Church Erred on Abuses, Boston College Leader Says
© 2002 The New York Times
May 16, 2002, Thursday
By Pam Belluck
NEWTON, Mass., May 15 -- The president of Boston College, Boston's most prestigious institution of Roman Catholic education, said today that the Catholic hierarchy had "badly mishandled" the cases of sexually abusive priests and that he felt betrayed by how the church had kept the problem a secret while letting the priests continue working in parishes.
"We as a Catholic community have just been baffled and bewildered and angry about how could this be going on," the educator, the Rev. William P. Leahy, said in his first interview since the sexual abuse crisis erupted. "How can we have kids molested by priests?" Father Leahy said.
"I think the cover-up, if you will, has generated more anger, more disappointment," he said. "I think people feel betrayed. I do."
Father Leahy has made few public comments about the scandal, aware that he and his university have always had close ties to the Archdiocese of Boston, which has its office across Commonwealth Avenue in the Brighton area.
Father Leahy made himself available for an interview to announce a wide-ranging plan by Boston College to examine the scandal. Seeking a way to help address the crisis while remaining "respectful" toward the church, the university will organize seminars and lectures, commission issue papers and introduce courses on subjects like sexuality over the next two years, Father Leahy said.
"I know of nothing," said Father Leahy, who is also a historian, "that's ever affected the church in the United States as this crisis has so devastated the Catholic community, so wounded the Catholic community."
Although it was founded by Jesuits and Father Leahy is a Jesuit, Boston College has an influence that extends well beyond that order, particularly because it has produced generations of influential politicians and civic leaders in Massachusetts. Father Leahy, 53, has presided for six years over the institution, which has 14,500 undergraduate and graduate students, most of them Catholic.
Given his position, Father Leahy said he felt he had to remain neutral about some of the most contentious issues in the scandal, including whether Cardinal Bernard F. Law should resign.
But Father Leahy said in careful tones, "I would be with those who say the hierarchy in the United States has badly mishandled this whole situation." In the Boston Archdiocese, he said, "big errors in judgment were made."
Father Leahy said that when the scandal began to unfold "I was shocked" by the extent of the problems, especially the fact that abusive priests were put into positions where they could molest more children.
"I understand that to some degree early on, 30, 40 years ago, there was certainly a sense of avoid scandal, don't air dirty laundry," Father Leahy said. But the misjudgments in handling abusive priests "were going on in the 90's there."
"That I don't understand," he said. "I don't know what the mindset was."
Father Leahy said that he saw no evidence that the cardinal, whom he said he talked with occasionally in recent months, was on the verge of leaving his post or being reassigned to Rome.
"I think the Vatican said, 'Don't go,' " he said. "I have no sense that there's going to be a change."
In February, Father Leahy was among a group of people whom Cardinal Law called to give him advice. Although he would not say what he told the cardinal, Father Leahy recalled that the consensus of those in the room was that the archdiocese should "review all the situations that you may know exist."
"Come public with it all at once," he said. "Get it out there and then deal with it."
Father Leahy agreed that the archdiocese had not been handling the crisis that way, saying, "The vast majority of people I talk with say they wish we had a better media strategy."
Father Leahy also acknowledged that he might have had a role in Cardinal Law's decision not to attend the Boston College commencement. He said he called the cardinal last month after students, faculty members and administrators began protesting plans for him to attend the ceremony.
"I had a conversation with some of his staff and said: 'We have issues that are arising on campus. We need to talk about this,' " Father Leahy said. "When I called him he said, 'Look I don't want in any way to detract from your graduation.' "
Father Leahy said his relationship with the cardinal has always been good. "He and I have always communicated well," he said. "We don't always agree, but we've always done that one on one."
Father Leahy said he felt that his conversations with the cardinal should remain private, but that in meetings he has attended, the cardinal has said: " 'We've made mistakes. If I had to do it over again, I'd do things differently.' "
Father Leahy added that the cardinal appeared distressed in recent weeks. "I know right now he feels terrible about all that's happening," Father Leahy said. "I know he regrets immensely decisions he has made."
Father Leahy said he expected that the Boston College programs on the crisis would include issues like clergy celibacy, female priests and whether lay people should have more influence. He declined to express his opinions on those topics.
As for repairing the damage from the sexual abuse scandal, Father Leahy said:
"I say let's respond as best we can to the victims and their families. Let's seek forgiveness. Let's put in systems to make sure this never happens again. Let's respond also to those who are asking: 'What's my role in the church? How do I hand on the faith that I have cherished all my life?' "
GRAPHIC: Photo: The Rev. William P. Leahy, president of Boston College, plans a two-year program at Boston College to examine the sexual abuse scandal. (Jodi Hilton for The New York Times)