Monday, April 29, 2002

In Defense Of Cardinal Law

Boy, with a title like that, I am bound to get emails.

This will be my last post on the current scandal for a while. I let myself stray this weekend, which is fine. It's time, though, to refocus on CFL.

Before I do, I want to say a few words in defense of Cardinal Law. If you can't handle that, stop reading this entry now. It's the lawyer in me; I have been trained to look for every explanation and solution. I haven't seen a lot of that when it comes to Cardinal Law. So I will step up to the plate and put some possibilities other than the "active cover-up" line on the table for consideration.

Let me confess that I haven't made a thorough review of all that is known about the situation in Boston. I neither have the time nor the desire. Before you email me the latest tidbit you ripped from an on-line news article, ask yourself this question: if proven true, does it negate the explanation offered here? If your answer is no, conserve the bandwidth and the space in my inbox.

Also, don't confuse this post with an apologia for Cardinal Law. I'm tossing these thoughts out so they are available to be examined, not because I'm advocating them in particular. If anything, what I am advocating is prayer, holiness, prudence and wisdom.

With that said, hasn't anyone else considered the possibility that Cardinal Law has not been engaged in some deliberate, massive conspiracy to cover up these cases of clergy sex abuse? That he hasn't been doesn't mean he shouldn't be held accountable. He is the bishop and responsibility rests at his feet. Whether he actively covered it up, was negligent in his duties as bishop, or just committed serious errors in judgment, we still have a problem on our hands that needs to be addressed.

Still, the whole "cover-up" line has bugged me from the start. As I have said before, I have met the Cardinal several times and know many others who know him far better. He has never struck me as the type who would actively endanger children or deliberately cover things up for his fellow clergy. Maybe my impression will be proven mistaken, but it hasn't been so far.

First, let's recognize that Cardinal Law was taking steps to address the problem. He implemented a policy for addressing and reviewing complaints a year after the national guidelines were put in place. As the Cardinal pointed out in his original statement, Fr. Geoghan was defrocked at Law's request:

"However much I regret having assigned him, it is important to recall that John Geoghan was never assigned by me to a parish without psychiatric or medical assessments indicating that such assignments were appropriate. It is also important to state that it was I who removed him from parish ministry, that I then placed him on retirement, and that I finally asked the Holy See to dismiss him from the priesthood without possibility of appeal, even though he had not requested laicization. This extraordinary act of the Holy See went beyond the usual procedures for the laicization of priests."
Second, the archdiocese has a large review board that advises the Cardinal with respect to complaints against priests. Its membership includes:
"the mother of a victim, another parent, a clinical social worker, a clinical psychologist, a psychotherapist, a retired justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, a priest, a civil attorney and, usually, a canon lawyer."
Unless you believe the Cardinal willfully ignored the advice of this board, isn't it possible that all these people -- laity, clergy, victim advocates, legal and medical professionals -- bear some responsibility for giving the Cardinal poor advice? Isn't it possible the Cardinal only reviewed their summary reports and not the raw data and evidence?

Second, there is the matter of the letter Cardinal law sent to another priest-abuser thanking him for his service to the archdiocese. That letter has always struck me as a form letter. Isn't it plausible that Cardinal Law thought it would be a nice gesture to thank retiring priests for their service and long ago tasked someone in his office with the job of collecting the names of such priests on a periodic basis and sending them a standard letter of thanks? Why read into it some evidence of his desire to protect priest-abusers? If you don't think this is a real possibility, consider this story recounted by Joe Fitzgerald in the Boston Herald today:
"A major Catholic benefactor, recipient of a prestigious award a few years back, tells of receiving a congratulatory letter from Law.

``It was so touching that I added it to my book of memories,'' he said. ``Then the next year a friend of mine won the same award. When my wife and I went to his home for a visit he couldn't wait to show me this beautiful letter he'd received from His Eminence. As soon as I started to read it, I smiled; it was almost identical to the one I had at home.

``Now, do I tell you that to suggest the man's a phony? No. I'm sure it was his intention to convey a compliment, but if it had come from him personally it probably would have been handwritten. He's too busy to write them himself, yet he wants to express appreciation. I think that was the case with my friend and me and I wouldn't be surprised if it was also the case with some of these letters we're seeing in the papers now.''"
Finally, it should be noted that Massachusetts law doesn't require clergy to report incidents of child sexual abuse. Now we might say he still had a moral obligation to report the incident. But how much of that is hindsight? How many of us, if in his position, might conclude that things were being addressed well enough through counseling, settlements, disciplining of the priests, etc., that involving law enforcement wasn't necessary?

I'm sure some of you who have read this far are steaming. Cardinal Law is an evil man, you say, and I should just accept it. To you I offer one last consideration. Isn't it important to understand the real cause of the failure to handle these cases properly? Might not we fail to reach a solution -- and give other bishops an easy way to dismiss Cardinal Law's case as not relevant to them -- if we insist on chalking things up to the "evil" Cardinal Law rather than a too-bureaucratic Cardinal Law or a too-willing-to-listen-to-wordly advice Cardinal Law?

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