Church Losing Its Clout in Boston

Times Staff Writer

In the latest sign that the Catholic Church is losing its once-powerful hold on this city, seven board members have abruptly resigned from Boston’s leading Catholic philanthropy.

The departure of the Catholic Charities board members -- all influential leaders in the city’s business and media communities -- followed a policy disagreement with the church over adoptions by same-sex couples. In December, the full 42-member board had unanimously voted support for same-sex adoptions.

The confrontation comes on the heels of an unrelated rebuke of the Boston Archdiocese by the state attorney general’s office. Alice Moore, head of Atty. Gen. Tom Reilly’s Public Protection Bureau, faulted church leaders for failing to implement changes promised in the aftermath of the clerical sexual abuse scandal.


Both developments, said a historian of Roman Catholicism, Thomas H. O’Connor, signal the diminishing influence of an institution that for generations held a tight grip on this heavily Catholic region. O’Connor said the shift began with the unfolding of the sexual abuse crisis here four years ago, producing a steady erosion in the credibility of the church’s leadership.

“Things have changed in a remarkably short period of time,” said O’Connor, professor emeritus at Boston College and author of the book “Boston Catholics.”

Public defiance of the church’s policies is “a startling, to my way of thinking, change,” O’Connor said. “Unlike most places in the United States, things like quick changes usually do not take place in Boston. For this to happen anywhere is amazing. But ... for this to happen in Boston is all the more remarkable.”

The seven members of Catholic Charities of Boston tendered their resignations Wednesday after the state’s four bishops moved to ban Catholic social service agencies from facilitating adoptions by same-sex couples.

Cardinal-elect Sean P. O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, took his plea directly to Beacon Hill, arguing in a meeting with Gov. Mitt Romney that Catholic adoption programs should be exempt from the state’s antidiscrimination rules on grounds of religious freedom.

Romney, a Republican who is considering a White House run in 2008, appeared sympathetic. “I believe religious institutions should be able to carry out their mission of helping people without violating their faith,” the governor said in a statement.


Romney said legislation might have to be filed to provide an exemption for Catholic Charities. In the last two decades, the Boston agency has placed 13 children with same-sex couples. All were foster children who were not infants or who had special needs. The agency facilitated the adoption of 720 children in that period.

Departing Catholic Charities board member Brian Leary, an attorney and former television reporter, said the “morally repugnant and intellectually dishonest” position of the Massachusetts bishops left him “no choice but to make some sort of statement here.”

“It doesn’t feel revolutionary,” Leary said. “It’s a no-brainer. This is just fundamentally wrong, and you’ve got to stand up and say that.”

Another board member who resigned, public affairs consultant Geri Denterlein, said, “People are looking at the church as a flawed institution that deserves to be treated like any other institution.”

In a joint statement, Father J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities of Boston, and Jeff Kaneb, the group’s chairman, said, “We are saddened that the differences which have developed concerning the issue of an exemption protecting the work of [Catholic Charities] in its adoption policy have led to a departure of valued colleagues.”

This week, the state attorney general’s office chastised the archdiocese for failing to devise a system that would keep track of abusive priests. Disclosures that church authorities had known priests were molesting children led to an $85-million settlement with about 500 Boston-area victims, one of the largest agreements in a scandal that rippled across the country and around the world.


Documents uncovered in Boston showed that archdiocese officials failed to remove pedophile priests from work involving contact with children, instead reassigning them to new parishes where they often sought out new victims.

Although no new incidents of sexual abuse by priests have been reported in this area, Reilly’s staff also faulted church leaders for failing to add sexual abuse prevention programs in schools and religious education classes.

Those changes were part of a package promised three years ago in a plan put forth by the archdiocese. Reilly, a Democratic candidate for governor, praised the plan when it was announced and has since urged quicker implementation.

Boston-area Catholics also have continued to challenge church leaders by speaking in favor of priests who called for changes in the church and by holding vigils in parishes ordered closed or consolidated.

Colin Riley, strategist of a 10-month parish occupation, said the Catholic Charities resignations and the attorney general’s criticism reflected a growing impatience with the church’s leadership.

“Slowly but surely, many Catholics in this archdiocese are just recognizing that the hierarchy is out of touch and not showing demonstrable leadership,” Riley said. “This could be a watershed moment.”