The Cardinal and the Globe
by J. Ashe Reardon
Cardinal Bernard Law and the Boston Globe have a history.
Ten years ago, allegations of sexual abuse by James R. Porter, a former
Roman Catholic priest formerly assigned to the Catholic diocese of Fall
River, caused a furor in Massachusetts. The story lines, the pattern of
coverage, and the focus on the church’s secretive internal personnel
practices show impressive continuity from 1992 and 2002.
The Porter story broke in early May 1992 when a victim, Frank
Fitzpatrick, released a tape to a Boston TV station in which Porter admitted
to molesting "anywhere, you know, from fifty to a hundred [children], I
guess." The Globe and its Spotlight Team of investigative
reporters immediately grabbed the lead in covering the story of Porter’s
transfer to three different Fall River parishes during the 1960s amid a long
series of allegations of sexual misconduct. In 1992, the "priest
pedophile" was already a familiar object of journalistic attention and
Porter rapidly emerged as an exemplar of the predator priest who preyed on
scores of children.
The Globe jumped on the story, focusing on the Fall River diocese’s
evident practice of stonewalling complaints about Porter and transferring
him from parish to parish. "There’s no question the church covered it
up," Frank Fitzpatrick, a Porter victim whose ad in a local paper
inquiring about other victims helped bring the story to the public,
complained in a Globe story published on May 8. "When sexual
misconduct surfaces, the church has chosen to simply move the priest to
another parish," said Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer who represented sexual
This tack in the coverage—and the Globe’s effort to raise
questions about whether similar problems of sexual abuse and cover-up were
occurring in the Boston archdiocese—drew an unwilling Cardinal Bernard Law
into the center of the controversy. To some degree Law’s role as a
principal player was forced on him. In the winter and spring of 1992, there
was no sitting bishop in Fall River and Law was acting as the nominal
supervisor of the diocese. But the crisis, and the Globe’s
aggressive approach, quickly got under Law’s skin.
Frustration may, however, have gotten the best of both parties. On May
24, a story by Steve Marantz ran under the headline, "Law Raps
Ex-Priest Coverage," in which he quoted a statement made by Law at a
rally in the Roxbury neighborhood. The quote, subsequently fairly famous,
was "We call down God’s power on our business leaders, and political
leaders and community leaders. By all means we call down God’s power on
the media, particularly the Globe."
Was Law calling on the Lord to smite the Globe? Appearances may be
deceiving. A review of the coverage suggests that Marantz misquoted Law. The
reporter evidently dispatched to the rally to get a quote from Law on the
Porter case, was rebuffed. He then appears to have spun Law’s invocation
of Boston’s civic forces, including the Globe, to play a positive
role in stopping youth violence into a comment on the Porter case.
Three days later, a follow-up story by the Globe’s religion
writer, James Franklin, attempted some cleanup. Headlined "The Cardinal
and the News Media," the story gingerly suggested Law actually had been
talking about the city’s inadequate response to the current crisis of
youth violence. That said, Franklin veered back, criticizing Law’s
"impulsive, spontaneous" remarks. "By falling back on the
institutional defensiveness of the Catholic Church," Franklin
continued, "Cardinal Law seemed to turn his back on the anguish"
of the men and women who charge they were molested by Porter.
The Globe—and others—felt entitled to a public explanation,
which Law refused to give. On June 25, Law announced that the archdiocese
was "systematically reviewing its files to ascertain if there are
indications that warrant further assessment." As is now known, by 1992
Law had already been deeply involved for years in the handling of dozens of
cases of priests with records of sexual abuse.
The Globe pressed its intense dissatisfaction over Law’s
less-than-forthcoming approach in a series of more than two-dozen pieces
that carried on into the fall. Franklin’s July 12 dispatch (headlined
"US Diocese Lack Policy for Cases of Sex Abuse") drew a connection
with a 1985 report by a national commission appointed by the Catholic
bishops that urged uniform procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct by
priests. The article scoffed at the claims of Boston church officials that
"they have only recently learned about the extent of sexual abuse by
clergy and methods to handle it."
Several months of coverage followed in which the newspaper pieced
together victims’ accounts of Porter’s years of abuse. Law then released
first a draft and then the final version of a new Boston archdiocese’s
policy on handling sexual misconduct claims. In January 1993, Law set up a
board consisting of five lay members and four clerics to review future
complaints of sexual abuse by priests. The archdiocese’s new policy
emphasized that no cleric found guilty would be given an assignment
"which places children at risk." Law retained for himself final
authority to decide how to deal with errant priests. He pledged then to
report sexual misconduct "in accordance with the law." In
retrospect, the statement seems misleading, given that Massachusetts law did
not require the church to report incidents of sexual misconduct to civil
The Globe criticized Law’s new policy immediately. A January 16
editorial called it a lost opportunity to communicate with parishioners and
the public that it understands the depth of the problem" of sexual
misconduct by Catholic priests. At the core of the critique was Law’s
refusal to bring sexual abuse out from the realm of internal forums and
civil law. By way of comparison, when Chicago Archbishop Joseph Bernadin was
confronted with a similar spate of abuse cases in late 1991 he named an
attorney to work full-time as a "professional fitness review
administrator" for the archdiocese and designated him as a
"mandated reporter" of abuse to the Illinois Department of
Children and Family Services.
One of the reporters on the Spotlight Team that produced January’s
series on the Geoghan case was also a veteran of the Porter story. Back in
1992, Stephen Kurkjian wrote several articles detailing the staggering
lawsuits filed against the Fall River diocese, and on diocesan personnel
records indicating that Church officials allowed Porter to serve as a priest
in four states, in close proximity to children, "even though they were
fully aware of his habitual sexual molestation of youths."
Memories are long in Boston.