The very first scene in “Spotlight,” the new movie detailing how The Boston Globe exposed the pedophile priest scandal, is set at the Area C-11 police station in Dorchester. It’s the mid-1970s. In one room, a priest sits alone; in a second room, another priest assures a woman that the cleric who had just sexually assaulted her children would be reassigned and kept away from other potential victims.
But just the opposite occurred. As the Globe would report in 2002, the Boston Catholic archdiocese took such predator priests and reassigned them to other parishes over and over again, placing more young children in their paths. And Cardinal Law knew this and participated in this cover-up.
There’s also a scene at Boston College High School in Dorchester about a meeting of Globe reporters with officials there about an accused priest who served there.
The Globe has a website listing the 271 accused priests. It also tells what parishes they served in. This sent a shudder through the laity as they realized that so, so many parishes at one time or another had one or more of these priest abusers at their own parish. The list includes the names of 22 priests who served in Dorchester parishes.
I have met four of the priests who turned out to be abusers. I still feel haunted remembering the unkindly piercing eyes of Fr. Paul Mahan whom I worked with at St. Matthew’s Church when they participated in one of our community improvement organizations. I later learned he was one of the abusers. Another abuser, Fr. Paul Shanley, actually had an acclaimed ministry to homeless youth. Clearly, he constantly found hopeless youth whom he could abuse while in that so-called ministry. I will always remember the anguish of one priest who told me that he had to live with knowing he’d referred troubled youth to Fr. Shanley because he was thought to be effective with youth.
I still remember a meeting with lay leaders and some priests in our congregation- based community improvement organization in 2002 when we thought we could move on with our work. At the meeting, one lay leader who was in the parish that had one of the priest abusers in it at one time, said, “I’m having trouble feeling I can ask people to be active in the Church, in our parish, after what has happened.”
Some 1,000 people have come forward over the years in the archdiocese to say they had been abused. One would have to assume there’s some more who were too ashamed and traumatized to admit to anyone that they were one of the abused. It’s a huge number of people with huge scars of anguish.
There was a recent screening of the film for survivors of the abuse and families and friends and much sobbing was heard in the dark movie theater. They are haunted by their sufferings and need our sympathy and empathy.
This abuse and the cover-up happened here and, literally, all across the country and around the world. All the uncovering has not been done. Almost no bishops and cardinals have been disciplined as result of the revelations of their covering up the scandal and transferring priests to other parishes where some of them committed abuses again. Victims still suffer tremendously.
The US Catholic Conference of Bishops recently sent a letter to dioceses in the context of the release of this film suggesting that the bishops both apologize again and point out the education and reporting steps that have been set in place to prevent future abuses.
But, I feel sympathy for the so many good men who are priests and who have had to live with the shame that the scandal has cast over them. They had to understand that some of their parishioners wondered if they were abusers, too. It wasn’t fair for them to live with this cloud of suspicion, but it was the reality. They’ve continued to work hard in their ministries despite all this, so I respect many of them.
The Catholic Church still cares for the spiritual side of so many millions and runs so many schools and hospitals and social services. It also gathers and spiritually supports so many people in its parishes. Its teachings on social and economic justice make me hopeful, at least sometimes, that they will be utilized by its clergy, lay leaders, and even its hierarchy. And Pope Francis brings real hope and challenges people to live up to the social justice teachings of the church.
The theologian Ivan Illich talked about “the church as she and the church as it” in describing both the loving, spiritual side of the church and the cold and bureaucratic aspect of it. Clearly we hope to walk with the “church as she.” It can be a great power for justice and spiritual support.
Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.