The stories are all too familiar by now, stories of shocking conduct by Catholic priests guilty of the repeated and often horrifying abuse of children. The names have become a dishonor roll of men who have abused their authority and taken advantage of children – Geoghan, Shanley, Tourigney, Birmingham, O’Sullivan.
But to listen to the taped deposition of Bernard Cardinal Law or to read the transcript of his testimony taken in June, but released yesterday, is to watch the pieces of this horrifying puzzle come together.
Early on in the deposition, Rod MacLeish Jr., attorney for several of the victims of the Rev. Paul Shanley, asks a question at the heart of his case, but also at the heart of the problem the church must confront:
“Cardinal Law, how long has . . . the primary focus of the Archdiocese of Boston [been] on the protection of children? How long has that policy been in place?”
What he gets by way of an answer is as sorry a collection of empty words as has ever passed the lips of any clergyman.
“I would say that that has always been a concern, but, as I’ve spoken on previous occasions publicly, it does not seem to me that, in retrospect, we tended to view cases in isolation and view the component parts of those cases. So one would deal with a victim. One would deal with a priest,” the cardinal responded.
And for the next several hours Law would be led case by agonizing case through some of those instances where clearly he and the church had failed to protect the children of this and other dioceses.
In fact, Law’s sorry record of protecting and forgiving priests at the expense of children, according to his own testimony, goes back to his days as a vicar general in Mississippi when he was told that the Rev. George Broussard had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with several children in one family.
What did he do about it, Law was asked?
“Well, as I sit here, I have no specific recollection of doing nothing or doing something . . .,” Law answered.
Then Law moves on to Springfield, Mo., and the case of the Rev. Leonard Chambers, also accused of sexual misconduct with a child. The result? Reassignment without conditions. Chambers’ new parish is never told of his past misconduct.
By the time Law lands in Boston in 1984, the U.S. Conference of Bishops is already wrestling with the problem of pedophile priests. Yet in 1988 Law admits in his deposition that the Rev. Daniel Graham was returned to parish work after admitting to sexual misconduct with a child. So too was the Rev. Eugene O’Sullivan, after pleading guilty to a criminal charge. He was shipped off to New Jersey with no notice to the bishop there of his crime.
John Geoghan? Shanley?
“If a man was in place doing priestly ministry, and had been assigned there, the presumption, which, indeed, may be a naive presumption, but nonetheless, the presumption was that such a person was there as a trustworthy and appropriate individual to carry out that responsibility,” Law said by way of trying to explain the inexplicable.
In the case of Shanley all someone had to do was check a file drawer – the kind of thing any organization would do before an employee was reassigned. Was this a case of blind faith, utter incompetence or not wanting to know what was in there?
The cardinal’s testimony on that issue was less than revealing.