FEBRUARY 18, 2002
Suffer the Children
-- Martin E. Marty
America's cardinal Cardinal, Cardinal Bernard F. Law of the Boston archdiocese is at a crossroads of media coverage on today's most devastating churchly topic, priestly pedophilia. Law's experience, his warm relations with the Vatican, and politicos and reporters, and his visibility through the years places him in the forefront. The last thing he could have asked for at what should be the crowning time of his career is to be on the spot, attacked from within the Church and without, a problem for those who report on religion.
"The most devastating topic?" It is hard to think of any rival in the public eye. The Anglican Church in Canada is going bankrupt because of the cost of settlements. It may take generations for the Catholic Church in Newfoundland, where dozens of priests were involved, to recover trust. To his credit, Bishop Wilton Gregory "cleaned up" the Belleville, Illinois diocese after gross scandals, but there remain prices to pay. One hears of multi-million dollar settlements as the dioceses pay a price for priestly-abuse. The record embarrasses defenders of "the institutional church" and "organized religion."
The Protestant press, by and large, has been cautious in its coverage. The secular press mixes fair reporting with expressions of shock. The Catholic independent press, in the hands of those who love the Church but want to report honestly, has difficulty with this subject. To take advantage of children, as "Mr." [ex-"Fr."] John Geoghan did to scores in Boston for decades, and then to get priestly reassignments, as other suspect and demonstrably guilty clerics alike have done, shatters a precious commodity religious organizations need: trust. Some Catholic defense folks wanted the press to be silent, or cautious. But this moral, theological, fiscal, legal, and financial scandal doesn't allow any longer for cover-ups.
Admittedly, there are many issues surrounding the central one. These include protecting the rights of the accused. The strongest case that groups representing abused and run-of-the-pew Catholics have in the case of Cardinal Law and other leaders has to do with the issue of keeping silence, and reassigning priests to unsuspecting parishes. When evils like this were first being reported, again, admittedly, not everyone had background, experience, or knowledge to know exactly what to do in respect to themes like repentance and rehabilitation in these cases. Today we do know, too late for hundreds of abused children, now grown. While Cardinal Law remains in the crossfire and spotlight, the Church in Boston and elsewhere begins its long climb back, it hopes, to a situation where it can rebuild and hold trust. Meanwhile, tears for those who suffered a traumatic childhood.