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June 7, 2002

Sex abuse specialists say Law rejected advice

Carolyn M. Newberger and her husband, Eli H. Newberger. Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff/File

Under pressure, Cardinal Bernard F. Law implemented so-called zero tolerance and mandatory reporting policies for sexually abusive priests earlier this year, but a group of specialists on sexual abuse who met with Law in 1993 at his invitation say he dismissed advice they gave him then to adopt such measures.

The experts - the husband-and-wife teams of Carolyn M. and Dr. Eli H. Newberger, and Dr. Theodore and Dr. Carol Nadelson - said they believe the Archdiocese of Boston could have avoided at least some of the scandal that is now roiling the fourth-largest diocese in the United States if Law had taken their advice to crack down on sexually abusive priests and turn the cases over to civil authorities.


They say the cardinal cited canon law, the church’s internal rules, in refusing to initiate the same kind of zero tolerance policy for sexually abusive priests that Law is now advocating. But the Nadelsons and Newbergers said canon law is irrelevant when considering the protection of children, and several canon law experts agree, saying it does not prevent the church’s hierarchy from turning wayward priests in to civil authorities or from removing them from priestly duties.

In a statement Tuesday, Law said through a spokesman that the draft policy on handling clergy sexual abuse, which the US bishops will consider next week when they meet in Dallas, was a good start but that he would like to see it strengthened. For example, the spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said Law opposes a second-chance provision in the policy for some priests found to have abused minors in the past. Coyne praised the proposal for requiring mandatory reporting of sexual abuse to civil authorities, and other steps that would break down the secrecy that has been the hallmark of the church’s attempt to address the issue.


In January, in response to disclosures that abusive priests had been coddled and shuttled from parish to parish, Law announced that any credible allegation of abuse brought against a priest would result in that priest’s removal from active ministry. He also ordered priests and all archdiocese employees to report any suspected abuse.

But the Nadelsons and Newbergers said Law spurned their recommendation in 1993 that abusive priests be turned in and barred from ever working near children.

“The cardinal used canon law as a cop-out,” said Carolyn Newberger, a psychologist and former research director of the family development program at Children’s Hospital. “The irony now, actually the tragedy now, is that he is calling for the very things we told him he needed to do nine years ago.”

Asked why the cardinal rejected the advice of the specialists he consulted nine years ago, Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said on Wednesday that she would have a response. As of last night, she had not offered any.

In the wake of the scandal involving a former priest, James Porter, who raped and molested at least 100 children in several states, including Massachusetts, Law announced in January 1993 that he had appointed a nine-member board, including lay people, that would recommend to him action to be taken against priests accused of what he called “the sin of sexual abuse.”

In May 1993, as the archdiocese tried to get a better handle on the problem, the cardinal invited the Nadelsons and the Newbergers to lunch at his residence in Brighton. The couples are nationally known for their work in the study and treatment of the sexual abuse of children.


The Newbergers and the Nadelsons were recruited separately for the meeting by the Rev. William F. Murphy, one of Law’s top aides. The Nadelsons were sought out at a Vatican reception, where Carol Nadelson, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, had gone as part of a delegation urging the pope not to use unqualified priests to treat people with mental illnesses.

The Newbergers were brought in after Eli Newberger, a pediatrician who for 30 years was the director of the child protection program at Children’s Hospital, sent Murphy a copy of the program for an annual conference they put on for Harvard Medical School. One of the conference’s segments was titled “Lessons from the Father Porter Case.”

At the lunch, Law was joined by Murphy and the Rev. John B. McCormack, the two priests who were in charge of handling sexual abuse cases for the cardinal, and other aides, including those in charge of training seminarians.

The Newbergers and the Nadelsons, who are Jewish, said they respected Law, in part because of his well-documented outreach to the Jewish community. They were flattered when it was explained that they had been sought out because they were nationally recognized experts in the field of sexual abuse. Carol Nadelson was the first female president of the American Psychiatric Association. But the experts realized early on in the meeting, before the appetizers were cleared away, that Law wasn’t receptive to what they were telling him.


“The four of us were on the same page,” said Carolyn Newberger. “We told them that the way they had handled these cases was wrong and was endangering children. We stressed the importance of reporting these cases to the civil authorities. And we told them that, no matter what they thought about priests having been cured or having put these problems behind them, there was a strong likelihood of a repeat of this behavior.”

Carol Nadelson recalled the group “talked about the [priest] selection process. They offered to send us something about their screening process, but they never did.”

Eli Newberger, who had been part of the 1971 gubernatorial commission that called for mandatory reporting of child abuse by those who have regular contact with children, stressed that the church needed to have its clergy and employees report suspected abuse to civil authorities.

“I told them they did not have the wherewithal to judge allegations, the kind of expertise needed to protect children,” he said. “But when I said that, the cardinal brought up canon law. I had never heard of it before. It struck me as just a distraction.”

Carol Nadelson said the experts tried to emphasize that the treatment programs the church had relied on were essentially useless.

She remembers saying that the chance of recidivism among abusive priests was “almost 100 percent.”


“They talked about sending these priests to various places. We made it clear that this wasn’t treatable. But the cardinal said that they operated in a different system,” she said.

Neither Carol Newberger nor her colleagues sensed they were getting through on the human level. While the experts talked about the real world, the priests seemed preoccupied with a higher realm.

“The cardinal said canon law had to be considered. We just looked at each other. Whatever we had just told him didn’t seem to be registering,” she said. “Canon law was irrelevant to us. Children were being abused. Sexual predators were being protected. Canon law should have nothing to do with it. But they were determined to keep this problem, and their response to it, within their culture.”

As Carol Nadelson recalled, “What struck me was that the cardinal and the other clergy kept talking about what to do about the priests, not the children. What had been done to the children just didn’t enter into their equation. I felt they were there dealing with themselves, that they didn’t realize what was happening. They were people who had no connection with children, people who didn’t have families. They didn’t have a clue.”

At the end of lunch, Newberger and the other experts offered to help the cardinal shape a new approach to aggressively root out the sexual abuse of minors by priests. Newberger said the cardinal smiled at the experts and looked deeply into their eyes as he shook their hands, thanking them.

But Law never contacted any of them again.

“They were gracious in thanking us,” Carol Nadelson said, “but they never called back. They listened to people who didn’t even have a background in this field, but they wouldn’t listen to us.”