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April 27, 2002
Column #1078

Who Should Oversee the Hierarchy?

     Pope John Paul II told American Catholic cardinals of his concern for the "suffering" and "great harm" to children caused by priests: "The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God...People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."

     He was equally alarmed by the undeniable fact that "The church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter."

     However, U.S. cardinals focused only on what should be done about errant priests. They totally sidestepped the issue of how to discipline the hierarchy. Unfortunately, the Pope did not ask for the resignation of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law.

     On the second day of their meetings at the Vatican, The Boston Globe published a column by William Bennett, a former Secretary of Education, who is Catholic, calling for Law's resignation. Law apologized to the cardinals for having initiated the scandal roiling the church, largely for the way he handed the case of John Geoghan, who's now in prison.

     Some 800 pages of documents surfaced recently about his handling of another priest, Paul Shanley, whose sexual abuse charges hark back to the 1960s. Astonishingly, Shanley asserted in 1977 that "the adult is not the seducer -- the `kid' is the seducer and further, the kid is not "traumatized by the act per se. The kid is traumatized when the police question" him. 

     That is not how Greg Ford experienced Shanley. His father, Rodney Ford, wondered why Greg, who had been a happy young boy, changed so dramatically as an adolescent that he was in and out of 17 different psychiatric institutions. He tried to kill himself. When news broke recently about Shanley, who had been their parish priest, he showed Greg, now 24, a picture of himself and the priest at the boy's First Communion. 

     The young man "collapsed on the floor and started crying," said Rodney. Over the next few days the story slowly came out that when Greg arrived at religion class, Shanley took him off, first teaching him to play strip poker, and then repeatedly molested him. "He abused my son, raping him," Rodney charged.

     Shanley even helped organize the North American Man-Boy Association in 1979. Yet Law promoted Shanley to pastor of a Newton church, and recommended him as a priest to a California diocese in 1990 where he opened a motel catering to gays! Law later endorsed his running a Catholic hotel in New York despite three decades of sexual abuse allegations.

     Should such a bishop "continue to serve as head of one of the nation's most prominent bishoprics?" asked Bennett. "In a word, no. The moral credibility of the church is compromised by leaders whose own credibility is so severely damaged."

     Yet the cardinals did not urge the Pope to ask for Law's resignation. Why? Many of them had knowingly transferred priests accused of molestation from one church to another. 

     Instead they debated whether the U.S. policy for priests should be "one strike and you're out." They agreed to ask for a special process to defrock any priest who has become "notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors." In cases that are "not notorious," they suggested leaving it up to the local bishop.

     However, Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of America's bishops, said "There is a growing consensus certainly among the faithful, among the bishops, that it is too great a risk to assign a priest who has abused a child to another ministry."

     David Clohessy, director of SNAP (Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests) sighs, "The bishops still want to play umpire. That is a call that needs to be done by prosecutors. This is not a ball game. These are real crimes, and real professionals need to make the call." 

     A woman wrote me, "I was tortured, pained, suffering, angry, hurt by a priest 17 years ago...Tell me where to go to report this..cruel torture."

     Don't go to a bishop. Look up SNAP's website,, where 3700 victims have found hope. 

     The church needs an independent board run by laymen like William Bennett, willing to investigate charges against the hierarchy and demand resignations, where appropriate. 

     The alternative? There are Grand Juries in four states looking into the crimes of prelates.

Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.

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