A day after the release of church documents detailing more startling examples of clergy sexual misconduct, a church finance council authorized Cardinal Bernard F. Law to seek bankruptcy protection for the Boston archdiocese, which faces an estimated 450 claims from alleged abuse victims.
Law has not yet said he has decided to take that unprecedented step, but the vote of his Finance Council yesterday means that the cardinal needs only Vatican approval to proceed with a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.
The council members backed the move, arguing that bankruptcy is preferable to a damaging and expensive legal fight that could last for years. But that sentiment was not unanimous. Two council members, developer Thomas J. Flatley and Sister Therese Higgins, spoke against the resolution, according to a lay person familiar with the meeting.
The support in Law’s inner circle for the bankruptcy option came as support for him outside the chancery continued to crumble. Several leading Catholics renewed their calls for Law to resign, and leaders of the Voice of the Faithful, the influential lay group formed in the wake of the abuse scandal, said the latest disclosures force it to consider, for the first time, whether to seek Law’s departure.
”What we see from these documents is not a picture of enforcement,” said James E. Post, the leader of Voice of the Faithful. ”It’s a picture of covering up. It’s a picture of keeping from public view this moral depravity.”
Post said the 25,000-member group would consider a call for resignation at meetings this week and next.
Calling yesterday for Law to go was one of the city’s most influential Catholics, advertising executive Jack Connors Jr.
”The cardinal has admitted he made mistakes. There is no question now that he has made many mistakes,” said Connors, the chairman and chief executive officer of Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos Inc. ”It would be an additional mistake for him to attempt to lead after all these disclosures.”
The demand by Connors for Law to step down is significant because he is seen as one of the archdiocese’s most influential leaders. Noting that contributions to many parishes are down by as much as 40 percent, Connors said, ”We need to get Cardinal Law to resign so we can get back to our mission, which is to help the poor.”
The move toward a possible bankruptcy filing also roiled relations between the archdiocese and attorneys for almost half the estimated 450 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse. Lawyers for the firm said they would withdraw from efforts to settle the litigation, at least for now.
Jeffrey A. Newman, of the Greenberg Traurig law firm, said he and his partners are committed to resolving the cases through negotiations but that they need ”clarity” on whether Law intends to proceed with bankruptcy. ”Otherwise, we are unjustifiably doing much too much legal work and raising the hopes of our clients that the claims will be settled through mediation,” Newman said.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna M. Morrissey said in a statement released last night: ”We believe a mediated resolution would be preferable to seeking Chapter 11 protection and remain hopeful that this process currently underway will be successful.
”However, we feel it is also necessary to carefully consider the alternative or complementary approach of a Chapter 11 reorganization.”
A bankruptcy filing would introduce a requirement that the church open its private financial records to civil authorities. It would also allow the possibility of a bankruptcy judge rejecting a church reorganization plan and ordering payments to clergy sexual abuse victims higher than the church might desire. For a judge to accept a resolution, it must be approved by a majority of the claimants, and those voting in approval must represent at least two-thirds of the amount claimed.
Meanwhile, members of a special commission Law asked earlier this year to draft policies to prevent further sexual abuse of children by priests yesterday voiced concerns that the cardinal has missed a self-imposed deadline to put their plans into practice.
And victim groups said the newly released documents that portray Law and his aides dealing secretly and sympathetically with priests who raped children, exchanged drugs for sex, or carried on secret love lives have widened the divide between Law and the people of his church.
”This is like taking up the floor of an old kitchen,” said Philip F. Lawler, former editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, the Pilot. ”Every time you expose a new layer, you find it’s rotten underneath.”
But the outrage expressed by leaders of Voice of the Faithful is perhaps the most striking development, as the group has been cautious about open criticism of Law. The group issued an unusually strong statement calling the revelations in the documents ”shocking and hurtful” and suggesting that the cardinal has not been candid about his role.
”This information also reveals … that the scandal is much deeper than was previously known,” Post said. ”These documents are inconsistent with previous statements made by Cardinal Law, including statements made to VOTF leaders during the Nov. 26 meeting.”
Post said the cardinal had assured the group’s leaders that oversight of sexually abusive priests improved after he implemented a new policy in 1993.
”There is no way I can reconcile what he said at that meeting with the picture that has emerged in these documents,” Post said. ”The sense that somehow progress has been made just flies in the face of these new disclosures.”
The stigma of a bankruptcy filing is also alarming to some clergy and church observers. The Rev. Robert W. Bullock, a leader of the Boston Priests Forum, said a bankruptcy filing would make the work of parish priests significantly more difficult.
”You can see how bankruptcy is going to be a metaphor for moral and spiritual bankruptcy,” said Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon. ”I don’t know what the strategy is, or whether it’s a strategy, but it’s not going to help us. Our job right now is to rebuild trust and confidence. Just the prospect of bankruptcy makes that more difficult.”
Public relations specialist Thomas P. O’Neill III, the former lieutenant governor and a former adviser to Law, also said that a bankruptcy filing would underscore moral shortcomings in the archdiocesan leadership.
”What’s really too bad is we have the head of the archdiocese and the head of the American church talking about a financial bankruptcy that is very closely associated with a moral bankruptcy,” O’Neill said.
As the archdiocese continues to struggle with a crisis with roots that date to the 1960s, some members of Law’s Commission for the Protection of Children, formed this year, said they are concerned that the church is not moving swiftly enough to keep it from happening again.
David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, and another commission member, Suzin Bartley, said they are worried that Law has yet to put their recommendations into practice. Law said in October that he expected to have the procedures in place by Dec. 1.
”I’m getting a little concerned because the grace period is up,” said Finkelhor. ”There was quite a bit that needed to be done on the issues of the lay review board which is supposed to help make decisions about whether to remove [allegedly abusive] priests or not.”
Bartley, executive director of the Children’s Trust Fund, has been asked by the archdiocese to serve on the church’s Implementation and Oversight Board, which will replace the panel that dissolved after it presented its findings to Law in the fall.
Bartley said she lauds Anthony P. Rizzuto, a permanent deacon who was recently named to oversee the church’s new Office for Child Advocacy, Implementation and Oversight, for his work launching an abuse education training program in the archdiocese’s parochial schools and religious education classes.
But Bartley echoed Finkelhor’s concerns: ”I remain concerned about the amount of work that needs to be done and where we are in this process in terms of implementing this policy and the resources that will be available to implement this policy.”
Morrissey acknowledged the missed deadline. ”We’re still working on it,” she said. ”Clearly, we have a lot of things going on right now simultaneously, but we are working as hard as we can to get it accomplished.”
Other Catholics who have been closely following the sex scandal that exploded in January, say this week’s details were particularly horrific.
”This has freshened our sense of horror,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, cofounder of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors. ”A lot of Catholics believed the cardinal when he said no abuse has happened since 1993. These records put a lie to that. I think this is going to institute another shift and persuade a lot of us that a dialogue with hierarchy is no longer a fruitful course.”
Lawler said the church’s move toward bankruptcy would be a financial recognition of the spiritual harm that already has been inflicted. ”The wear and tear of continuing this is getting to be horribly detrimental for the church,” said Lawler, who now edits Catholic World News, an Internet site.
The newly released records also drew attention from law enforcement. Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating said the records show that many instances of abuse by priests reassigned to parishes could have been prevented if the archdiocese had reported initial allegations to law enforcement authorities.
”It just underscores the fact that these are not matters for clerical review but rather for criminal review,” Keating said. ”If the church were a day care center or a school, the public wouldn’t think twice about the fact that criminal justice authorities should be involved.”
Earlier this year, Acting Governor Jane Swift approved a measure that would add clergy to a list of professionals, including school teachers and social workers, who are required to report information about child sex abuse to the Department of Social Services. The church was exempt from the law since it was approved more than 20 years ago.
The new revelations have also taken their toll on victims of past abuse and their families. Rodney Ford, whose son Gregory has filed a lawsuit over claims of abuse by the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, said his wife and his son’s girlfried were so upset by the contents of the files that they have decided they can no longer attend Mass.
Paula Ford has been a choir member at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton, while Gina Baccari, Gregory Ford’s girlfriend, has been a eucharistic minister at the same church.
”The church has been my wife’s life,” Rodney Ford said. ”The choir is her way of speaking to God and that’s been taken away from her now.”