The interim chief of the Boston archdiocese said yesterday the church would weigh selling property to settle some 450 pending clergy abuse claims, and added he has already instructed church attorneys to push hard for a “fair and equitable” global settlement.
Making clear getting the church past its litigation woes and reaching out to estranged victims were his priorities, Bishop Richard G. Lennon said, “I will support efforts to arrive at a settlement of claims as soon as possible.” He added he would visit victims and apologize to them “on behalf of the church.”
Lennon made the remarks at his first news conference since assuming the post of apostolic administrator Friday in the wake of Bernard Cardinal Law’s resignation.
He said he had no clear sense of how long he would be in the Boston seat, and set forth a minimal agenda that turned on three goals: Support for clergy victims, prevention of further abuse and “fostering unity” across the archdiocese.
“It would be my hope to do all that I can if I am here for sufficient time, but I have no idea what the time will be,” Lennon said.
Lennon said he would not try to contest a decision last week by Catholic Charities, the church’s key social services arm, to accept $56,000 raised by the lay group Voice of the Faithful. Late Tuesday, the No. 2 archdiocese official, Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, issued a release objecting to the donation.
“While I regret what has happened,” he said, “I realize it has happened, and that the money received will be accepted by Catholic Charities and will be used to support the poor.” Noting VOTF has collected a reported $27,000, more with the intention of offering it to the church as well, Lennon said: “I will have to seek counsel on the proposed further donation.”
Speaking of the archdiocese’s relationship with VOTF, which has been strained, he said: “I look forward to further dicussions.” But he said he would not rescind a ban on allowing any new VOTF chapters from meeting on church property.
Regarding the threat of bankruptcy, Lennon said, “I’m unaware of what the position of the Vatican is on that point.” He said the archdiocese would not dismiss the option of bankruptcy outright – although plaintiffs’ lawyers have derided it as a negotiating ploy – and added: “How this will be funded may well involve the sale of property owned by the RCAB exclusive of parish property.
“Along with that would be the money we would be able in conversations with the two insurance carriers we would be able to make up,” he said. He was referring to some $90 million in liability insurance underwritten by the Travelers and Kemper insurance firms for the years 1977 through 1989.
Lennon declined to comment when asked what role he himself had in handling abusive clerics.
Documents show he was informed about at least two clergy molesters, John J. Geoghan and Paul J. Mahan, in the mid-1990s. But the files indicate he was kept in the loop only so far as he was responsible for overseeing the technicalities of their “laicization,” or withdrawal from priesthood.
Lennon said he was not familiar with the methods being used by a new review board empaneled to assess claims against clergy.
A Herald investigation has determined that in the case of Msgr. Michael Smith Foster – the only priest reinstated this year after being accused of abuse – the church relied on a negative assessment of Foster’s accuser from an archdiocese psychologist who never met the accuser, Paul R. Edwards.
“The work with the allegations and those who are working with them,” he said, “on those matters I have had no involvement at all and hopefully this week and even over the weekend I will be meeting those priests and staff who are working on that to be brought up with my understanding and information on just what is done.”
William J. Gately, the New England co-coordinator for the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, said he was pleased with Lennon’s first public remarks.
“I was encouraged by what he said and his order of priorities – to protect children, heal victims and bring unity to the laity,” he said. “Ironically those are goals that I too would like to see accomplished in that particular order.”
Attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., who has examined thousands of clergy abuse files, said Lennon was not prominent in the cases he was familiar with. “I thought the tone and priorities” Lennon outlined “were absolutely correct,” he said.
MacLeish and his partner, Jeffrey A. Newman, urged all those questioning Lennon to “give him an opportunity to perform his duties in a difficult, emotional time.”
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian said his clients “were disappointed” that Lennon did not address “his knowledge of past pedophile behavior by priests.” He added: “Although his speech was not a break from the past, the words were moderately encouraging. We will wait to see what steps the church takes to back them up.”