Lawlessness in Boston

Posted: Feb 13, 2002 12:00 AM
The words of Cardinal Bernard Law, spoken at his cathedral in Boston, were: "When there are problems in the family, you don't walk away. You work them out together with God's help."

The cardinal doesn't understand that one of the problems in the family is the derelict father of the family. It is undeniably and painfully the case that priest after priest who had molested children were called to the cardinal's attention, and he did what amounts to nothing. To some he advised, or even decreed, psychological counseling. Others he simply admonished. But the critical concern should have been to get children out of harm's way. He didn't do that. You don't pass over his inactivity as simply an act of inordinate compassion. One can feel with great sorrow and understanding the derangement of the arsonist, but one does not send him back into the forest. Human cordite is otherwise supervised.

The news informs us that the vote in favor of Cardinal Law staying on in Boston is about 50-50. Those who are opposed to his resigning are moved by many motives, one of them, evidently, the sense of it that when the church is attacked, one stands by the church. The awful error here is that to stand by the church precisely means to cause the defective prince of the church to stand aside.

John O'Sullivan, the brilliant editor in chief of UPI, got it exactly right in his column in the Chicago Sun-Times in which he said that the right thing for the church to do here is to take seriously the word of Christ, that it were better for him who attacks the innocence of children if a millstone be tied around his neck and he be cast into the depths of the sea.

What O'Sullivan points out is that the public danger, in the complacent handling of the aberrant priests by so many bishops, is the effect their documented nonchalance has on the whole structure of the Catholic mission. The former priest John Geoghan is, finally, in the hands of civil authorities, on his way to jail. It is humiliating for Catholics everywhere to ponder that in Boston one needed to wait around for sheriffs in order to remove him from contact with children because those who first knew of his guilt failed to act decisively on it. The terrible question creeps into the mind: Was that failure merely excessive latitudinarianism, a display of an innocent confidence that, once warned, the transgressor would not sin again?

But Geoghan and others did (ITAL) sin again, in city after city, parish after parish. The bishops are discreetly engaged in making civil reparations, putting out millions of dollars to aggrieved victims and their parents. What reparations will they make to the great body of priests whose lives are devoted to the priestly calling and now suffer corporate disgrace?

This disgrace is not generated by the mere existence of pedophilia among priests. There are homosexual aggressors in all callings, and perhaps a higher density of them in a celibate culture. But it is a culture -- the ministry -- of men whose entire lives are given to the spiritual services of others. Yet they are suffering the most. What they need now, they and their flock, is a symbolic acceptance of responsibility: the withdrawal of the failed father.

Cardinal Bernard Law is a fine human being whose services to the church were rewarded, in 1985, with his anointment as a prince of the church. His instincts are understandable. There is a mess here, he is saying; I am ever so disconsolate over the decisions I made that were miscarriages of my responsibility. But I will reform, believe me.

I believe him. But that has very little to do with the debt he owes his church and his calling. This debt is to affirm the seriousness of his dereliction. In public life, there is the venerable option available to prime ministers -- to resign. It does not matter whether they were responsible for bad leadership, or because catastrophic events overtook them.

The closing lines in Mr. O'Sullivan's column can't be gilded. "Christ himself would have spoken far more harshly to John Geoghan and the other priests who destroyed the innocence of those in their care. Yet in speaking harshly, he would have helped them more. ... Geoghan himself can only hope to find in prison the stern but loving Christ whom he evaded all too easily in the Boston archdiocese."