- - Tuesday, October 27, 2015

While the moral panic of Salem’s witches may be over, an equally pernicious panic continues to haunt Massachusetts — that of a pedophile priest embedded in a complicit Catholic Church determined to protect him. This narrative recently resurfaced in the Boston suburb of Revere, where a male janitor at the Immaculate Conception elementary school used a bathroom that had long been used by adults as well as students — and a student saw the janitor using the urinal. When the parent of that student complained that her child had seen the janitor in the bathroom, the hysteria began. And, although the police and Suffolk prosecutors quickly cleared the janitor of criminal wrongdoing, the Immaculate Conception School’s parish priest was removed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, and the school’s principal and a second-grade teacher were forced to resign.

The lawsuits have already begun. Last week, Alison Kelly, the former principal of Immaculate Conception School, filed a $1 million lawsuit against the archdiocese. According to the Boston Globe, “She claims the church forced her to resign in January even though she had immediately reported the parent’s complaints to the pastor in charge of the school.” Claiming that her firing was a “cold, calculated attempt by the Church to do some face-saving at the expense of innocent people,” Ms. Kelly’s attorney told reporters that the archdiocese did not bother with a full investigation into the recent episode because “it served their own aims to appear to be taking quick and decisive action against its employees.” An attorney for the fired teacher plans to file her own lawsuit within the next weeks.

The Boston Globe reports that archdiocesan spokesman, Terrence Donilon, claims not to have seen the lawsuit and refused to comment on pending litigation. Yet Mr. Donilon assured the reporter that the church observes a “zero-tolerance policy” in efforts to protect children from sexual abuse. Mr. Donilon continued: “All mandated reporters must report suspected or potential child abuse to the appropriate authorities, as they have been trained to do.” According to the lawsuit, the principal immediately called the pastor, the Rev. George Szal, who assured her that he would “take care of it.” Two weeks later, when the parent complained yet again about seeing the janitor use the bathroom, Father Szal asked Ms. Kelly to contact the archdiocese. The archdiocese asked Ms. Kelly to file a report with the State Department of Children and Families. And, according to the Globe, Father Szal told Ms. Kelly that Cardinal O’Malley had asked for his resignation the next day. Three days later, Kathleen Power Mears, the superintendent of Catholic schools in Boston told Ms. Kelly to resign or she would be terminated — despite the fact that within the week, the police and Suffolk County prosecutors cleared the janitor of any criminal wrongdoing — claiming, “No child had reported that the man had touched him or used sexual language.”

Responding to the lawsuits, Mr. Donilon said, “Even if the janitor hadn’t broken the law, his use of a bathroom with students present was highly inappropriate and improper.” But Jeffrey R. Turco, a Boston-area attorney who sends his children to the Immaculate Conception School said that the bathroom in question had long been used by adults as well as students. In fact, Mr. Turco posted on a Catholic website that although the archdiocese has repeatedly stated that this was a boy’s bathroom, “this was not true until Jan. 12, 2015. Prior to that time, adults and kids were allowed to use those bathrooms. The archdiocese panicked and jumped to conclusions without even asking those involved what the original report was. Massachusetts law requires the filing of a report if a mandated reporter reasonably believes that abuse or neglect has [occurred] or is occurring. A parent asking why the school allows adults and children to use the same bathrooms, I suggest, would not lead someone to reasonably believe that a child was at risk and thus warrant a report.”

Boston seems especially vulnerable to the kinds of moral panic that has gripped the archdiocese. Boston became the epicenter of one of the most notorious panics surrounding the Satanic Ritual Abuse day care claims of the 1980s. Boston’s Fells Acres Day Care panic promoted a false narrative that once-loving and nurturing day care workers had mysteriously become demonic monsters who had raped children with knives, slaughtered large animals in magic rooms and underground tunnels — sacrificing babies to Satan — all without leaving a bit of evidence. In that panic, Boston’s Fells Acres Day Care workers spent more than a decade in prison despite the fact that they had done nothing wrong. It was only due to the tireless efforts of The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz that the innocent day care workers were released from prison.

The “zero-tolerance” policies that remain bereft of common sense at the archdiocesan offices have promoted yet another panic in Boston — one that ensnares innocent men and women in Revere — and puts the church once again at risk. Perhaps it is time to reconsider those policies that end up hurting those they are designed to protect.

Anne Hendershott is director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and the author of “Renewal: How a New Generation of Catholic Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church” (Encounter Books, 2013).

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