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Prelate's Apology Surprises Boston

November 05, 2002|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — Gary Bergeron and his 73-year-old mother watched in amazement on television here as Cardinal Bernard Law offered an extraordinary and unexpected apology to victims of clerical sexual abuse.

"I want to acknowledge publicly my responsibility for decisions which I now see were clearly wrong," the nation's senior Catholic prelate said Sunday at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

Standing alone in front of the altar, his voice choking at times, Law said, "I ask forgiveness of those who have been abused."

Bergeron, 40 -- who said he was molested for three years, beginning when he was 11, by the late Father Joseph Birmingham -- echoed sentiments rippling through Boston on Monday. "It has been a long time coming, and to be honest with you, it was very painful to watch," he said. "For the first time, I saw the pain in his eyes, the pain in his heart, the pain that has been expressed to him for some time now by victims of clerical abuse."

The cardinal's surprise statement followed a meeting last week in nearby Lowell, Mass., organized by Bergeron and nearly 100 other alleged Birmingham victims and their families. The session was a landmark event in the yearlong scandal, marking the first time the cardinal has left the chancery to listen directly to a group of clerical abuse victims.

Although for months he had held individual meetings with victims at his residence, Law himself described last week's encounter as "an occasion of grace" that prompted him to issue his 20-minute statement at the cathedral. Among Catholics in the area, the seeming transformation did not go unnoticed.

"There has been some kind of conversion experience for him, and I think it has to be respected," said Father Robert Bullock of Sharon, Mass., a frequent critic of the cardinal's past policies toward abuse victims.

"This was a complete taking of personal responsibility and accountability -- free of anything subjunctive, anything equivocal and with no generalities. This will set a new tone -- a tone of rebuilding and reforming and renewing, and trying to rebuild the trust and confidence that was lost. The cardinal needs all the help he can get, and I think he knows that."

Boston College theology professor Thomas H. Groome, a former priest and author of the book "What Makes Us Catholic: Eight Gifts for Life," said the cardinal fulfilled the requirements toward repentance that "all Catholics learn in Sunday school, second grade."

Law admitted he had done wrong, Groome said, and said he was sorry. He asked forgiveness, "facing the people he hurt most," and he expressed his intention "to amend his life" and not repeat his mistakes.

"What remains now is whether or not the victims can forgive him," Groome said.

For some here whose lives were shattered by pedophile priests, that prospect seemed unlikely. "My clients believe that this statement is simply not enough," said attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents hundreds of adults abused by priests in the archdiocese. After years of negotiation, Garabedian and 86 victims of former priest John Geoghan recently accepted a $10-million civil settlement from the church here.

"My clients believe that a sincere apology begins with Bernard Cardinal Law stating that he was notified in September of 1984 that seven children were sexually molested by Father Geoghan," said Garabedian, referring to the priest who is in prison on a single count of fondling a child. "And the cardinal should admit that he acted negligently in handling the matter."

Law did not mention any priest by name in his apology, nor did he refer to the sweeping consequences of a controversy that began when the Boston Globe published documents confirming that church officials here long knew of sexual abuse complaints against Geoghan. The names of more than 100 priests suspected of abusing children over a 40-year period in the archdiocese have been turned over to prosecutors here.

Archdiocesan spokeswoman Donna Morrissey did not return calls for comment on reaction to the cardinal's statement.

Bill Gately, regional director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he was unconvinced by Law's declaration. "He has met with survivors privately, and he has never come to this enlightenment until the news media heard about his meeting in Lowell last week," Gately said.

While labeling the cardinal's comments "a monumental step," Bergeron -- who learned as an adult that a younger brother had also been abused by Birmingham -- stopped short of forgiving Law. "I really want to forgive that man. I don't want to go to my grave with the hatred that most of us have carried," he said. "But forgiveness is a process. Forgiveness is going to happen one day at a time."

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