10 Years After Clergy Abuse Crisis, Calls For More Changes

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Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, left, speaks to reporters, as Rev. John Connolly,  with the Cardinal's special assistant for the Protection of Children, at a news conference in April, 2008. (AP)
Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, left, with Rev. John Connolly, the Cardinal's special assistant for the Protection of Children, at a news conference in April, 2008. (AP)

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the massive cover-up of the clergy sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

It was 10 years ago when a priest went to trial for molesting a boy in a swimming pool. Here’s how the victim (who isn't named because he was a minor at the time) described the attack at the hands of a man whose name became synonymous with clergy abuse — Father John Geoghan.

"I felt a hand going up the back of my leg. It went up my right leg and reached my butt and my butt was squeezed," he said on the witness stand.

Geoghan was convicted of sexual abuse and sent to jail for nine to 10 years. He was later killed in prison. This case, along with an extensive investigation by The Boston Globe, led to the unraveling of a scandal of more than 270 priests abusing more than 800 children over decades, all of it covered up by their superiors in the church.

Now, 10 years later, Cardinal Sean O’Malley is reflecting on the sexual abuse crisis, writing that the church has made "sweeping and significant changes" as a result. In a statement released Wednesday, O'Malley highlights what the church has done to protect children and reach out to victims.

But many church watchers and victims of clergy abuse say that while there has been progress, there are also many loopholes and problems with the way it’s overseeing claims of abuse and protecting children. And, aside from Cardinal Bernard Law stepping down, clergy abuse victim Olan Horne says there’s been very little accountability by the Vatican.

"They did ask Law to resign," Horne said, "they got rid of a few of these bishops. But two-thirds of the American bishops have been implicit in this and until they get rid of those people...."

The majority of the cardinal’s letter is about victims and supporting them and their families. O'Malley notes the archdiocese has spent more than $7 million in services for survivors and their families and, at any given time, they are helping about 300 people. But Horne says it’s not enough.

"I’ve been asking for a 24-hour hotline since day one and I still think there needs to be a national line, not unlike the Samaritans. It works," Horne said.

O’Malley says in his letter that survivors of clergy sexual abuse, like Horne, must always be the "central focus of all dimensions of our ongoing response to the crisis." Yet, critics say, the church refuses to give a full accounting of all priests accused of abuse.

Back in the summer, O'Malley released a list of priests from the Boston Archdiocese accused of molestation. But that list of 159 priests did not include members of religious orders, such as the Jesuits. O'Malley says they aren't under the control of the archdiocese. He also left off nine other priests because he deemed their cases to be unsubstantiated.


The problem, says Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of Bishop Accountability, a group that tracks accused priests, is that all the authority still rests with the cardinal.

"We don't know what process he uses when he decides whether a priest must be removed, but a big misconception is that Cardinal O'Malley is immediately removing priests upon receipt of an allegation," she said. "He absolutely is not. His policy doesn't even require him to do that."

The archdiocese said O’Malley had no time for an interview for this story. But a spokesman says the archdiocese does remove priests accused of abuse. The stated policy says the cardinal must remove a priest only if abuse is admitted or proven.

The archdiocese says it complies with all laws with respect to reporting abuse to the authorities. Massachusetts law was strengthened in the past 10 years, making clergy mandatory reporters. There is an exemption, though: there's no requirement to report abuse revealed during confession.

The archdiocese has an office of professional investigators look into claims of abuse. And it has a review board that confidentially advises the cardinal on complaints of child sexual abuse. Even though the board is made up mostly of lay Catholics, Terry McKiernan, of Bishop Accountability, says it has no real power.

"They basically get an interpreted summary of the case rather than doing the kind of research and digging into the documents that would really provide them with a full picture of the allegation," McKiernan said.

O’Malley says his highest priority has been to make sure this abuse never happens again. But in his 10-year assessment he does not mention the process by which the church reviews claims of abuse or handles abusive priests.

So, the bottom line after 10 years: are kids safer?

Suzin Bartley, executive director of the Children’s Trust Fund who was also on the church's Implementation and Oversight Advisory Committee from 2002 to 2006, is confident kids are safer.

"I think the archdiocese did a really good job with coming up with policies and with procedures and with ensuring that people had CORI checks with people who are routinely coming in contact with kids to make sure there was a code of conduct to ensure adults were left alone with kids," she said.

O’Malley highlights these changes in his assessment, saying 300,000 children have been trained to spot abuse and the church routinely runs criminal records checks on people working with kids. But Bartley wonders if the church is continuing all monitoring and training.

"I hope that it’s happening," Bartley said. "I do wonder and perhaps this would be a good time for the archdiocese to bring folks together again, whether those of us that sat on this committee or others, to say: 'Where are we?' "

The cardinal's commission, which Bartley sat on 10 years ago, recommended to then-Cardinal Law that these policies be reviewed every three years. In 2006 they were, but Bartley believes none of the recommendations to strengthen them were adopted.

Cardinal O'Malley's assessment now does not call for any reviews. He says the church will never forget the clergy sexual abuse crisis. And O'Malley says the archdiocese will always "focus on the protection of children with the utmost seriousness and gravity."


This program aired on January 5, 2012.


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