Boston's Catholics Say Little Done to Restore Church Trust

Times Staff Writer

His departure was supposed to quell the storm. But more than a month after Cardinal Bernard Law abruptly resigned as archbishop of Boston, discontent lingers in this troubled Roman Catholic community.

Clerical abuse survivors are outraged over the church's tough new legal strategy of probing victims' psychotherapy records. Lay reform leaders complain that Law's successor has not returned their phone calls. Some priests say they are shellshocked. And, weary from a year of bitter chaos, many ordinary Catholics despair that their church will ever recover.

"I am in a state of deep depression about all of this," said Terry McKiernan, 49, who calls himself a lifelong devout Catholic. "I am trying to raise my kids Catholic, and sometimes I wonder, 'What am I doing that for?' "

Bishop Richard G. Lennon, appointed as Boston's interim apostolic administrator when Law stepped down Dec. 13, declined to be interviewed. But archdiocese spokeswoman Donna M. Morrissey, in an interview late last week, acknowledged the toll of turmoil that began in January 2002 with the pedophilia trial of former priest John J. Geoghan.

"Clearly the victim-survivors and the whole community have experienced a profound and serious breach of trust," Morrissey said. "It will be a long process of outreach to restore the trust that has been lost."

James E. Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, said "short-term, reactive" gestures by Lennon and the archdiocese have done little to calm the Catholic community here.

"There has been no change in policy, no change in practice, and therefore, no effective leadership," said Post, whose organization was born in a Boston-area church weeks after the scandal began. Voice of the Faithful, which advocates increased participation by the laity in church affairs, now says it has more than 25,000 members in chapters around the country.

"Bishop Lennon has retained all of the cardinal's old advisors. He is staying in the cardinal's residence. And obviously he is listening to the attorneys, the canon lawyers and the auxiliary bishops -- all the old palace guard," he said. "These are the last loyalists that Cardinal Law had, and they are right there, surrounding Bishop Lennon."

Post said his group contacted Lennon in mid-December, urging the bishop to reconsider a policy that keeps some chapters of Voice of the Faithful from meeting in churches. The bishop has not answered e-mails, phone calls, letters or faxes from Voice of the Faithful, Post said.

"He came in with a great deal of goodwill from all of the parties because of the difficulties he faced," Post said. "Unfortunately, he has continued to draw down on that goodwill bank account, and he has put nothing back in."

Some clerical abuse survivors said hopes for rapprochement with the archdiocese were dampened this month when church lawyers began deposing psychotherapists who treated alleged abuse victims. In addition to responding to questions from church lawyers, several psychotherapists were ordered to turn over records from counseling sessions -- some paid for by the archdiocese.

Legal experts say the tactic is routine in cases in which plaintiffs charge emotional damage. In such cases, defense attorneys can subpoena psychotherapists and their records, overriding what is traditionally seen as patient-therapist confidentiality.

Still, the Boston chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, issued a statement denouncing the church strategy as "a new moral low in [the] treatment of survivors of sexual abuse by priests."

Rodney Ford, father of an alleged victim, said he was furious at the prospect of turning his son's psychiatric records over to church lawyers.

"From now on, when they sit before the therapist, they should have their Miranda rights read to them, because anything they say can and will be used against them," said Ford, a plaintiff with his wife and son in a civil suit against Law and the archdiocese. Close to 500 such suits are pending.

Father Christopher Coyne, an archdiocese spokesman, conceded that the timing of this move did little to ease the strain. But he said the legal steps were in place "long before" Lennon took over.

"It might seem that the archdiocese is kind of ratcheting things up, or starting to take a harder line, but it is really all about the [legal] calendar," Coyne said.

According to a report Saturday in the Boston Globe, some clerical abuse victims agreed to a 90-day moratorium, halting pretrial preparations so settlement negotiations can proceed. But at least one group of litigants refused to accept the postponement, the newspaper reported.

At the archdiocese, Coyne said he detected "a little bit of calming down since the cardinal's resignation." But he acknowledged that "there's still an awful lot of tension in a region where members of his faith play such major roles in politics and culture that the phrase "Catholic Boston" is part of the local lexicon.

"These kinds of disclosures of sinful and criminal behavior by priests, and the inadequate way the archdiocese responded" have shaken many Catholics here to the core of their belief systems, Coyne said, adding, "You can understand why the firestorm is as huge as it is."

Said Father Walter Cuenin, a Boston-area priest whose outspoken views drew the ire of Law, "Some people have said that the church here in Boston is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome."

A year of disclosures about sexual activity between priests and children, followed by the resignation of the country's senior Catholic prelate, played out "like a Greek tragedy," Cuenin said -- leaving priests and parishioners alike "in shell shock."

Law, who did not lose his rank as cardinal, took time away from a "spiritual retreat" last week at an undisclosed location to submit to a day of legal depositions in civil suits involving retired priest Paul Shanley. Shanley, who is free on bail, faces criminal prosecution for child rape.

Observing the proceedings, Ford said the cardinal appeared "more reserved" than in previous sessions. Law has not spoken publicly about his reasons for leaving the archdiocese. But Ford said the cardinal told questioners that he was "delighted" when the Vatican accepted his resignation.

One immediate result of Law's exit was a decrease in the number of protesters outside the city's cathedral. But the scandal remains close to the surface here as fresh accusations and new indictments against Boston priests continue. Settlement talks between church lawyers and victims' attorneys also are ongoing -- although one plaintiffs' lawyer said last week that the church has dropped threats to file bankruptcy papers.

The impact of the prolonged scandal has reverberations well beyond the archdiocese where it began, said attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., whose law firm represents about 250 alleged abuse victims.

"Although reluctantly, the church now recognizes that it cannot function without conformity to civil laws," MacLeish said, predicting that disclosures about secret church practices will one day bring "massive reforms in church governance."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
71°