WESTON, Mass. -- St. Julia's Church in this Boston suburb is only half-filled, but this Wednesday night's Mass is so important that the parish priest will not give it. The local bishop, Emilio Allue, has the honors, and he pauses and swallows and pauses again, searching for words that have not come easily to him or his Roman Catholic Church.
"Victims of sexual abuse have been seriously sinned against," says the bishop. "To any person who has suffered abuse from a minister of the church, we apologize for what has happened and ask for forgiveness."
Such a statement might be expected to be commonplace by now, in a decade that has seen hundreds of cases of sex abuse by priests become public. But the Catholic Church, by the admission of its own officials here, has been a reluctant confessor. The apologies offered by the Archdiocese of Boston during special Masses, such as the one in Weston, are unprecedented, according to church leaders and victims' groups.
"What Boston is doing is unique in the country: The Masses are an important step," says David Clohessy, the Missouri-based national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "The church has done so little for so long that anything has to be viewed as progress."
The effort in Boston has come in two parts. This fall, bishops from all five of the archdiocese's regions have sponsored a series of "healing" Masses for victims of sex abuse by priests. "In the past, we have this kind of healing Mass only for victims of war or severe natural disasters," says a Boston bishop, John B. McCormack.
'I beg forgiveness'
And last month, the Boston archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, issued a public letter that victims and church officials called extraordinary. "I know of nothing that has caused greater pain to the church than this phenomenon of abuse," the cardinal wrote. "With all my heart, I beg forgiveness of all who have been hurt by these acts of abuse."
The letter was striking because the archbishop had long expressed skepticism about allegations of sex abuse in the priesthood. In 1992, when former altar boys filed charges against Massachusetts priest James Porter -- and the issue of sex abuse by priests exploded into the public consciousness -- Law was defensive. In one speech, he called down the power of God on the news media for daring to report on the Porter case.
But the hundreds of allegations since have changed the cardinal's thinking, associates say. Fourteen priests in the nearby Worcester diocese have been sued or charged criminally in sex cases. In 1994, John Hanlon, a priest in the Boston Archdiocese, was sentenced to life in prison on abuse charges.
The Rev. Andrew Greeley, a Chicago priest, author and sociologist, has estimated that 2,000 to 4,000 American priests have abused young people, leaving about 100,000 victims.
The sheer number of charges has taken a considerable financial toll. Experts say the Catholic Church is spending $50 million a year over the past six years to settle sex abuse claims in the United States, and some dioceses have had difficulty renewing liability insurance policies. This year, a Texas jury found the Diocese of Dallas guilty of "gross negligence" in its handling of a priest accused of sexual misconduct and awarded a record $119.6 million to the victim. The church is appealing.
"I don't want to rain on anybody's parade, but there may be more than a little self-interest behind the special Masses in Boston," says A. W. Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest who has written extensively on church sex abuse. "The church wants to apologize, receive forgiveness and to move on. I wonder if this isn't a public relations ploy."
But Sister Rita McCarthy, a nun and Boston Archdiocese official who counsels victims of abuse by priests, says the Masses are a sincere effort "to ask for God's healing power for the victims, and for the church, which has been greatly harmed by this." She first suggested holding the healing Masses more than a year ago and slowly won over the cardinal.
"There was a lot to consider. Some in the archdiocese wondered: 'Could this reopen old wounds?' " says McCarthy. "But it turns out that people like the openness and honesty. We need more of it, in the church and in society."
Praise and criticism
Reaction to the Masses has been mixed. Roderick MacLeish, a Boston lawyer who has represented hundreds of sex abuse victims, has praised the archdiocese. And during the first Mass, held at a suburban church where two former pastors have been accused of abuse, an elderly woman stood up and said: "I have waited 40 years to hear those words, and I am most grateful."
But Jack Regan, the father of a sex abuse victim, calls the Masses "totally scripted" and "pure public relations." Phil Saviano, who was abused as an altar boy and now heads the New England chapter of SNAP, refuses to attend, saying that he and other victims are "too angry to go near a church."
Joe Dulong, who has filed a lawsuit alleging that he was abused two decades ago by a priest in the archdiocese, attended a Mass and left "disappointed that all we got was this half-hearted apology. They never say how they are going to make sure this doesn't happen again."
Saviano and others argue that the church needs to screen applicants more thoroughly. And prosecutors and victims of sex abuse by priests argue that many dioceses contribute to the problem by refusing to require church officials to report abuse to the police.
"The healing Masses are indicative of what's still wrong. They want to handle this with prayer, inside the church," says Saviano. "But when abuse happens, the appropriate response is to call a cop."
As a 12-year-old, Saviano was abused by Father David Holley, who molested dozens of children over a 30-year period -- with the knowledge of church officials, court records show. Holley, who is serving a 275-year prison term in New Mexico, was given counseling and transferred to another state whenever parishioners complained.
"Clearly, the church was a big part of the problem in some cases," says John Walsh, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston. "But as a spiritual institution, our presumption must remain that people who come to us come to us in confidence. You have to remember that the church, and society, are still learning about this issue. Our response is bound to be somewhat awkward."
Some of that awkwardness was on display during the healing Mass in Weston. Even as he apologized to victims, Allue appeared defensive throughout, frequently referring to "the tiny minority" of priests involved in abuse. Allue asked for prayers for "the vast majority of priests dedicated to celibacy, but embarrassed by the behavior of a very small number of our colleagues."
Outside the church, the bishop and approximately 75 people in attendance were confronted by 25 candle-holding protesters, among them John Sacco. Sacco and his five siblings say they were sexually abused by a former pastor at St. Julia's, John J. Geoghan, who has been accused in civil suits of molesting at least 28 children in Boston-area parishes over the past three decades. A criminal investigation of Geoghan is under way, according to the Suffolk County district attorney's office.
Allue had wanted to avoid Sacco as he left the church, but a nun who knows both men prevailed upon the bishop to meet the alleged victim.
"Bishop," said Sacco, "the church needs to provide free therapy to victims and report all cases to the police. That's the bottom line."
"I understand your point, but we have a procedure," Allue said. "We're doing everything in our power."
Both men, frustrated, shook hands and turned away.
"What else can we do?" the bishop said to himself, while Sacco whispered to a protester: "He doesn't understand yet that the apology is the beginning, not the end, of the conversation."
Pub Date: 12/18/97