52 percent -- of those polled says the church is doing an ''only fair'' or poor job dealing with Voice of the Faithful, while 27 percent believe the church is doing a good or excellent job dealing with the group.

And 69 percent of those polled say the archdiocese should accept money donated by the lay organization.

Lennon has clearly failed to persuade the public of the wisdom of declining the group's money -- even among the minority of Catholics who opposed Law's resignation, 72 percent think the archdiocese should take the lay group's money.

Boston-area Catholics also clearly embrace one of Voice of the Faithful's goals: greater lay involvement in church governance. A 75 percent majority says there is a need for laypeople to become more involved in the management of church finances.

As the church continues to grapple with more than 500 legal claims brought by people who say they were harmed by the sexual abuse of priests, Boston-area Catholics say they want the church to settle the cases.

Seventy-six percent say the church's top priority should be to negotiate settlements, while just 17 percent say the church's top priority should be to fight in court.

''The church has to discern which cases are real, but I would think the majority have a valid case, and the church should deal monetarily with people who have a true case, because there is nothing else they can give them at this point,'' said Anne Havlin, a 56-year-old church secretary in Stoughton.

Lennon says he is trying to settle the cases, but lawyers for victims say the church's lawyers have not made any serious proposals during negotiations.

Catholics generally say they believe the claims of those who say they have been abused by priests. Asked to assess the people who have filed legal claims against the archdiocese, 56 percent say ''most have legitimate complaints and should be compensated,'' while 20 percent say ''many are simply seeking financial gain from the church'' and just 8 percent chose ''a significant number are making false allegations.''

Those polled seem largely unconcerned about the financial impact of settling the legal cases. Half of those polled -- 50 percent -- said they are not concerned that a financial settlement would put the church's finances in peril, while 31 percent said they are somewhat concerned and 18 percent said they are very concerned.

Asked how the church should address its financial woes, Catholics, by a 63 percent majority, said the archdiocese should sell chancery property.

That property, located in Brighton, houses the headquarters of the archdiocese, but some of the buildings are used by fewer people than in the past as the number of seminarians and church employees drops.

Also, the property is coveted by Boston College, which has expressed a willingness to buy all or part of the land.

Those polled expressed little support for other ways of solving the financial crisis, such as closing parishes, closing schools, or laying off workers. A few of those polled suggested that the archdiocese should ask the Vatican for financial help.

The Boston Globe poll was conducted by telephone from May 4 through May 6 by KRC/Communications Research and involved 400 self-identified Catholics living in the Archdiocese of Boston. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. Of the 400 Catholics interviewed, 35 percent said they go to Mass at least once a week, which, if true, means that the Globe sample is more observant than the actual Catholic population. The last archdiocesan census, taken in October, found that fewer than 300,000 of 2.1 million Catholics in church on Sunday, making actual weekly attendance less than 15 percent.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/12/2003.


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