When news broke in 1992 that former Catholic priest James Porter, known for years to Church officials as a predatory child rapist, had sexually abused dozens of children during his clerical career, making his the worst clerical pedophilia case in U.S. history, it was hard to imagine how anything could get worse for the Church. But as American Catholics have learned since the wave of clergy molestation lawsuits began in 1985, new lows are always just around the corner.
Porter assaulted many of the children while serving in the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., which prompted the Boston Globe to report aggressively on the assaults and the Church cover-up. Under fire, an angry Bernard Cardinal Law, the archbishop of Boston, denounced the media for what he believed was sensational reporting of the scandal. Later that year, Law said in a Globe interview that his staff had gone through past molestation cases the archdiocese had investigated and found no cases that merited further attention or concern.
It wasn't true. While Law was fulminating against the press and assuring the public that all was well with his clergy, a Boston priest, Father John Geoghan, was in the final years of a 36-year career, during which he molested scores of children in at least three Boston-area parishes, including a four-year-old boy and seven boys in one extended family. Documents show that the archdiocese had long been aware at its topmost levels of Geoghan's abuse of children. Law's predecessors knew about this priest, and they made sure Law knew about him when he took over in 1984.
Law nevertheless approved Geoghan as pastor of St. Julia's parish, where he would go on to molest more children. In 1989, following molestation complaints, Geoghan, by then a veteran of institutions that treat sexually abusive priests, went back into treatment. The archdiocese then returned him to the parish, where he continued to molest kids. After leaving parish work in 1993, Geoghan was assigned to the chaplaincy at a nursing home, but continued to seek out and abuse children.
By the time Geoghan was convicted in the first of three criminal trials in early January, more than 130 people had come forward, claiming to have been sexually assaulted by Geoghan when they were children. Though the criminal statute of limitations has expired in nearly all of the cases, the Church has paid millions to settle civil suits in the Geoghan matter, and faces 90 more suits - none of which are being contested by the accused priest, who was defrocked by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
Following new revelations in the Globe, Law gave an extraordinary January 9 press conference in which he apologized for his "tragically incorrect" 1984 decision to continue Geoghan's ministry. The cardinal claimed that assignment came after psychiatric and medical evaluators cleared the known pedophile for parish work. He announced a new "get tough" policy that would require all archdiocesan employees to report suspected incidents of clergy sex abuse to civil authorities.
Yet subsequent reporting by the Boston Globe, based on documents made public as a result of civil trials against the archdiocese, revealed that Geoghan had been in his new parish for a month before the archdiocese ordered his evaluation. And, reported the Globe, one of the two doctors who gave Geoghan a pass had no psychotherapy credentials. The other, a psychiatrist, had no experience treating sexual offenders, and had himself settled a 1977 lawsuit in which a female patient accused him of sexual molestation.
It gets worse. Last year, pedophile Christopher Reardon pleaded guilty to 75 counts of criminal molestation of young boys, some of whom he abused at the office of the Boston-area parish in which he worked. Workers in the parish testified before a grand jury that lawyers for the archdiocese counseled them not to aid authorities looking into the matter, out of concern that the sexual activities of Reardon's supervisor, Father Jon C. Martin, would open the archdiocese to negligence claims. The workers testified that they found condoms in Fr. Martin's bed, and that he often had male overnight guests in his rectory bedroom. If it can be proved that Fr. Martin was homosexually active, and that that in some way caused him to be negligent in his supervision of Reardon, the archdiocese could be in for another devastating round of lawsuits.
Molesters and sexual deviants among the Catholic clergy, episcopal negligence and cover-up, stonewalling chanceries and empty claims that at long last the Church is going to get serious about cleaning house: This is, of course, not a new story. And that, say critics, among them conservative Catholics loyal to Church teaching, is the real scandal.