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Issue Date:  January 25, 2008

Boston moves on, after Law

It is encouraging to see signs of rejuvenation in the Boston archdiocese five years after Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in the wake of revelations about his handling of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

It is no small matter that the measurable sign of renewal is money, the non-doctrinal element essential to church life. That is not to suggest that a church’s health can be measured by its treasury. Preachers of the prosperity gospel have amply demonstrated that a heavy revenue stream is no guarantee against spiritual bankruptcy.

In the normal course of Catholic church life, however, the faithful have recourse to little beyond money with which to extract accountability from leadership. And they use that option sparingly. In Boston, pushed to the brink, Catholics cut off the church’s most reliable revenue stream -- their own donations. They and many of their priests also demanded that the most visible symbol of the hierarchy’s betrayal of the community -- Cardinal Law -- be removed. In recent years, as they sensed progress toward a church more responsive to their questions and concerns, the money flow has slowly increased.

Of course it is unfair to place the entire burden of the American church’s sex abuse crisis on Cardinal Law. The way he handled the knowledge that children were being abused by priests, ignored warnings from one of his own bishops, and defamed and belittled those who attempted to uncover the church’s illegal activities was deplorable. But Cardinal Law was not alone. He just happened to be the prelate whose diocese caught the white-hot glare of East Coast media at a time when a judge decided the people deserved to know the extent of the secret misdeeds.

Unlike many of his fellow bishops, whose chancery files held the same sorts of secrets, Law was forced to face public disclosure of the words he spoke and wrote in previously unrevealed letters and depositions. The documents showed, in unedited form, how much worse than the hierarchy’s public characterization the crisis really was.

That has been the case in every instance since in which the church has been forced to hand over documents on clergy sex abuse to the justice system.

If Boston became the center of the storm, it has also become an example of how to move through the aftermath. Whatever some perceive as his faults, Cardinal Sean O’Malley has dramatically changed the nature of leadership and what it means to exercise authority in the archdiocese.

We have amply documented his missteps in our pages -- particularly the heavy-handed way he ordered parish closings. But O’Malley seems to have learned from those experiences the necessity of dealing with his people in good faith. He has called on a variety of lay experts in the area of fiscal accountability. He has earned the praise of his critics by subjecting the diocese to some of the most transparent budgetary processes we’ve ever seen in a Catholic church structure.

O’Malley has noted that opening the books and making budget processes transparent are essential to winning back the trust of people. It didn’t hurt that one of his first acts was to sell off the cardinal’s mansion and to give away much of the furniture and household effects to church workers.

He has managed to dial back the arrogance and airs of the previous administration, apparently aware that rescuing the church in Boston required a change in culture at the top. O’Malley seems to understand that he will not regain trust by imposing authority but by leading in a way that grants lay people full citizenship in the Catholic community, by acknowledging their wisdom and love for the church.

The crisis in Boston demonstrated that the sex abuse scandal grew out of control because of a lack of accountability and transparency. The recovery in Boston shows the need for structural changes that most dioceses are yet unwilling to undertake.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008

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