More Thoughts in Boston & the Critics

by Michael Sean Winters

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To be clear, a person who has been sexually abused as a child is allowed to be angry for the rest of their lives. I get that. And, to be clear, groups like SNAP and have undertaken an important task of monitoring the Catholic Church’s compliance with its own public commitments regarding the protection of children and the prosecution of clergy predators. I get that, too. Members of SNAP are to the clergy sex abuse crisis what survivors are to the Holocaust, the people whose memory we must always respect and, more to this point, those whose sense of alarm has a particular moral authority.

With all authority, however, goes a certain sense of responsibility and so it was with great regret that I saw the comments of some advocacy groups regarding the decision of Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley to release the names of all archdiocesan clergy who had been publicly accused of sex abuse. This was clearly a step forward: Only two dozen or so other dioceses have published the names of those accused of abuse, and none have accompanied the decision with the kind of soul-searching explanation that Cardinal O’Malley provided yesterday. Boston is also the largest diocese to publish the list of names and given its prominence, and the prominence of its Cardinal, in dealing with the sex abuse crisis, we can expect other dioceses to follow suit in the months and years ahead.

But, in this morning’s Boston Globe and New York Times, the responses from SNAP and others was unserious, unfair or both. Barbara Blaine from SNAP accused the cardinal of “shameless hairsplitting” in this morning’s Globe. She added, “This is about safeguarding innocent kids, comforting wounded adults and exposing unhealthy secrecy. It’s not about which individual Catholic official signs which individual Catholic predator’s paycheck.” Blaine was referring to O’Malley’s decision not to publish the names of those priests who belong to religious orders and who were accused of perpetrating sex abuse. If a priest is accused in the archdiocese, and that priest belongs to a religious order, the archdiocese immediately contacts law enforcement personnel, suspends the priest’s faculties within the archdiocese and turns him over to his religious order. It is the order that must not only investigate the charges, but decide how it wishes to notify the public of the accusations and the results of the investigation. Blaine’s charge that O’Malley is hiding behind some kind of impermissible legality is like accusing the attorney general of the State of Connecticut for the failure of the attorney general of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to convict a particular criminal.

Speaking of the attorney general of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, there she is, Martha Coakley, a name I had hoped never to hear again, the woman who was unable to hold on to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. I do not question her motives nor her morals, but any Democrat who couldn’t win in Massachusetts, well, their judgment is in question. She spoke about meeting voters like it was some kind of purgatory. Yesterday, in response to the cardinal’s decision, she too jumped on the “It is not enough” bandwagon. She told the Globe, “Those names should be disclosed in the interest of the victims and public safety.” Of course, those priests who are already deceased pose no threat to “public safety.” But, the “interest of the victims” is an important consideration and Coakley might have mentioned that Cardinal O’Malley acknowledged that consideration in explaining his decision: “I emphasize that our decision not to list the names of deceased priests who have not been publicly accused and as to whom there were no canonical proceedings conducted or completed (most were accused well after their death) does not in any way mean that the Archdiocese did not find that the claims of particular survivors who accused those deceased priests to be credible or compelling. Indeed, in many of those cases, the Archdiocese already has proceeded to compensate the survivor and provides counseling and pastoral care to those individuals.” The Cardinal’s decision clearly reflected the moral concern, recognized in our civil laws as well, that the accused has a right to face his or her accuser and that a dead man cannot do that. This is why our libel laws are stricter when the target of the libel is deceased.

I would add one other point on this score. I can understand the hurt of a victim who looks at this list to find the name of the priest who abused him, and does not find it. As noted, Cardinal O’Malley spoke to that concern above. But, I also know that such a victim can call the chancery and arrange a meeting with the Cardinal personally. I know that the Cardinal will validate that person’s experience because he is a fine pastor of souls. I know that the Cardinal will explain, again, the competing interests here and how they informed his decision. If my sense of Cardinal O’Malley is correct, I would not expect this decision to be overturned anytime. Once he has made up his mind, he has made up his mind. But, I can also predict that in no way will the victims whose perpatrator’s names are not on these lists because those perpetrators have died, in no way will those victims feel that their experience is less important, less worthy of compassion and of solicitude, than any others.

Another question: If the archdiocese reports all names to law enforcement officials, why doesn’t Coakley release the names? Why? Because she knows that an accusation is not the same thing as a conviction and that she could be sued if she defamed the dead. But, to be clear, she has the same information that the Archdiocese of Boston has, even if she lacks the finer moral sensibilities of O’Malley.

Those moral sensibilities have now been on display since O’Malley’s arrival in Boston in 2003. Actually, they were on display in Fall River and Palm Beach before that. Not once has O’Malley engaged in the kind of lawyerly, mealy-mouthed statements about clergy sex abuse that so undermined the credibility of other prelates. Cardinal Edward Egan, when he addressed the crisis in 2002, said this: “If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.” Note the distance between the word “mistakes” and the pronoun “I.” Note, too, the excessive use of the conditional sense: “If” and “may have been made.” That is not the voice of moral clarity still less moral authority. Compare it with these words of O’Malley’s in an open letter to the victims of clergy sex abuse released yesterday: “The nature of the abuse and the depth of the harm you have suffered because of heinous crimes committed against you by priests is a source of intense shame for me and for the Church. The past failures of Bishops and Church leaders to provide for the protection of children must be acknowledged with deep contrition.”

I admit my bias towards Boston’s Cardinal. I am a fan of Cardinal O’Malley’s and I am a friend as well. But, I would not be either a fan nor a friend if he had not so thoroughly, consistently and persistently faced this crisis head-on. I would not be either a fan nor a friend if he engaged in moral obfuscation. Nor would I be a fan and a friend if he had ignored any of the competing moral interests involved in making the decision he made yesterday to release the names of some priests accused of abuse and not others. Nothing he says or does can eliminate the pain and suffering of those abused and they are entitled to those feelings. They are certainly entitled to be skeptical of any statement or policy that comes from any Catholic bishop too. They – and indeed the entire Church – is entitled to expect the hierarchy to move heaven and earth to address the problem and, as much as possible, ameliorate the harm caused by clergy sex abuse. Because they are the victims, SNAP has the right to ignore other moral concerns in fashioning policies like that announced yesterday regarding the publication of the names of the accused. Their pain and their suffering is permitted to dominate their moral compass. But, the rest of his have no such claim that permits us to ignore those other moral concerns and to weigh them. Cardinal O’Malley has done a courageous and important thing in publicizing the names of those clergy who were accused and who were investigated by the archdiocese for which he is responsible. He has also done a courageous and important thing in declining to publish the names of those who never lived to face their accusers or whose investigations were conducted by others. The victims have no moral obligation to acknowledge the latter, but the rest of us do.

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