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An Enlightening Account of Church's Sex Abuse Scandal

Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church; $23.95, 288 pages; Little, Brown and Co.

July 27, 2002|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the annals of the Roman Catholic Church in America, there has been no greater crisis in modern times than this year's sexual abuse scandal. From its epicenter in Boston, shock waves rippled across the country, reaching Los Angeles and other U.S. dioceses, toppling priests from their pulpits and even retirements, and focusing unprecedented popular anger at bishops themselves.

If Boston was the epicenter, the seismic shock behind the tremor was the Boston Globe. Its early-on investigative reporting and perseverance in pursuing an ever-widening and shocking story in the face of legal obstacles and ecclesiastical stonewalling uncovered a scandal in its backyard that quickly became a national and international story. Other media outlets soon followed.

The Globe's reporting will likely be a contender for a Pulitzer Prize next year. Now, eight members of the newspaper's investigative staff have published the first and most complete accounting of this year's events in a new book, "Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church," overseen by Deputy Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr.

By now, the story of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and bishops is well-known, as are the attempts to cover it up through out-of-court settlements, sealed court documents and quiet transfers of abusive priests to new parishes where they harmed more victims.

The scandal is not thought to have run its full course. But already Pope John Paul II has personally weighed in by declaring the sexual abuse of minors not only a sin but also a civil crime. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reacting to unprecedented grass-roots pressure and public shame, last month in Dallas approved tough new national sexual abuse prevention standards. The conference is awaiting the Vatican's endorsement, which would make those standards mandatory. In the meantime, most bishops say they are voluntarily putting the standards into effect. A few continue to wait.

"Betrayal" is the journalists' account of the unfolding story. Its value lies in bringing together in one place an overview of the scandal, including the personal stories of abuser priests and their victims.

Special attention is focused on John J. Geoghan, now an ex-priest, who over 34 years is accused of molesting upward of 200 minors as two cardinal-archbishops transferred him from parish to parish. He is serving a 9- to 10-year term in state prison after a conviction of molesting one boy.

There are details, too, of Father Paul Shanley, who was recommended as a trustworthy priest by the Boston archdiocese to the Diocese of San Bernardino, even though Boston knew about his record of sexual abuse and that he attended a founding meeting of a national man-boy love group.

The book is more than a rewrite of previously published Globe stories, and its narrative contains original reporting. While it does not significantly advance the story or contain any new revelations, it does place the scandal in a much-needed broader context often missing from daily journalism.

Moreover, it looks beyond the immediate scandal and offers enlightening, if brief, glimpses at the underlying factors that may have contributed to the scandal, among them the clerical culture of the Roman Catholic Church. It takes note, as did other media outlets, of how the abuse scandal gave new force to long-simmering debates over lay involvement and greater lay power within the church.

The crisis also focused again on the wisdom of mandatory celibacy for priests in the predominant Western or Latin Rite and the church's prohibition against ordaining women and married men. There are snippets of historical context that offer readers insight into the reasons for its stance.

In a large sense, the Boston scandal is about Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston. It was Law who resisted early attempts to address the problem on his watch. It was Law who in 1992 lashed out against the Globe when it reported a case involving a pedophile priest. "By all means, we call down God's power on the media, particularly the Globe," he was reported as having said.

Readers learn, too, of Law's aloofness and how he lost touch with the pulse of Boston, one of the nation's most Catholic cities. Yet Law also comes off as a thoughtful and compassionate priest and bishop on issues not having to do with sexual abuse. He was a crusading editor for civil rights on a Catholic newspaper in Vicksburg, Miss., in the 1960s. In Boston, he championed affordable housing and the causes of immigrants. He speaks fluent Spanish.

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