The clergy sex abuse scandal exploded onto front pages across the country in 2002. A painful decade later, the Archdiocese of Boston has begun to rebuild. But a stubborn question remains: What kind of man wants to become a priest?
On a beautiful August day in 2004, Eric Cadin pulled his battered Ford Taurus up to the soaring stone towers of St. John’s Seminary in Brighton. After spending the morning surfing in Rhode Island, Cadin arrived to find that he’d barely made it in time for move-in. Fortunately, he didn’t have much in the way of possessions. Having spent the past year living in a tent in Hawaii, he had only a few bags of clothes, some books, and a bed-in-a-sack he’d recently purchased. Cadin was wearing a necklace made of shells and his short brown hair was still crunchy with ocean salt, but he had managed to change out of his surfing gear and into a pair of khaki shorts and a polo shirt. He was about to begin the years-long journey to become a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Boston.
The 23-year-old Harvard graduate brought his things up to his room, a standard college dorm with a twin bed, a dresser, and a desk. As he unpacked, an older student, a former member of the military who seemed like a good guy, dropped by to say hello. Still, Cadin was struck by the silence in the seminary. There were only eight students in his class of future priests, and just 30 total students living in the entire building, a third of capacity. The clergy sex abuse scandal had broken two years earlier, and its fallout was continuing to plague the church. The line to become a priest in Boston had become very, very short.
After Cadin finished unpacking, he sat down on his bed, a little in shock. He’d been thinking about becoming a priest for more than three years, but now it was suddenly real. What, he wondered, have I gotten myself into?
On January 6, 2002, the Globe delivered the kind of blow the Catholic Church hadn’t felt since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The newspaper’s front page revealed, in graphic detail, the decades-long abuse of more than 130 children by former Catholic priest John Geoghan, and—even more devastating—the fact that the Archdiocese of Boston had known about it for years and allowed it to happen.
Three days and several follow-up stories later, Cardinal Bernard Law held a press conference in which he apologized to the victims and announced the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy. It was already too late. The Globe was publishing new articles daily, exposing hundreds of cases of abuse and church cover-ups. Victims poured forth. Protests erupted. Priests everywhere were viewed with outright disdain.
Mass attendance fell 14 percent in the Archdiocese of Boston in a single year. More than 800 people eventually accused 248 Boston-area priests of abusing them as children. There was widespread speculation that the archdiocese, unable to pay the tens of millions in expected settlements, would be forced to declare bankruptcy. Donna Morrissey, the archdiocese’s spokeswoman, was receiving 300 calls a day. It was, she said, a “public relations nightmare.”
The archdiocese entered a tailspin as victims in other dioceses began to come forward and identify suspect priests. The crisis quickly threatened to engulf the entire Catholic Church, and in April 2002 Pope John Paul II himself issued an apology and ordered the American cardinals to Rome for an emergency summit. In June the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, realizing the scale of the scandal, established a National Review Board to examine the church’s policies regarding children. In December, an embattled Cardinal Law finally resigned and boarded a plane for Rome. There was a conspiracy theory that he’d fled just before Massachusetts state troopers were going to arrest him. Those rumors weren’t true, but the point was clear. People by then were willing to believe anything about the Catholic clergy.
Seven months after Cardinal Law resigned, the Pope appointed Archbishop Seán Patrick O’Malley to take over the archdiocese. O’Malley was the closest thing the church had to a turnaround artist, having previously cleaned up abuse scandals in the Fall River and Palm Beach dioceses. Those, however, were relatively small communities, and the scandals had been narrow in scope. The Archdiocese of Boston, however, was perceived by much of the public as rotten to the core for its decades of allowing, even facilitating, abuse. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll conducted at the time showed that 64 percent of people believed that Catholic priests “frequently” abused children. Brian McGrory, capturing the mood across the country, wrote in the Globe that “there’s a taint, a suspicion cast over anyone of the cloth, fueled by daily headlines of a pedophilic priest and a collection of church leaders that did nothing of consequence to stop him.
The scandal couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Archdiocese of Boston. The Church, already facing a clergy shortage, was struggling to find enough priests to deliver weekly Mass at all of its local parishes, and the priests it did have were rapidly aging. An average of 18 were retiring each year, yet in 2002 the archdiocese managed to ordain just five replacements—and soon after, St. John’s Seminary, which for decades had been training undergraduate students to become priests, was forced to close its college program because of low enrollment.
O’Malley’s task as he took control of the archdiocese was to prove to the world that the evil had been excised, that the Church was still pure and good. That meant rebuilding the archdiocese’s reputation from the ground up, finding and training a new generation of dedicated, intelligent, and trustworthy young men to minister to a traumatized flock. To do that, though, O’Malley was going to have to find the answer to a difficult question: Who on earth, to say nothing of Boston, would want to become a priest right now?