scorecardresearch Skip to main content
May 12, 2002

Scandal erodes traditional deference to church

Attorney General Thomas Reilly at a news conference March 1. From left are District Attorneys Daniel Conley, Kevin Burke, Timothy Cruz, William Keating, and Martha Coakley, and Geline Williams, head of the Mass. District Attorneys AssociationJonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

When Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney ordered Cardinal Bernard F. Law to submit to questioning by lawyers for the alleged victims of convicted pedophile and defrocked priest John J. Geoghan last week, it was a legal watershed.

Law became the first cardinal in the United States to be deposed over his actions as a prince of the church.

But Law’s being forced to submit to the standards of the secular world in the most Catholic metropolitan area in the nation is as much a cultural sea change as a legal one. It is the latest and most dramatic example of how much the deference traditionally shown the Catholic Church has eroded.


The cardinal finds himself embattled not simply because of his handling of miscreant priests like Geoghan, but because those with power in the secular world, most of them Catholic, have deemed it necessary and acceptable to delve into areas that local custom long treated as off-limits.

Prosecutors, judges, and politicians who once looked the other way when it came to the church’s dirty laundry are now holding the cardinal and other church leaders to a higher standard.

The decline of deference has occurred throughout the United States, but it has been most dramatic in Boston, where the church is a powerful institution in the only major metropolitan area where Catholics make up more than half the population.

Most of these secular authority figures are the children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of immigrants who owed much to the church for giving them a foothold and a place in the New World. But in many cases, that sense of unquestioning loyalty has been replaced by moral outrage and a belief that the Boston Archdiocese put concern for its reputation and its priests ahead of concern for its most vulnerable members: children.


Growing up in a family that prayed together daily

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly grew up in what he calls “a typical Irish Catholic family.” His immigrant parents were deeply religious. Like many Irish who settled in Springfield, Bridie Reilly hailed from Dingle, a quaint harbor town in County Kerry. Mortimer Reilly, a Mayo man known as “Murty,” worked for the Springfield Department of Public Works.

“We knelt down and said the rosary, as a family, every night,” the attorney general remembered.

Reilly fondly recalls the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught him at Cathedral High School. His mother and a priest worked as a team to get him into a Catholic college in Canada.

“The church I grew up in cared about kids,” said Reilly.

As a young prosecutor, Reilly learned of a priest who had sexually abused a child in Arlington, but he considered it an aberration. When the extent of the abuse committed by former priest James Porter in the Fall River Diocese became known in 1992, Reilly said he was shocked, but he gave the church the benefit of the doubt after Law announced a new policy to aggressively deal with allegations of abuse.

Then in January, as he read disclosure after disclosure about how church officials had moved Geoghan from parish to parish, Reilly became furious.

As he read how the cardinal sent soothing letters to Geoghan, and later to the Rev. Paul Shanley, an accused child rapist, praising their priestly careers, he recalled reading two years earlier about Sister Jeannette Normandin, a 72-year-old nun who was ousted from a South End church because she violated canon law by baptizing two boys. There was no second chance for the nun.


“And then look how they treated priests who raped children. They were raping children,” said Reilly. “Where’s the moral outrage?”

Besides getting mad, Reilly fired legal shots at the church, forcing Law and the archdiocese repeatedly to alter course. After the initial reports about Geoghan, the cardinal apologized for past mistakes and promised to report any future allegations against priests to the authorities - but not any accusations that had been made in the past.

Reilly said Law’s response reminded him of what the cardinal had said a decade before in response to the Porter case.

”He was basically saying, `Trust us, give us the benefit of the doubt, we’ll create a commission to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’ Well, we tried that. It didn’t work.”

Fighting with the Irish rebels

When Reilly spoke out against Law, Essex District Attorney Kevin M. Burke spoke with him.

Burke grew up in Malden, then moved to Beverly when he was 10. His grandparents were Irish immigrants, and his grandmother was a daily communicant. His grandfather served with the Irish rebels who fought the British for independence, and never forgave the church hierarchy’s opposition.

As children, Burke and his siblings attended Mass daily during Lent. Burke looked upon priests “as separate from the rest of us, as special people, as holy people deserving our respect.” But his life experience changed those views.


In 2000, when Burke’s office brought charges against Christopher Reardon, a lay worker who pleaded guilty to raping and molesting children, “the church was less than forthcoming, to put it mildly,” said Burke.

“But what really struck me, in communications with the archdiocese, was that there was never any concern shown for the victims. Not the slightest nod of concern for these young people whose lives were turned upside down by this abuse,” he said.

The inability of church leaders to sympathize with the victims led Burke to conclude that the bishops were out of touch. Reilly came to the same conclusion as he read Law’s “God bless you, Jack” letter to Geoghan. “The cardinal didn’t send letters like that to the victims,” Reilly said.

A week after Law insisted there were no sexually abusive priests working in the archdiocese, Reilly and Burke went public, saying that prosecutors, elected and accountable to the public, should be deciding the culpability of sexually abusive priests - not the cardinal. They said Law’s zero-tolerance policy had to be retroactive to cover priests against whom allegations had been made, and which still might be prosecutable.

“I wouldn’t say Tom and I speaking out made us profiles in courage as much as a reflection of the deference in society that has been eroded,” said Burke.

The cardinal quickly relented. But when the archdiocese refused to turn over the information prosecutors needed to judge the merits of the cases, Reilly called together the five district attorneys who cover the archdiocese - Burke, Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating, and Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz. The prosecutors, all of them Catholic, sent a letter to the archdiocese containing a thinly veiled threat to haul church leaders before a grand jury if it didn’t turn over more information. Less than 24 hours later, the prosecutors had what they wanted.


Reilly said the response from the public convinces him that ordinary people want secular authorities to be less deferential.

“Almost every day, somebody comes up to me and says, `Keep doing what you’re doing,’ “ said Reilly.

Some believe prosecutors should be tougher

Some legal specialists say prosecutors haven’t gotten tough enough. Joseph di Genova, a former US attorney in Washington, said Boston-area prosecutors are still being too soft on the church. And di Genova said Coakley compromised herself by sitting on the commission Law created in response to the scandal to explore ways to prevent abuse.

After her office filed rape charges against Shanley last week, Coakley resigned from the commission, acknowledging there was at least a perception of a conflict of interest. But she bristles at charges that she and other prosecutors are afraid to go after the church hierarchy.

“If we had the statutes, we’d prosecute anybody, including the cardinal,” she said. “But the statutes are not there. We looked. Civil law provides for remedies for negligent supervision. But in Massachusetts, there are no criminal law provisions in this area.”

Reilly says he has not ruled out bringing charges against Law and other church leaders.

Eight years ago, before it was fashionable, Coakley aggressively prosecuted a priest for sexual abuse. Although she lost the case, her willingness to pursue it was part of the process of challenging the prevailing attitude that priests didn’t do this sort of thing.

Coakley grew up in North Adams, went to Mass at St. Joseph’s Church, and to class at St. Joseph’s School. Her father was a daily communicant. Her two sisters went to Catholic colleges. She sang in the choir. She sensed early on that women weren’t equals in the church, but “in general, I have fond memories of my growing up in the church.”

Coakley said the idea of priests sexually abusing children didn’t enter her consciousness until she was in her 30s, when she began prosecuting sexual abusers.

“People expect the guy to be drooling, lurking around in a trench coat. But when I started doing these cases, it became obvious that most abusers are caretakers, respectable people who use that respectability as a cover to carry out their abuse. There was an aura around priests that protected them, and that protection extended to sexual abusers,” she said.

In 1993, Coakley prosecuted a priest, the Rev. Paul Manning, for sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy in a Woburn rectory. The victim recanted, but Coakley pressed ahead, in part because Manning’s chief accuser was a credible witness - another priest, the Rev. Paul Sughrue.

She lost the case, but looks back at it now as part of an educational process for her, the public, and the church. Despite his acquittal, Manning was removed from ministry by the archdiocese. Coakley said attitudes have changed dramatically in the eight years since she unsuccessfully prosecuted Manning.

“I think juries are more willing to convict,” she said.

Judges also more willing to issue tough sentences

Judges are more willing to mete out severe punishment, too.

When a Middlesex County jury in February convicted Geoghan of squeezing the buttocks of a 10-year-old boy at a public swimming pool, the indecent assault charge involved was one of the less egregious acts of abuse he was alleged to have carried out over the years. But Judge Sandra Hamlin stunned some legal observers by handing down a 10-year sentence, the maximum allowed.

That sentence was much harsher than the one Judge Walter Steele gave the Rev. Eugene O’Sullivan, the first priest in Massachusetts convicted of sexual abuse, in 1984. The prosecutor, George Murphy, asked for three to five years after O’Sullivan admitted he had anally raped a 13-year-old altar boy. Steele gave the priest probation on the condition he was not allowed to work with children. The Boston Archdiocese ignored the judge by shipping O’Sullivan to a parish in New Jersey.

In 1991, when prosecutors in Western Massachusetts went to get a search warrant for the home of the Rev. Richard Lavigne, who later pleaded guilty to molesting three boys, a judge refused to give them a warrant, saying it would be outrageous for police to search the home of a priest.

“There was a lot of deference shown the church,” said David A. Angier, who prosecuted Lavigne.

Judges, many of them Catholic, were complicit in the secrecy that kept the extent of the abuse hidden from public view. Between 1992 and 1996, for example, a group of judges sitting in Boston chose to impound all the records in five lawsuits involving three priests who molested children because they reasoned that, as one judge put it, “the particulars of the controversy” ought to be kept from the public. In one case, a judge impounded all the records even though the victim testified that he only wanted his identity kept from public view.

In a confidential 1985 report done for US bishops, the church began to realize its special treatment was in jeopardy. “Our dependence in the past on Roman Catholic judges and attorneys protecting the diocese and clerics is gone,” the report said.

That warning came true in the person of Judge Sweeney, a Springfield native who spent 16 years in Catholic schools, the same amount of time she has spent on the bench. Last year, Sweeney decided the public interest outweighed the church’s traditional First Amendment defense, siding with a motion by the Globe to unseal Geoghan’s file, opening some 10,000 pages of internal church records which fueled the unfolding scandal when they were made public in January.

And when the archdiocese re neged on paying Geoghan’s victims, Sweeney stunned Law’s lawyers by ordering his deposition, saying the cardinal was no different than anybody else.

Abuse was hidden from public view

The deference shown by Massachusetts lawmakers, three-quarters of them Catholic, helped create a system by which predators like Geoghan could sexually abuse children with impunity, shielded by an archdiocese that had a strong incentive, and was within its legal rights, to hide the abuse from public view.

Reilly said the refusal of Massachusetts legislators to include clergy in a bill requiring police officers, teachers, doctors, and social workers to report suspected child abuse that became law in 1983 was a disastrous mistake. On May 3, Massachusetts joined 28 other states that make clergy mandated reporters. Reilly said he wonders how many children might have been left unharmed if the law had been implemented two decades ago.

Marian Walsh, a state senator from West Roxbury, may have been the cardinal’s favorite lawmaker. But, after the scandal broke in January, she filed a bill that would make the way Law handled abusive priests a crime. The bill, still pending, would punish supervisors who knowingly expose children to sexual abuse.

Walsh’s grandparents arrived from Ireland with little more than a steamer trunk. They worked hard to send her father to Boston College. He went on to become an obstetrician. Her mother got two degrees from Catholic colleges. The church was the family’s anchor.

“Their faith was important to my parents as a couple,” Walsh said. “They went on retreats. They tried hard to live their lives according to the basic tenets of the church, and my parents sacrificed a lot for the church.”

Walsh had long been an admirer of Law, especially for his outspoken opposition to abortion and his work for social justice. Although some Catholic legislators were opposed to abortion, Walsh was one of the few who also sided with Law in opposing the death penalty. But she was furious when she read of what she called Law’s dishonesty in handling Geoghan and other sexually abusive priests. She felt betrayed.

“I never thought that a leading facilitator for child abuse would be the church, where the church would supply the victims and hide the perpetrators,” she said.

“I understand why pedophiles do what they do. I still can’t understand, I still can’t appreciate, how the church could do this, how sophisticated and how diabolical this was. And how the cardinal could preside over it.”

After the Shanley documents were made public, Walsh became the first state lawmaker to openly call for the cardinal’s resignation. When Law blamed poor recordkeeping for his failure to stop Shanley, politicians of all stripes let him have it. There had been a discernible change in the political culture of Massachusetts: The cardinal was now fair game.

As one DA sees it, church should be worried

Burke believes the erosion of the deference shown the church could lead to a “mini-Reformation.”

“There’s no Martin Luther here, and whether the Vatican pays attention, who knows?” he said. “But we’re dealing with a medieval organization, an organization that represented authority to my grandparents and other immigrants. It was an organization that was respected because it educated them, it gave them a place in the New World, it gave them an identity.

“But with assimilation, the average Catholic’s need of the church is not social or political, it’s moral and spiritual. And this behavior of the church is so at odds with being moral and spiritual. The church’s leaders should be worried about a lot of things, but they should be most afraid of the lack of deference now shown them.