The leader of the Catholic Church in Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, has rebuffed calls to resign over his handling of a fast-growing child abuse scandal, which has already drawn in the names of no fewer than 80 former and still active priests in his archdiocese.
Trouble for the church began on 18 January when a court convicted a defrocked priest, John Geoghan, of indecent assault and battery of a 10-year-old boy. Documents later revealed that the Church and Cardinal Law had known of the allegations against Geoghan but allowed him to remain a priest.
The Cardinal responded by announcing a policy of "zero tolerance" in rooting out child abuse in the Church. He added that all church records relating to cases of abuse would be handed over to state authorities. By the end of last week, the archdiocese, which covers five counties in and around Boston, had given to the prosecutor's office the names of 80 priests suspected of abuse during a period of 40 years.
Boston is heavily Catholic, in part because of its large Irish community.
Containing the scandal grows more difficult by the day. On Monday, a group of seven former altar boys sued the retired priest Paul Desilets, who is now 78 and living in a retirement home in Canada. They said they were abused by him while he was assigned to a parish in Bellingham, south-west of Boston. One of the plaintiffs said he was moved to consider suicide after the encounters.
The suit alleges that the archdiocese knew that the priest had been touching the buttocks and genitals of altar boys "on scores of occasions" but had done nothing to stop him.
Meanwhile, lawyers for Geoghan have filed a motion asking a judge to throw out additional rape charges that form the basis of a second abuse trial due to start next week. His lawyers argue that the alleged violations were said to have happened too long ago to form the basis of a prosecution. Geoghan already faces 10 years in prison for his conviction last month. He is meanwhile the target of 80 civil lawsuits.
Lawsuits have also been filed against the archdiocese in the Geoghan case. The Church appears to have repeatedly moved Geoghan from parish to parish in the Boston area while the allegations against him of abusing boys increased.
A poll of 800 Roman Catholic churchgoers in Boston last week, conducted by The Boston Globe and a local radio station, found a majority concluding that Cardinal Law had mishandled the affair. Slightly less than half said the time had come for him to take responsibility for the scandal by standing down.
Cardinal Law defended himself from the pulpit while taking Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston on Sunday. "An archbishop is not a corporate executive," he said before his homily. "He's not a politician. It's a role of a pastor. It's a role of a teacher. It's a role of a father. When there are problems in the family, you don't walk away. You work them out together with God's help."
As the Cardinal spoke, his congregation repeatedly interrupted him with applause. The cathedral had asked those at Mass to wear small stickers showing a cardinal's red skullcap to demonstrate their support for Cardinal Law.
Last week's poll showed that a large majority of churchgoers had concluded that the Church was far more interested in protecting priests when cases of child abuse were uncovered than in protecting victims of abuse.
Some prosecutors in Boston are alleging that the archdiocese is impeding investigations by withholding the names of alleged victims.
In another potentially disastrous turn for the Church, lawyers for those suing in the Geoghan case said yesterday that they were considering action to take control of some of the extensive financial and property assets of the archdiocese.Reuse content