On April 11, 2012, Mitchell Garabedian, probably the most high-profile contingency lawyer in New England, called a press conference to announce that he had reached five- and six-figure settlements with the Catholic Church involving six clerics accused of abuse.
Two of those accused priests served in the Archdiocese of Boston, and the archdiocese paid out sizable settlements related to both of them. The men are Rev. James H. Lane and Rev. Richard O’Donovan.
The strident Garabedian sat before the media and claimed that his work was proof that he was “exposing these priests so children can be made safer and victims can heal.”
The devil in the details
However, under newspaper headlines such as “Boston Archdiocese settles 2 clergy abuse claims” and “Settlements are reached in clergy sex abuse cases,” a reader had to look deep for the details of these cases.
For example, both men had received just a single accusation, and both allegations involved accusations of something that occurred over four decades ago. Both men had completely unblemished records until single accusers went to Mr. Garabedian merely months ago to claim that the clerics had abused them.
But, most notably, both clerics were long ago deceased. Rev. Lane died in 2007, and Rev. O’Donovan died in 2000.
Since both men had passed away and were no longer around to defend themselves, one would think that the Archdiocese of Boston must have thoroughly investigated the claims against the two priests and determined they were substantiated before doling out their cash settlements.
Unfortunately, if you thought that, you’d be wrong.
Reporting on the settlement, the Boston Globe reported that “the archdiocese was unable to substantiate the accusations against Lane and O’Donovan.” The paper then quoted Archdiocese of Boston spokesperson Terrence C. Donilon, who said, “Every effort is made to fully investigate such claims, but without the ability to question the accused priest, the investigation is limited.”
So here we have a number of cases where the Church has paid out sizable settlements to anonymous accusers based on unproven allegations against previously unblemished priests who are now deceased and unable to defend themselves. (In fact, of the six cases that Garabedian settled, all six were already out of ministry, with five of the six already deceased.)
What is going on?
Indeed, while we must fully acknowledge the grievous harm to victims committed by abusive clergy, there appears to be a dramatic shift in the way the Church is handling claims as opposed to a couple of decades ago. The embarrassing past failures of bishops decades ago to properly expel criminal priests have now prompted many leaders to act over-militantly to accusations. Fearing the public criticism that they are “coddling child molesters,” bishops seem intent to rid themselves of an accused priest as expeditiously as possible, even if the individual may be innocent – and deceased.
Catholic scholar Dr. Jeffrey A. Mirus has observed, “The attitude of many bishops seems to have changed from an assumption of innocence to a desire to distance oneself as quickly as possible from anyone who is accused.”
And it appears part of this “distancing” for some dioceses is to pay out sizable settlements with as little conflict as possible.
An upset parish
Shortly after the announcement of the Boston settlement, hundreds of parishioners from St. Brendan’s Parish in Dorchester, Massachusetts, gathered for a Mass in memory of the beloved Rev. Lane. A 2007 obituary recounted a priest who touched countless lives during nearly four decades in ministry.
As the Boston Globe reported, the April 19 Mass was a “quiet, intensely felt service,” but there was an underlying anger among the gathering.
At the end of the Mass, a longtime parishioner and friend of Rev. Lane, apparently unable to contain himself, rose and exclaimed, “I don’t care what anybody says. Father Lane never abused a child.’’
With those words, the gathering broke into a thundering and cathartic applause that lasted over a minute.
Where’s the outrage? Where’s the discussion?
The cases of Rev. Lane and Rev. O’Donovan epitomize how accusations of child abuse are handled far differently when it comes to Catholic priests and the Catholic Church. It is unthinkable that any other organization would pay out settlements for wrongdoing by previously unblemished employees for unfounded allegations that are decades old.
Indeed, this is a troubling standard that needs to be addressed. Yet it appears that there is little sign that this important issue is even on the table for discussion anywhere. Dioceses are appearing to simply weigh the costs of settling complaints versus fighting them. Dioceses know that the costs of fighting cases usually far exceed the costs of simply settling them.
One can easily imagine that such a situation is ripe for opportunities for fraud. And as Fr. Gordon MacRae has written, accusing a Catholic priest of abuse was “a current and popular scam” among prison inmates even as far back as 2001. One can only guess how much this deceit has grown since then.
Meanwhile, forgotten in all of this are the reputations of these accused men. Until the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to settlements, Revs. Lane and O’Donovan were well-respected priests who were remembered fondly by their parishioners. Now, their names are plastered on the Internet as accused child molesters. This is something that the families, friends, and colleagues of these accused men now must endure.
Don’t our priests deserve much better than this?
David F Pierre Jr is the author of two books, Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church and Catholic Priests Falsely Accused: The Facts, The Fraud, The Stories. Dave is also the founder and chief operator of TheMediaReport.com, a site dedicated to monitoring the media’s coverage of the Catholic Church abuse narrative.