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Clergy's Day In Court

May 8, 2002 | USA Today After years of denials, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law will give a court-ordered deposition today about his role in allowing a pedophile priest to prey on Boston's children for more than 30 years.

Since Law is the most senior U.S. cardinal, his deposition could be seen as a low point for the Catholic Church -- a rare intrusion of secular forces into its affairs. In the past decade, only one other cardinal has been hauled into court for questioning about sexual-abuse coverups.

But it is also an essential opportunity for cleansing. By protecting abusive priests, the church hierarchy and Law have destroyed their own credibility. Only a court can now provide convincing evidence that all information about priestly child abuse has been pried free.

That's how the current scandal was exposed. A civil suit against the Boston Archdiocese revealed Law's involvement, blowing the issue onto front pages. Eighty-six victims of convicted child molester John Geoghan allege that Law let the priest remain active long after his crimes were known.

Similar suits might easily have saved many children. Other dioceses have paid abuse victims at least $500 million, but most came in secret settlements that prevented the information from becoming public.

The motive, church officials say, was to spare the victims anguish while shielding perpetrators from the consequences of acts that the church then viewed as more sinful than criminal.

Regardless of the intentions, though, the secrecy compounded the abuse.

In case after case, pedophile priests were transferred to other parishes where they had the chance to abuse again.

In St. Louis, for example, victims who signed a secret settlement in a 1995 lawsuit found out this year that the alleged molester remained an active parish priest. The priest was removed in March, weeks after one of the abuse victims broke the agreement and went public.

Such hidden settlements are standard practice for businesses and other large institutions. In scores of lawsuits since 1991, for instance, Firestone demanded secrecy for internal documents and sworn statements. Had those documents not been hidden, the recall of 6 million faulty tires might have come sooner than 2000, averting dozens of deaths and injuries. But for a church to use the tactic in ways that endangered children is far more offensive.

Ironically, Law's deposition -- which will become public at trial -- comes because the Boston archdiocese abandoned a settlement with Geoghan's victims. Now when Law takes an oath he'll have to explain why he transferred abusive priests, hiding the risks they posed to children.

Only when all questions are answered openly can healing begin.

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