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Cardinal O'Malley Reflects on a Decade of Shattered Faith and Continuing Hope

Cardinal, survivors, and priests mark the 10th anniversary of the clergy abuse crisis.


| Posted 1/6/12 at 1:22 PM


BOSTON — Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston issued a pastoral letter this week, marking the 10th anniversary of the clergy abuse crisis, ignited by The Boston Globe’s groundbreaking story published on Jan. 6, 2002.

But while the cardinal’s letter summarized the Church’s policies and accomplishments in the wake of the crisis, its sorrowful tone underscored the deep and lingering impact of a once hidden pattern of abuse and neglect.

The Jan. 4 letter acknowledged the wounds of the survivors, expressed contrition for past crimes perpetrated by priests, and vowed to maintain policies designed to protect the innocent from future abuse.

In his letter, the cardinal referenced a passage in Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 “Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland”:

“It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church.

“I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love — even in the darkest and most hopeless situations — to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning,” stated the Pope.

While the papal letter offered a measure of hope, Cardinal O’Malley’s sober remembrance confirmed a painful truth for many of those harmed directly or indirectly by clerical predators: “There will never be a time to presume the crisis is over or behind us,” the cardinal stated.

The first part of his letter addressed the ongoing suffering of adults who had been abused as children. But he also confirmed that his priests also faced great difficulties.

“It has been painful for our dedicated, faithful priests to see seminary classmates and other colleagues accused of terrible violations of trust and, as well, to live with the fear that a false allegation could remove them from ministry and destroy their reputation,” Cardinal O’Malley said.

Thousands Helped

Media coverage of the cardinal’s letter balanced his review of prudent new policies with a barrage of criticism from survivors and organizations representing victims. Some naysayers acknowledged that there had been progress; others doubted that anything had changed for the better.

In the Globe’s story this week, Bernie McDaid, who was abused in the 1960s and later met with Pope Benedict during the Holy Father’s 2008 U.S. visit, acknowledged that survivors “have a trust issue. For us to move on, we have to have some degree of faith” that the perpetrators “will be charged, re-educated, something. If anything, it’s worse than we ever thought.”

David Nolan, who was abused by a Boston priest in the 1970s, has worked with the archdiocese to establish an independent outreach program for survivors, their families and others affected by the abuse.

“The ministry that I proposed became the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach (OPSO), and it has helped thousands of people over the last 10 years. The professionals who continue to help people show extraordinary faith and desire to serve those who have been hurt — drive their commitment, despite the nature of the work,” said Nolan.

He also was active on the archdiocesan Commission for the Protection of Children, which has established policies and guidelines that required and secured safe practices on behalf of all children. Yet, despite his willingness to collaborate with the archdiocese, Nolan asserted that local Church officials have not provided full disclosure.

“We need to know why children were knowingly put in harm’s way repeatedly. If the priests that abused were driven by a compulsion they could not control, then what drove their superiors to continue to cover their crimes and move them around? Was it simply fear? Or was it to protect the Church at all costs?” he asked.

Culture of Skepticism

While Cardinal O’Malley’s letter noted that the archdiocese has spent $7 million on a variety of services for survivors and loved ones, Nolan added that shame and despair have kept many victims from coming forward. Meanwhile, many survivors continue to struggle with suicidal thoughts and damaged relationships.

Barbara Thorp, the director of the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach and Child Protection Services, has worked with several social workers over the past decade to assist survivors and their families. In the wake of The Boston Globe’s explosive revelations, she was appointed to establish the archdiocese’s outreach effort.

“We became acutely aware of the needs of family members. People for the first time were learning that their children, decades earlier, had been abused by a priest in their own homes.”

“They were the rocks of their parishes; their children were in the church choir. They trusted anyone associated with the Church. It was quite devastating to witness the impact of the crisis on these families,” said Thorp during an interview at the archdiocesan Pastoral Center.

She has continued to receive calls from survivors — in recent years, their stories mostly deal with historic cases, yet their experience still reflects the soul-searing impact of innocence violated. Over time, she has also become aware that there is no single passage for those struggling with childhood traumas.

Boston priests who are innocent of any illicit or criminal behavior and have soldiered on during the past decade, ministering to their parishes, have grappled with a culture of skepticism regarding a once revered vocation. Cardinal O’Malley’s letter noted that in the present climate priests live with the constant fear that they could be falsely accused. At the same time, pastors have sought to listen to survivors and speak up on their behalf, calling the Church to a time of renewal.

’Moment of Extraordinary Light’

Like many Catholics in Boston, it has taken time for archdiocesan priests to come to grips with the scope of the problem.

The 1993 conviction of James Porter — a laicized priest from the nearby Diocese of Fall River, Mass. — on multiple counts of child sexual abuse drew national attention and led some local priests to question whether the problem was more widespread. But several archdiocesan priests said they received assurances that such problems had been effectively addressed in Boston.

Thus, Father Bryan Parrish, now an assistant vicar of administration for the Boston Archdiocese and a pastor of two local parishes, said he was stunned when he reviewed the timeline in the 2002 Globe story recounting the documented pattern of abuse, allegations and reassignments of Father John Geoghan.

“I realized that when I looked at the timeline that it was post-James Porter. It led me to question what we had been told,” said Father Parrish. He noted that the support of his parishioners and their reverence for the priesthood helped him through the most difficult periods of a decade punctuated by new allegations against local priests.

“We were sickened, and we were left to deal with this as best we could. But the people in the parish were there for us, God bless them,” said Father John Sheridan, pastor of St. James in Salem, who was shocked to learn that a close friend was among the perpetrators.

These pastors, interviewed during a meeting at the archdiocese’s Pastoral Center, say they have had to “earn” their parishioners’ regard and that many in the local Church remain angry at the hierarchy who neglected to protect the innocent.

Yet for all the pain experienced by Catholic families and priests betrayed by manipulative predators, Barbara Thorp says her work with survivors confirms that the Church is on a difficult but necessary pilgrimage.

“There was darkness, and evil was going on in secret. Children were abused, and they were terrified of telling anyone. That was the truly evil time. Today, we are in a moment of extraordinary light, a great kairos (supreme moment) that is revelatory,” said Thorp.

At the beginning of the crisis, she said, some wanted to outsource services to survivors and their families. But she believed that Church leaders and personnel should embrace rather than distance themselves from their brothers and sisters in Christ. 

“I felt strongly that Church leaders needed to hear this; they needed to be in the midst of it, ready to listen and respond with care, concern and apology,” Thorp concluded. “People needed to know they were respected and believed — and that, in relationship, we could embark on a path of healing.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.