Abuse Scandal Still Echoes Through Catholic Church Five years ago, The Boston Globe exposed widespread allegations of sex abuse by clergy in Boston and efforts by the Catholic Church to cover it up. The 2002 scandal marked a culmination of events in the works for decades.
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Abuse Scandal Still Echoes Through Catholic Church

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Abuse Scandal Still Echoes Through Catholic Church


Five years ago this month, people in Massachusetts were picking up their newspapers and turning on their radios and TVs to this…

(Soundbite of a newscast)

Unidentified Announcer: Special Boston Globe WBC4 demonstration. This is News Conference.

Unidentified Man: An historic apology from the Catholic Church to victims of sexual abuse. But does it go far enough?

MONTAGNE: The Boston Globe had the story of 130 people who said they had been sexually abused as children by a priest and proof that the church knew about it and covered it up. Suddenly, allegations of sexual abuse by priests dominated national attention. The scandal has cost the church hundreds of millions of dollars and touched the lives of many of the nation's 70 million Catholics.

Today, we begin a series of stories on where things stand five years later for the church and the victims. As NPR's Rachel Martin reports, concerns about abuse by priests had been around for a long time, so why in 2002 did the issue catch fire? And a caution to listeners, some parts of this story are graphic.

RACHEL MARTIN: A small wooden cross still hangs above the kitchen door in Maryetta Dussourd's home in Jamaica Plain, the only visible remnant of her Catholic faith. Three of her sons and four of her nephews were molested by Father John Geoghan in the 1970s. Family is everything to her. And back then, so was the Catholic Church.

Ms. MARYETTA DUSSOURD: I had a priest coming into my home. I was so blessed. My children were so lucky, you know. My kids had Father John Geoghan.

MARTIN: He came over almost every night and helped put the children to bed. That's when he would whisper prayers in their ears and fondle them. It went on like that for two years. Dussourd credits The Boston Globe with shining a light on the dark secret that destroyed her family. But ultimately, she says, it was God's will to expose and expel the predators in 2002.

Ms. DUSSOURD: Why did everything come to a boiling point? For my kind of mentality, it's only because God is spitting them out. Thousands of his children have been physically, criminally molested, raped.

MARTIN: There may have been an element of divine intervention, but what made 2002 different than other sex abuse scandals was evidence - thousands of documents proving a massive cover-up. In August of 2001, The Boston Globe asked the Massachusetts Superior Court to release secret church documents. The judge ruled in favor of The Globe, releasing a paper trail of responsibility that led all the way to Cardinal Bernard Law.

Father TOM DOYLE (Former Vatican Lawyer): Here was the proof. This was the smoking gun.

MARTIN: Father Tom Doyle is a former Vatican canon lawyer who left his work with the church to work with victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Father DOYLE: The Boston Globe published pictures of the letters sent to Cardinal Law and his predecessors telling him Father Geoghan is doing this, Father Geoghan is doing that, and the pictures of the letters back denying it. And that infuriated people.

MARTIN: No one saw that more clearly than Michael Paulson, religion correspondent for The Globe and part of the investigative team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the sex abuse stories. He says The Globe was prepared for a flood of criticism from Catholic faithful.

Mr. MICHAEL PAULSON (Correspondent, The Boston Globe): In fact, there was this tidal wave of reaction directed not at The Globe but at the church.

MARTIN: As that anger mounted, Paulson and his colleagues quickly realized that the scandal was much bigger than Boston.

Mr. PAULSON: And as the phones began to ring with victims telling us their stories, and as the documents began to come forward through these court cases, the scope just became bigger and bigger and bigger.

(Soundbite of NBC News broadcast)

Mr. TOM BROKAW (Anchor, NBC News): NBC News in depth tonight, crisis in the church: the Catholic community in Massachusetts dealing now with an ugly secret that's been hidden for far too long.

MARTIN: As the story went national, The Globe pressed on, exposing abuse by dozens of other priests in Massachusetts and the bishops who moved them around. Other papers picked up the trail, The Dallas Morning News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, The New York Times and The Washington Post. The public pressure became too much for the Vatican to ignore, and in April 2002, Pope John Paul II called all the American Cardinals to Rome to discuss the crisis. Ultimately, Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law was forced to step down.

Michael Paulson says for a long time the church was considered off limits to scrutiny by the press. Not anymore.

Mr. PAULSON: People have become more willing to question and challenge major institutions in our society, and that goes for journalists as well. And it became possible for those reasons for a major newspaper to ask tough questions about a major religious institution.

MARTIN: But other people and cultural forces had set the stage long before.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: In 1988, the king of daytime talk, Phil Donahue, did an entire segment on clergy sexual abuse.

(Soundbite of TV show "Donahue")

Mr. PHIL SAVIANO (Founder, Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests, New England): He was reporting on the Gilbert Gauthe case, a priest in Louisiana who had a long history of molesting kids.

MARTIN: Phil Saviano is the founder of the New England chapter of SNAP, the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests. Saviano says the "Donahue" show was a rare moment of vindication for himself and other victims.

Mr. SAVIANO: I was so excited when I read about that story in "TV Guide" that I set my VCR to record it as I was going off to work that day. Because, suddenly, that was really the first instance that I knew that what happened to me - being molested when I was a kid - was perhaps something that also happened to other kids by other priests in other parts of the country.

MARTIN: So now there was Phil Donahue breaking cultural taboos, talking about clergy sex abuse and all the gritty details in the middle of the day. And believe it or not, several people I spoke with said the Monica Lewinsky affair in the late '90s also played a role. The scandal forced news organizations to start using blunt sexual language - masturbation, semen, oral sex - and to use those words in the context of very powerful people. It was all helping to create a climate where the media could talk frankly about clergy sexual abuse.

But this new openness didn't come without risks and setbacks, like a case in Chicago in 1993. High profile abuse allegations made against Cardinal Joseph Bernadine proved false and suddenly all victims' claims were then called into question. The media backed off. Phil Saviano calls it the big chill.

Mr. SAVIANO: You know, I started to question myself in thinking, well, you know, maybe this time I could just move on and let this stuff go. And then I get another call the next day from another victim in another state, crying. And that would keep me going.

MARTIN: Now, in 2002, it wasn't just victims who were speaking out. Catholics around the country left the pews and took to the streets, demanding answers and apologies. And that, says Vatican canon lawyer Father Tom Doyle, was something the church here had never seen before.

Father DOYLE: Because Catholic lay people generally had been treated like children when you get involved in the church. You know, don't question the bishop; he knows best, priest knows best. Well, there were a number of people who weren't buying that anymore, especially when it came to their kids.

MARTIN: Doyle says that new emboldened spirit has kept the momentum going, even today. Two thousand two was a culmination of events and forces: the revelation of secret documents, the power of the Internet, a heightened cultural consciousness about sex abuse, a new determination from reporters to tell the story. And maybe in 2002 America was just more willing to listen.

Rachel Martin, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED our series continues with what the last five years have meant for the victims of abuse.

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