(Editorial from Church & State Magazine, No. 72, Spring 2003)

Cardinal Law’s Boston Two-Step

Why Irish Catholics Should Behave Like American Catholics

On Friday 13th December 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law of the archdiocese of Boston (Massachusetts, USA) offered the Pope his resignation from his position at the head of the archdiocese. The Pope regretfully accepted the resignation, mainly because it was not an entirely voluntary matter. Law has, effectively, been forced out of office by a campaign run by lay people. This was latterly backed up by a petition asking for his resignation, signed, by the time of the resignation, by about a tenth of the priests of the archdiocese.

Law had attempted to defend his record in dealing with recalcitrant priests. These were mostly 'pædophile priests', though the Boston Globe (a heavily Irish and formerly pious newspaper) uncovered a Foley File. This man was ordained in 1960, and almost immediately took to having sex with a number of married women, mostly in their teens. He had children by two of these women and drove another one to commit suicide, having ignored her threats and earlier attempts to kill herself.

The Boston Globe had been investigating the ramifications of clerical sex abuse (mostly of children in their care) in the archdiocese, and to an extent throughout the USA. Many of these abusers had been active from the 1960s and, like Foley above, had abused from the start of their careers. This made the position of Law, and other bishops and Cardinals very difficult—they behaved like the executives of a secretive corporation rather than the 'pastors' of what has been, since the Second Vatican Council The Pilgrim Church. The Boston archdiocese is about to declare itself bankrupt, like a secular corporation. This will add insult to the injury of the original abuse of the victims. They will be denied even the cold comfort of monetary compensation. The Church authorities do not seem to have thought this through: what would be the relationship of faithful Catholics to an organisation which behaves like General Motors, rather than one against which the "Gates of Hell shall not prevail"?

The Catholic bishops of California are taking much the same tack. The Legislature has lifted a statute of limitations on sex-abuse cases for a year from January 1st, 2003. The bishops did not lobby against this but have claimed that it will be a lawyers' bonanza (which it will, of course, but in this case probably a justified bonanza). There are about four hundred lawsuits pending in California. And there is a feeling that the bishops will take the 'bankruptcy' path to solving their immediate problems.

Part of the movement in California was by a group founded in Boston in February 2002 called Voice of the Faithful. It consisted of forty persons in February. By the time of Law's resignation, it claimed a membership of 25,000 in forty states. This group is not particularly radical or on the cutting edge in terms of theology—or even the internal functioning of the Church. It simply wants the clerics to become more open about what they are doing. The apparently standard option of simply moving abusers around the dioceses, or archdioceses or even the country, has horrified people. It reveals, according to one's outlook, a naïve attitude towards people who are serial rapists (among other things) or it is an example of bureaucratic arrogance.

It is probably a compound of both, along with a desire to keep the Church's public image squeaky clean. It signifies a refusal to accept that a substantial number of clerics ought to have been thrown out of the Church, turned over to the secular authorities to face criminal charges—or not have been accepted as trainees for the priesthood in the first place. (Surely there is supposed to be monitoring of persons putting themselves forward for such a responsible position?) The light-headed behaviour of the Church authorities is very striking. No secular corporation would have, or could have, allowed such a large number of criminals to remain at large to drag their good name and 'goodwill' into the gutter.

In resigning, Law is not off the hook of his sins of omission (and to an extent commission): he will have to face secular courts in the near future. He will also have to give evidence to a review board (on sexual abuse) set up by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is not going to be given a safe job in the Vatican bureaucracy, and will probably simply retire (he is 71 and not due for retirement until he is 75—or eighty as a Cardinal). The interview with the Pope during which he retired only lasted a matter of minutes. The Vatican claims that it does not react to "public opinion"—a classic piece of institutional arrogance—but it clearly has so reacted, and may have to do more 'reacting' in the future.

Law's successor as Apostolic Administrator is a Bishop Gerard Lennon. The number of Irish names in the Boston archdiocese affair is quite striking: the director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests is a David Clohessy. There are two persons named Pope involved too: James Pope founder of the Voices of the Faithful, and a Dr. Stephen Pope of the Theology Department of the Jesuit foundation, Boston College (a full-blown university). He is quoted in the Irish Times (Saturday,14.12.02) as saying that Bishop Lennon (an academic) is untainted by the scandals.

Another 'Irish' aspect of this is that Law helped find Bishop Éamonn Casey a parish in Equador after his fall from grace.

More to the point, what lesson does this have for Ireland? The self-organisation of the laity in America may be specific to a country with a democratic tradition, and one where the Catholic Church is a minority church. Being a Catholic in America, even in Boston, Massachusetts, is fundamentally a personal choice. That is probably the reason why self-organisation comes so naturally to American Catholics. Their organisations range from Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC—on abortion) to gun-toting anti-abortionists, from the Catholic Workers' Movement to people on the fringes of the Libertarians (anarcho-capitalists).

Irish Catholics do not have the same tradition: even so bland an organisation as the Ancient Order of Hibernians was suspected by the hierarchy of being subversive for many years. Maurice Manning, in his biography of James Dillon (educated in Ireland, England and the US and the third generation of a famous political 'dynasty') seems to be praising his subject for having a "childlike faith". Grown men who aspire to rule their own country should not have any "childlike" qualities—especially as it appears to mean not actually giving so serious a matter any thought.

There is a group, SOCA (Irish Survivors of Clerical Abuse), whose spokesman, John Kelly, is quite outspoken about the failings of the hierarchy. But, when they picket, the rest of the 'faithful' ignore them, as do the priests and 'religious'. So do the media in general, though RTÉ has recently done a number of documentaries about abuse in past, and the Irish Times on Saturday, December 14th, 2002 had an editorial, with a full page of reporting about Law and the ramifications of his resignation. This included the impact on Cardinals Connell and Murphy-O'Connor (of Dublin/Ireland and Westminster/England, respectively). The latter has owned up to being foolish—which may actually be the case—for sending a convicted child-molester to a job where he would encounter a substantial number of children.

Connell's attitude is more ambiguous: he insulted a woman called Marie Collins, who accused a Father Peter McGennis of abusing her in 1960. He took the view that she was attempting to destroy the reputation of a man who had not erred since that time (presumably this is a classic 'blame the victim' ploy—if she had not been available McGennis would not have abused her). Unfortunately, the Cardinal was lying to Ms Collins: McGennis had been the object of complaints from his parishioners in Dublin, and had been charged and sentenced for molesting a girl in his parish in Wicklow between 1977 and 1979. The Cardinal, in a fine example of casuistry of the worst sort, claimed that the latter case was not relevant as the woman in question went to the Gárda Siocana and not to the Church authorities (i. e. himself, or a fellow-bishop). The Church in Ireland has been pushing this line for nearly a century: that the secular courts have no authority over clerics. It is not the law of the land, but a great many people in Ireland seem to think that the notion does have the force of law. Ireland is probably one of the few places where this sort of hair-splitting arrogance and bullying would be engaged in, much less got away with.

The media, which should be helping lay Catholic opinion, has steadfastly refused to investigate the extent of sexual and other abuse by the Church and individual clerics. Instead, it has used the events in the law courts to produce sensational headlines and spice up its 'news'. The Irish Times has been more inclined to defend Church interests than assist in reforming Church attitudes.

There are signs that the Irish laity may start taking a more actively engaged attitude to their Church. And, if the Church has a will to survive, it will welcome this trend. Even Cardinal Connell, (who is an expert on the language angels use to communicate with each other, but is less able to cope with terrestrial communication) must realise that, if the Church continues to handle its problems legalistically and manipulatively—especially in the matter of the abuse of children —it will rot from within. People will not take their moral precepts from a tainted source. And, as living in a moral vacuum is not an option, they will be left with no choice but to take an active part in managing their Church, as Catholics do in America.


Cardinal Law's Boston Two-Step:
Why Irish Catholics Should Behave Like American Catholics

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