Originally published December 10, 2002

In this most Catholic of American cities, Christmas trees are twinkling in windows, and snow-crusted manger scenes flank the churches.

But as the high season of Christianity gets under way, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese here is reeling from one crisis to another, incapable, it appears, of putting a lid on its priest sex-abuse scandal. In the words of one distraught priest, the archdiocese is in "total meltdown. "

The situation has grown so dire, the beleaguered archdiocese is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.

While many other dioceses across the nation have had to endure sex-abuse scandals, especially in recent months, none seems to have had such a runaway malignancy as this one.

New and lurid tales of priestly misconduct - including pregnancies, a mysterious death, drugs for teen sex, and a priest who told aspiring nuns that sex with him would help them "know Christ" - have shocked the two million Catholics in this metropolitan area, many of whom had dared to hope that the worst of the scandal was over.

"I am just numb," said Mary Ann Keyes of Wellesley, Mass., an active and lifelong Catholic. "It is absolutely overwhelming. "

Even parish priests are circulating a petition calling for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, who flew suddenly to Rome over the weekend for talks with the Vatican.

"Cardinal Law has lost the confidence of most of the priests and most of the laity," the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, president of the Forum of Priests, said in an interview yesterday. "There is a consensus that the time for a change is upon us. "

"The priests are hurting. The people are hurting. It's a disaster," the Rev. Walter Cuenin, pastor of one of the archdiocese's largest parishes, said Friday as he emerged from a priests' meeting to discuss the bankruptcy and debate calling for the cardinal's resignation. "The church is in total meltdown. "

Adding to the archdiocese's woes are a band of especially zealous lawyers representing abuse victims and a relentless press that has turned the issue into a crusade.

But many of the shock waves can also be traced to the frustrated patience of a 52-year-old Catholic woman: Commonwealth Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney.

A native of Springfield, Mass., where she attended Catholic grammar and high schools, Sweeney was brought in from western Massachusetts last year to hear the 84 civil suits brought against the notorious John Geoghan, a defrocked Boston-area priest accused of assaulting untold numbers of teen and preteen boys.

The archdiocese was reportedly delighted at first by the appointment to the trial of an Irish Catholic, but after months of its legal foot-dragging, Sweeney declared in December 2001 that she was tired of the archdiocese's "increasingly dreary attempts" to conceal what it knew about Geoghan.

Sweeney then overturned a previous judge's decision and released to lawyers nearly 10,000 pages of hitherto secret court documents on the former priest, including the archdiocese's personnel files and internal communications.

The results were explosive, and the Boston Archdiocese has not stopped shaking.

"The engine in all of this has been the lawyers and the press and the laity and Sweeney, all of them holding the archdiocese accountable" said Steve Krueger, interim executive director of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic reform group.

"But the biggest engine driving the scandal has been the truth itself: The sheer number of [abuse] cases and the cover-ups. "

Created in February in response to the scandals, Voice of the Faithful is based in suburban Boston and claims 25,000 members nationwide.

This year the archdiocese suspended 24 priests accused of abusing minors and is defending itself against a staggering 450 lawsuits that the lawyers say could cost $100 million to settle - a price that may drive the archdiocese to bankruptcy.

Just as things looked as if they couldn't get any worse for the archdiocese, they did: Sweeney two weeks ago ordered the release of 11,000 more pages of documents from lawsuits against 60 priests.

The first 2,500 pages of those documents - including the priests' personnel files and psychiatric evaluations - became available last week. The latest revelations stunned even the most jaded observers.

The files, several of which plaintiffs' lawyers released to the press last week, show that Cardinal Law was not only keeping accused priests in ministry as recently as three years ago, but wrote some of them glowing letters of praise.

Just how vigorously the news media and the plaintiffs' lawyers have seized on Sweeney's latest release order was evident Thursday, when lawyer Roderick MacLeish called a news conference saying he would unveil some of the "most shocking revelations to date. "

Forty-two reporters and photographers and six TV cameras squeezed into MacLeish's conference room. There MacLeish, in shirtsleeves, crouching over a projector, flashed on a screen page after page from the personnel file of the Rev. James D. Foley.

MacLeish - who represents nearly 250 plaintiffs - revealed Father Foley had had affairs with several married women in his parishes in the early 1960s.

Most shocking of all, however, was evidence that when the lobotomized mother of two of his children suffered a seizure after a drug overdose one night, Father Foley dressed and fled her home without calling for help. He later returned and called an ambulance, but the woman was either dead or died that night.

MacLeish said that internal memos showed that Cardinal Law and the auxiliary bishop expressed concern about "criminal activity" related to the woman's death when they learned of it in 1994, but they did not inform police, and allowed him to continue serving in parish ministry.

"It's all true," Father Foley admitted to reporters for the Boston Globe who arrived at his rectory at St. Joseph's Church in Salem. He had not been told beforehand that his file was in the hands of lawyers and the press.

There were similar shocks last week: allegations that a priest in the 1980s had repeatedly given a 15-year-old male cocaine in exchange for oral sex but was allowed to stay in parish ministry until 1994. Other church documents revealed that the Rev. Robert F. Meffan in the late 1980s and early 1990s had told girls aspiring to religious life that he was the "second coming of Christ" and that having sex with him was like making love to Jesus.

When Father Meffan retired in 1996, Cardinal Law wrote him a letter saying: "We are truly grateful for your priestly care and ministry to all whom you have served during those years. "

The latest scandals and the prospect of still more revelations have prompted a priests' group to circulate a petition addressed to Cardinal Law.

"The events of recent months and, in particular, of these last few days, make it clear to us that your position as our bishop is so compromised that it is no longer possible for you to exercise the spiritual leadership required for the church of Boston," reads a part of their letter.

"I think the scandals will result in a long-term distrust of the hierarchy," said Steven Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College.

"After 11 months, the bishops are going to have to assume that they will have to prove their integrity," he said.

He predicted that young Catholics who remained in the church despite the scandals would probably be "very selective in choosing their moral teachers. "

Contact David O'Reilly

at 215-854-5723 or oreilly@phillynews.com

A Franciscan trainee is charged with killing an Ohio priest. A17.