Letter: Clergy abuse response was fatally flawed

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To the editor:

Readers of The Eagle's reports on the seemingly unending crimes of sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen in Western Massachusetts might find some clarification useful.

This issue broke into the open in 1984 with a terrible case in Louisiana. Many more crimes, including many in Massachusetts, were revealed well before 2002 when the Boston Globe Spotlight team brought international attention to the scandal.

From 1984 until 2002, the bishops deliberately chose not to develop a collective response. Forced to do so by the outrage following the Boston stories, they adopted a "zero tolerance" policy, assigned staff to finally insure a pastoral response to victims, and set up lay "review boards" to assist in dealing with new cases and developing policies of prevention. There were many shortcomings in these new policies which are relevant to the recent Eagle reports.

— Bishops were in charge and, as Springfield sadly learned early in the case of Bishop Dupre, and the rest of the country learned much later in the case of Cardinal McCarrick, there were no mechanisms for dealing with offending bishops.

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— Review boards were appointed by and advisory to the bishop, they reported to the bishop and not the public, and the bishops set their agenda. For example, they heard new complaints but were rarely invited to examine files of older cases handled by church officials and attorneys; widening exposure of crimes came about through victim activism and inquiries by prosecutors and grand juries, not lay review boards.

— Some lay leaders tried to help their church do better through independent organizing like that of Voice of the Faithful. Their efforts were resisted by bishops and were impeded by the failure of Catholic priests, deacons, parish school and hospital employees, scholars and academic leaders, and most, though not all, well-to-do donors to do anything. They preferred to leave it to the bishops, with predictable results.

The history might have been different if a) Diocesan lay review boards followed the lead of the first National Review Board in demanding access to all information, making an independent assessment of causes and consequences, and reporting to the public; the first generation of the National Board was replaced by more conciliatory advisory personnel in 2004, and local boards hardly noticed; b) Catholic organizations charged with a share of responsibility for the life and work of the church like priests councils, parish and diocesan pastoral councils and the board of Catholic charities, hospitals, schools and universities had acted as if they took those responsibilities seriously; and c) Someone with credibility explained to Catholics that the obvious retreat from Vatican II truthfulness, renewal, and reform between 1979 and 2013 was motivated in part to head off ideas about solidarity and shared responsibility that might require changes in the hierarchical structure of the local, diocesan and global church. Those options remain before the Catholic community.

David J. O'Brien,


The writer is professor emeritus, College of the Holy Cross, and a summer resident of Richmond.


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