Ten years ago, in January 2002, began one of the most painful periods in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. The Boston Globe launched a “spotlight investigation” series of articles telling the stories of the criminal prosecution for sexual abuse of minors by priests who served in the Archdiocese of Boston. It began with Father John Geoghan, who was accused of molesting as many as 130 children. Geoghan was convicted and sent to prison; he was murdered by a fellow inmate in 2003. 

Boston Cardinal Bernard Law was the focus of much criticism at the time, primarily for the practice of re-assigning offending priests, after a period of counseling, to new parishes where they would continue to target children for sexual abuse. Cardinal Law submitted his resignation at the end of 2002. His successor, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, reported in 2005 that the archdiocese had already paid $150.8 million to abuse victims and for related costs. 

Similar scandals erupted in dioceses across the country, with offending priests going to prison and dioceses paying staggering sums to settle lawsuits. The large payouts led some dioceses to seek bankruptcy protection. 

Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley delivers a homily at the ordination of permanent deacons at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston Sept. 17. CNS photo

Struggling to heal

The abuse scandal prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to adopt a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, and apologies from both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Extensive studies have been commissioned by the U.S. bishops on the problem, such as the $1.8 million study by New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

A decade later, the Boston archdiocese is still struggling to heal. Mass attendance is down. Nearly a quarter of Boston Catholics went to church regularly 20 years ago vs. 16 percent today. Donations are down. Forty percent of Boston-area parishes are unable to pay their bills. Ordinations to the priesthood tick up and down — six were ordained in 2011, for example, and three in 2010 — but are insufficient to meet the archdiocese’s need.  

The archdiocese has about 316 active priests today, but that number is expected to plunge to 178 in another decade. 

Many parishes have closed. In 2004, the archdiocese began an initial round of parish closings which reduced the number of parishes from 357 to 290, with more closings expected. An emerging model is to have a single pastor and pastoral staff at one location serving multiple churches. 

But there is good news, too, said archdiocesan spokesman Terrence Donilon. The archdiocesan seminary has 75 men studying for the priesthood, about double the number from a decade ago. The annual archdiocesan appeal, which fell from $17 million to $8 million since 2002, is back up in the $14-15 million range. The archdiocese has also launched a variety of successful evangelization initiatives, Donilon told Our Sunday Visitor. 

‘Openness needed’

As part of its commitment to healing, the archdiocese has pledged itself to openness about charges of sex abuse by clerics. On Aug. 25, 2011, Cardinal O’Malley published the names of priests (and a few deacons) accused of sex abuse of children on the archdiocesan website (see www.bostoncatholic.org). He said that 250 clerics had been accused, the vast majority from the period 1965-1982, “with a substantial decline in the number of incidents thereafter.” 

The cardinal said that the policy of the archdiocese since 2002 is to 1) Report all accusations of sexual abuse of minors by priests to the appropriate state authorities, regardless of whether or not the charges are substantiated, 2) Make a public announcement when a priest has been removed from active ministry while an investigation occurs, and 3) Announce if a priest has been convicted of such abuse, and whether or not he is removed from the clerical state.

‘Accept our responsibility’

The cardinal said, “The Church needs to be open about clergy accused of crimes against children in order to help foster the process of healing and restoration of trust.” 

On Jan. 4, 2012, Cardinal O’Malley released a 10-year reflection on the scandals. He wrote, “As leaders in the Church we must accept our responsibility for those failings and clearly acknowledge that Church leadership could have and should have responded more quickly and more forcefully.” 

Donilon said, “The archdiocese is committed to the protection of children. [Cardinal O’Malley’s Jan. 4 letter] effectively and appropriately provides the depth and extensive level of actions we have and continue to take in regards to meeting this commitment.” 

‘End the secrecy’

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has sued the archdiocese on behalf of victims of Geoghan and other priests, is skeptical about the archdiocese’s claims to have reformed. In an interview with OSV, he said, “the Church needs to end the secrecy,” and said it was not doing enough on behalf of victims. 

Rick Wohlers knew Geoghan when he was a parochial vicar at St. Julia Church in Weston, 20 miles west of Boston, 1984-93. Wohlers has been a St. Julia’s parishioner for 40 years, and today serves on the parish council. Geoghan was a close family friend, not suspected of any misbehavior at the time. 

Wohlers said, “It’s been difficult. The pain has never gone away.” 

He described Geoghan as an “active, engaging priest” who had done much to serve the parish. When he first learned of the accusations against Geoghan, he was concerned that his son, who had been an altar boy for the priest, had been abused (he hadn’t). He said he was not so much stunned by the charges against Geoghan, but by the “avalanche” of accusations against other priests that followed both inside and outside the archdiocese. 

While he had sympathy for the victims, he also had pity on Geoghan. He called the “depressed” priest and tried to console him with positive memories of his time at St. Julia’s. He said, “I pray for both him and his victims.” 

Geoghan’s wrongdoing has not destroyed parish life at St. Julia’s, he noted. Wohlers said, “I love our pastor and parish staff. They do much good in the community.” 

Jesuit Father Joseph Casey, 94, has celebrated Mass at St. Julia’s since 1954. He also knew Geoghan. He asked for forgiveness for offending priests and added that there were many “outstanding” priests in Boston, many of whom serve multiple parishes, teach, engage in various apostolates and manage to remain “cheerful” in an often-hostile environment. He said, “They’re really admirable.” 

Jim Graves writes from California.