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'Betrayal': Covering the Church Crisis

New York Times Book Review

Memo to Cardinal Bernard F. Law, Archbishop of Boston: Proceed with caution when choosing -- and publicly denouncing -- your enemies. In 1992, when a scandal erupted over the conduct of James R. Porter, a priest in southeastern Massachusetts who had sexually abused more than 100 children, Cardinal Law claimed that the Porter affair was being deliberately sensationalized as a result of anti-Catholic bias in the secular news media. The media have ''covered this story irresponsibly to paint all the clergy in a negative way,'' the cardinal said. ''The good and dedicated people who serve the church deserve better.''

Ten years later, The Boston Globe has responded -- decisively -- to the accusation of media overkill. Last year The Globe's Spotlight Team set out to discover how many priests in Boston had abused children, and how much the church had known. They found that Porter, while in no way typical, was somewhat more than an aberration, as the cardinal had characterized him: the pattern of serial sexual abuse of children and postpubescent minors had been present in several other truly sensational cases in Boston, Louisiana, New Mexico and elsewhere.

''Betrayal'' weaves a decade's worth of Globe reporting on the scandal in Boston into a more or less coherent narrative, focusing on January to May 2002 and including material not previously published. It provides the fullest account to date of the egregious priestly and episcopal mistakes, sins and crimes that occurred at the epicenter of what almost immediately became a national crisis.

The Globe's dogged reporting, and its ripple effect on journalists and Roman Catholic dioceses across the nation, unleashed a wave of public scrutiny of Catholic institutional practices and attitudes. Today one cannot escape new, often daily installments of the continuing saga of sexual abuse of thousands of children and young teenagers over the last 40 years by hundreds of Roman Catholic priests.

By contrast, the outcry following the initial reporting, in the late 1980's, of clerical sexual abuse, though severely damaging to the church's reputation, was relatively contained -- despite the contention by Jason Berry, an investigative journalist, that 400 priests had been accused and that $400 million had been paid out by dioceses in legal and medical expenses. Indeed, following revelations in 1985 that the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe had systematically molested dozens of boys in the diocese of Lafayette, La., the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops refused to give formal consideration to a confidential 92-page report on clergy sexual abuse prepared by the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a canon lawyer then stationed at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, among others. (This story is told in greater detail by Frank Bruni and Elinor Burkett's 1993 ''Gospel of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic Church,'' a book that, like Berry's 1992 ''Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children,'' has been updated and rereleased in paperback.)

The report warned the bishops about the incorrigible nature of men who preyed sexually upon boys: ''Recidivism is so high with pedophilia and exhibitionism that all controlled studies have shown that traditional outpatient psychiatric or psychological models alone DO NOT WORK.'' The report also predicted, correctly, that the days of deference to the church by judges, criminal prosecutors and politicians were quickly coming to an end.

Seven years later, however, the bishops' conference did recommend rigorous policies, including removal of accused priests from active ministry. Unfortunately, the recommendations had no teeth: in church law, every bishop is sovereign over his own diocese, answerable only to the pope. Accordingly, some dioceses made real progress in addressing the problem; others did not.

The current scandal is the penalty for this inconsistent vigilance. It is now clear that Cardinal Law was not alone among the bishops in his insensitive and often dismissive response to victims' complaints, and in his reluctance and occasional refusal to remove even multiply accused priests like John Geoghan and Paul Shanley from active ministry. Disclosures of similar episcopal behavior in other dioceses made ''the crisis in the Catholic Church'' the biggest story involving religion in years -- and that's saying something in the days of Osama bin Laden and Islamic extremism.

While ''Betrayal'' includes vivid profiles of predator priests, their victims and the prosecuting attorneys (many of whom are postdeferential Catholics), the central figure in the drama is Cardinal Law himself. As portrayed here, he is a fascinating and tragic figure. Clearly a man of great faith, dedication and loyalty, Bernard Law has upheld the church's noblest traditions of compassion and social justice in his service to the new immigrant communities; in his unswerving commitment to the protection and dignity of human life; in his crusade for civil rights and condemnations of racism, both in the South of his early episcopal career and as cardinal archbishop of the most Catholic of major American cities; and, not least, in his many acts of personal kindness.

But reportedly he is also a man of great pride whose overwhelming conviction of the inherent sanctity of the church and the priesthood deafened him to the Second Vatican Council's reminder that the church, ''clasping sinners to her bosom, . . . follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.'' It was precisely his aloofness from ordinary Catholics and other Bostonians, as the authors of ''Betrayal'' lay it out, that increasingly isolated Law from his ''constituents,'' including his closest lay advisers, who eventually urged him to resign.

Yet the scandal that will forever be associated with Cardinal Law may turn out to be a blessing of sorts, however painful, for the Catholic Church in the United States. ''The fact is that the pain and the hurt were there, under the surface, for those who have been carrying this around for years,'' Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane notes. ''Opening this up helps us to minister to that situation as best we can, and begin the process of healing and reconciliation.''