Dartmouth Catholics struggle with scandal

by Sarah Betts | 5/15/02 5:00am

As the Catholic Church faces a national scandal surrounding allegations of sexual abuse by its priests, Roman Catholics at Dartmouth and across the country are struggling to cope with a disillusioning barrage of accusations, arrests and legal fights.

In January of this year, defrocked priest John Geoghan was convicted of molesting a 10-year-old boy. Since then, scores of victims have come forward accusing priests across the country of sexual misconduct ranging from indecent exposure to rape.

In light of these events, some Catholics question the response of Church officials, particularly Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, who is criticized for his role in transferring Geoghan and Rev. Paul Shanley, who is facing trial for three counts of rape, to other parishes after being aware of allegations.

At a meeting last night, Dartmouth Catholics discussed the scandal with Aquinas House Chaplain John McHugh and New Hampshire Catholic Charities counselor Matthew Aversa.

The present publicity, McHugh said, is really an old set of allegations that are resurfacing.

"I am not aware of an incident that is more current than 1993," McHugh said. "What we are seeing now is a past wave of abuse that was dealt with, and will be dealt with again."

The very fact that the crisis is being aired in public is positive, he said, and he hopes that the Catholic Church will improve from the situation and learn to better handle future cases.

For many Catholics, though, the past actions of church officials are still hard to accept. Why priests who were accused of sexual abuse continued in the ministry is a question that is particularly troubling, Jill Haltigan '03 said.

"There shouldn't have been more than one accusation against a priest," Haltigan said. "Even if an accusation turned out to be unfounded and a priest was reassigned, they should have kept a better eye on him."

Bishop John McCormack -- who leads the Manchester, N.H. diocese -- was one of the church officials whose job was to "keep an eye" on Shanley after he was transferred from a Newton, Mass., parish, according to the Manchester Union Leader. Between 1984 and 1994, McCormack was a liaison between the diocese and Shanley.

McCormack gave a televised address May 2 in which he stated that he was unaware of the abuse allegations that dated back to 1967 when he received Shanley's case.

The reach of the scandal into the upper echelons of the Catholic hierarchy, though, has caused many people to cast doubt on those they once viewed as spiritual leaders and some have called upon McCormack to relinquish his position.

In response to questions on how priests could be kept in ministries in contact with children after being accused of molestation, McHugh cited the opinion at that time that the priests were cured after having undergone therapy. Also, confidentiality often bound the bishops and other officials, he said, and by the time some cases came to light, the legal statute of limitation had run out.

"The bishops did the best they could, by and large," McHugh said.

Some Catholics still feel that it was not enough. Ben Keenan '02 believes that the Catholic Church is in need of more lay control to temper the influence of its high officials.

More ability for lay persons to influence Catholic Church affairs is a change that Haltigan too would like to see, although she still believes in the organizational hierarchy.

""I think that most American Catholics struggle with the hierarchy because we believe in democracy, but it is important to me that we have a pope," Haltigan said.

Keenan, who is from Boston, would also like to hear more of an apology from Catholic officials, particularly from Law. He compared trying to get answers from eclesiastical leaders to "hitting a brick wall."

"They say they are sorry, but it is like a rationalization, not a real confession," Keenan said. "The Catholic Church emphasizes absolution and penance. It would be nice to see the church do penance."

The scandal has not changed John Paul Reid '02's belief in the Catholic Church's structure.

"The church's position has come from a long tradition," Reid said. "Just because priests make mistakes doesn't mean we have to rethink things."

The actions of the accused priests should be seen as separate from the organization as a whole, according to Reid.

In his experience, McHugh said, members have been generally sympathetic towards the Catholic Hierarchy.

"It is a problem that is difficult to deal with, and they feel that the church tried to deal with it in good faith," McHugh said. "Part of being a mature church member is the ability to recognize its shortcomings and correct what is wrong."

The national attention that the scandal has drawn, though, has led to outside criticism that some Catholics find unfair. Aversa said that he has often been asked by non-Catholics about the scandal, and is frustrated by questions that he feels are "ignorant.'

"You feel like you have to defend your faith," Aversa said.

Haltigan too has felt under attack for being Catholic, and said that the scandal has enforced her view of young people as the Catholic Church's future.

"I feel like there is now more of a responsibility to say that it is not a bad faith," Haltigan said. "We have to do our best to make it better."

McHugh said that the recent events have reinforced a negative view of Catholicism that some people might already have, and has opened the church to further attacks.

"It would be understandable if other members of society felt angry," McHugh said. "And those who already had dissatisfaction with the church will now express it."