Reasons behind Boston's Catholic decline

Georgine Rice of KPDQ-FM interviewed Philip Lawler, author of “The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Church” A cautionary tale, a masterful job of explaining how the Catholic Church in Boston lost it’s influence.

Rice: “This is an important book because it gets to the heart of what undermined the Catholic church influences in Boston, which as you point out, is instructive for any denomination.”

Lawler: “I think there is a temptation for people to say, “Oh those Catholics, they’re having trouble, that would never happen to us”, and I think before you get smug about it, you should look around and ask, why wouldn’t that happen? And ask yourself some hard questions.”

Rice: “Yes, I would agree.  When you think of the Catholic sex scandal, you think of Boston and the year 2002 as when everything broke, but you point out in the book that back as early of 1985 that’s when these issues started to be raised, making the point that there is some significant elements that occurred in Boston that make it instructive for the rest of the Catholic Church.”

Lawler: “It was in the 90’s when we started having headlines about clerks that were abusing children.  And we received criticism for covering that story because of course, it’s an unattractive story but we felt you have to get the truth out…It was in Boston, in the early years of the 21st century, that a court order made it possible for everybody to see the archdiocesan files…and to recognize things that had been previously covered up…When the files were exposed, when we all saw what had happened, first in Boston and a series of other cases, we see that there was a second scandal, quite a few of their superiors had covered it up and that was the second scandal.”

Rice: “You write that the scandals were a symptom of a much larger problem in the Boston Catholic church.”

Lawler: “Yes, because if you think about it, why would a bishop who finds a priest is abusing a child, a horrible crime, why would the bishop try to protect the priest instead of the child?  Something was seriously askew to serve the needs of the church…I thought that I could see the same problem as church leaders having a very strange idea as to what was the welfare of the church…”

Rice: “You write that there were three scandals that emerged simultaneously, that were closely intertwined but easily distinguishable, the first is the sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests, but there were two others that also mitigating circumstances to the decline of the church in Boston.”

Lawler: “The first scandal was the one that everyone recognized, the abuse of children. The second is the prevalence of homosexuality in the priesthood, which a lot of people worked very hard to cover up to this day…the third was when the church leaders saw what was happening, chose to protect the predators, rather than the innocent victims.”

Rice: “In regards to the first scandal and the agreement that was signed and those who have come forward have been compensated and changes have been made in terms of dealing with certain individuals, would you say that part has been effectively dealt with?”

Lawler: “Pretty much so, I think that part has been addressed effectively, there are still priests in the church, who are abusing children. The church will come down on them as soon as there is any evidence.”

Rice: “The other issue, the second scandal that contributed to the decline, has to do with the homosexuality within the priesthood. Has that been acknowledged and addressed?”

Lawler: “No, not even close.  In fact, I think that the various studies that have been done have gone out of their way to avoid the problem.  The Vatican, particularly Pope Benedict, has demanded more attention to this issue and that has been a great deal of resistance.”

Rice: “Now some have made a distinction between homosexuality and pedophile, and A pedophile is what were talking and the two are not related, therefore, that is not a circumstance that the church needs to address.”

Lawler: “There is a distinction, they are two different things, and most of the high profile cases over the past decade, have been pedophiles, people who prey on young children. Regardless of the sex of the children.  Over 85% of the cases involving American Catholic priests, have been priests who have molested teenage boys….were talking about a disposition toward young men.”

Rice: “Why do think the Church has been reluctant to address this as a central problem?”

Lawler: “I think that’s point to the power of the homosexuals in the clergy and the hierarchy and the unwillingness to confront that aspect of the corruption.”

Rice: “One of the points you make in the book is that it’s difficult for the faithful departed to return with confidence if the leadership is not ready to be open and credible with parishioners.”

Lawler: “I think that’s true with any Christian faith, you have the faith, you have it because someone gave it to you, you read in the Bible and if you lose your confidence in the people that are passing along the faith, then naturally it’s going to undermine your confidence in the faith itself.”

Rice: “You write that the third scandal is the abdication of authority and you describe that process and how it contributes to the other two scandals.  Talk about this abdication of authority.”

Lawler: “As I was in Boston and saw these scandals explode, I asked myself, “How can this happen?”  Is it because bishops are bad people?
But no, I knew the bishops, I know that they’re generally good men….And as I put that question together with the history of the Church of Boston, I saw that there was a pattern of Church leaders covering up problems, rather than being honest with themselves and with people and they are seeking power in society, rather than power in the order of salvation, and they’re looking for spin control, rather the promoting the truth.”

Rice: “You write about compromises that were made, looking the other way, not taking a stand on moral issues, that might have if there had been strong leadership on those issues, might have prevented other challenges that came down the road.”

Lawler: “Anybody who knows anything about American politics knows how powerful the Irish Catholic community has been in Boston over the years. It built up in the 20th century from being outcasts, …to being the commanding group by the end of the century…Boston became very liberal on abortion, Massachusetts, which of course was dominated by Boston, became the first state to accept same-sex marriage, those weren’t coincidences.”

Rice: “It was so interesting how you laid out that history, in understanding how is a Ted Kennedy possible in Boston, Massachusetts?
How is it possible?  I see that being played out in other churches across the country, who are able to make these compromises over time in exchange for a favor.”

Lawler: “John Kennedy’s was the first Catholic president and any Catholic was rightly proud to see that happen and not realize the compromises he had made, particularly in his famous Houston speech, where he said he was going to leave his Catholic principles in the cloak room as far as political decision making was concerned…”

“What do you hope this book will achieve?”

Lawler: “I’m hoping that church leaders that nothing is to be gained by these soft compromises, but actually that you have more power if you hold fast to your fundamental principles, ironically, if you spend less time trying to gain the respect of the community around you, the more respect you’ll gain.”

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