As of today, ten years have passed since the Boston archdiocese was engulfed in scandal, as the result of investigative reporting by the Boston Globe. Today the faithful in Boston are still struggling to shake off the lingering effects of that scandal. But a full recovery is delayed because of two popular misconceptions, which should be corrected.
First, the scandal exposed by the Globe in January 2002 was not the sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests. That scandal had already been exposed a full decade earlier, as sickening stories of clerical molesters emerged from Louisiana and from nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. By the turn of the century, anyone who followed the story carefully recognized that these cases were not isolated—that the problem was widespread.
The Globe expose added an entirely new dimension to the story, revealing a second scandal. While some priests abused children, the Globe reporting showed, archdiocesan officials had protected the predators, covered up evidence, and lied to parishioners about their priests’ problems. The Globe exposed the corruption within the Boston hierarchy which had allowed the abuse to continue.
Within a few months after the appearance of that shocking investigative coup—during what the late Father Richard Neuhaus called the “long Lent” of 2002–a similar pattern of episcopal corruption was exposed in many other American dioceses. Only a small percentage of the Catholic priests in the US were charged with abusing children, but a very large percentage of the country’s bishops (fully two-thirds, according to an exhaustive search through the available evidence by the Dallas Morning News) had been implicated in the cover-up.
When they gathered in Dallas in June 2002, staggering from the pounding of public criticism, the American bishops devised a plan to cope with the first scandal: the abuse of young people by Catholic priests. To this day they have never addressed the second scandal: the complicity within the hierarchy. Priests who have been accused of abuse have been removed from active ministry, but bishops who were demonstrably guilty of protecting the abusers remained in office.
In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law was pressured to resign later in 2002. But his chief aides, who had carried out the policies that brought his downfall, remained. There was never a full public accounting for the many misleading statements that had been released by the archdiocese, so the damage done to the credibility of Church leadership was not repaired. Since arriving in Boston in 2003, Cardinal Sean O’Malley has done an admirable job of ministering to abuse victims, soothing fears and calming anger. But he has not addressed the credibility gap.
Second, the decline of Catholicism in Boston was not caused by the scandal. By any measurable standard, the influence of the Church had been in decline for years—perhaps for decades—before the first stories of priestly misconduct hit the headlines. Indeed in my book The Faithful Departed I argued that the sex-abuse scandal should be understood not as the cause of the troubles that ail the Church in Boston, but as the symptom of a deeper problem.
By any standard measurements, the influence of Catholicism in Boston has been waning since some time in the middle of the 20th century. Mass attendance has been on a downward trend since 1950. The number of men ordained to the priesthood, and women entering religious life, began to plummet in the late 1960s. By the 1970s it was clear that most lay Catholics had ceased listening to the teaching voice of their Church.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the field of politics. Boston’s representatives in the U.S. Congress and at the Massachusetts State House voted overwhelmingly in favor of legal abortion, even while most of these politicians professed to be faithful Catholics. And again, this decline in Church influence was apparent long before the fateful Globe investigation.
In the first decade of the 21st century, this gradual decline in Catholic influence has become a disorderly rout. Massachusetts politicians have given their approval to same-sex marriage, required hospitals to provide “emergency” contraception, and encouraged fetal research. On each of issues, the Catholic bishops have issued pro forma statements asserting the Church’s position, but have been unable to mount any real resistance against the secular liberal onslaught.
This year an ominous new initiative is on the horizon: a bid to legalize assisted suicide. The Boston archdiocese has vowed to resist the effort, but the political outlook is daunting. The Church has few notable allies at the State House. For decades, aspiring politicians in Boston had taken great pains to show their deference to the Church. Now even Catholic candidates find it more expedient to advertise themselves as impervious to Church influence.
The catastrophic loss of political influence mirrors a similarly steep drop in the vitality of parish life. Shortly after his arrival in Boston, Cardinal O’Malley presided over an unprecedented round of parish closings. Angry parishioners resisted the archdiocesan orders, and in a few parishes, dissidents are still holding vigils, keeping the churches open and organizing their own para-liturgical ceremonies—in effect establishing their own little sects. As painful as it was, the parish-closing process failed to stop the hemorrhaging, and now another major retrenchment is likely. Catholic schools are closing too, and the archdiocese has sold off its hospital system to a secular corporation.
Amid this devastation, Cardinal O’Malley is working to stoke the embers of spiritual revival in Boston. He has obviously made it a top priority to revive the archdiocesan seminary, and he is justly proud of a new bumper-crop of young men studying for the priesthood. Yet even for that impressive achievement, one must add an asterisk. To pay the cost of sex-abuse settlements, the archdiocese sold most of the acreage around St. John’s seminary to Boston College, a liberal Jesuit institution with enormous public influence and little love for the traditional teachings of the Church. So the young men now crowding into the archdiocesan seminary find themselves quite literally surrounded by the influence of secular liberalism. Perhaps that is just as well, because the priests who lead the Church in Boston in coming decades will find themselves regularly facing an adversary culture, in a city where Catholicism was once dominant.
This essay also appears at Catholicculture.org.