Cardinal Knowledge

Church Leaders Can't Run From the Scandal, but They Can Hide

"Extraordinary" was the word many of the nation's big papers used to describe the emergency summit in Rome last month that brought 12 U.S. cardinals to meet with Pope John Paul II about the sexual abuse scandal that was quickly spiraling out of control.

The resulting "final communiqué," which spoke of "notorious" priests, "serial predatory sexual abuse of minors," and "true pedophiles," may have sounded good to the cardinals when they were drafting it, but it has landed in the hearts of American Catholics with a hollow thud.

What has been truly extraordinary is watching the bumbling escapades of church leaders over the past couple of weeks.

There was Chicago's Cardinal Francis George—one of the most impressive minds in the American church—who, while at the conference in Rome, said pedophiles should be distinguished from a priest who gets drunk and engages in a sex act "with a 17- or 16-year-old girl." (He later said he didn't mean it.)

There was Los Angeles's Cardinal Roger Mahony taking credit for his archdiocese's implementation of the country's toughest rules against pedophile priests. In reality, the policies were mandated as part of a record $5.2 million settlement the church was ordered to pay abuse victim Ryan DiMaria. (The cardinal said the policies were being put in place before the settlement was reached.)

There was Cardinal Bernard Law, whose arrogance and mismanagement got this whole ball rolling, and who, as The Boston Globe uncovered in court documents last week, blamed the parents of a six-year-old boy for allowing NAMBLA-friendly Reverend Paul Shanley to abuse him. "The defendant says that the Plaintiffs were not in the exercise of due care, but rather the negligence of the Plaintiffs contributed to cause the injury or damage complained of . . . ," reads the cardinal's legal defense. (Some of the cardinal's defenders say that's boilerplate legalese.)

The Sacramento Bee reported that its city's bishop, William K. Weigand, set up a hot line for victims of clerical sexual abuse. The problem? The woman answering the phone and counseling victims was a diocese lawyer. (The Sacramento Diocese said that the woman is not currently practicing law, but that her experience as a lawyer helps her counsel sexual abuse victims.)

But the most egregious and extraordinary comments are coming from those church leaders who are still confused about what to do with the often mentioned, but hypothetical, case of a single-violation offender, accused after 30 years of moral rectitude.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., said that if a priest abused a minor 30 years ago "and since then has never had any trouble, and the people know and say, 'He's a good man, we don't have to get rid of him, we'll monitor him, we'll take care of him,' do I say, 'You're out'? I've got to pray about that."

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, told The New York Times, "I may find out about an incident that occurred 35 years ago, and the perpetrator has been, as far as we know, absolutely faithful in his service since then. You can understand the dilemma."

So what do we do with a guy who represents God on Earth, who serves as his parishioners' moral compass but who fell from grace and sexually molested a minor? But wait—it's been a while, 30 years or so, since this happened, and no one besides the two of them ever knew. Since then, this priest has cleaned up his act, learned from his mistake—maybe even became a better man, a better priest, because of it. He's inspired his flock to good deeds and lived in devotion to Christ and his teachings for decades. What should we do with him? Should we contort our consciences with Bishop Gregory to find our way out of such a dilemma? Should we pray with Cardinal McCarrick about what to do?

No. The answer could not be simpler, or more obvious. As with any other American accused of such a crime, the police should be called, and if warranted, the priest should be arrested and a jury should decide his fate. If he's found guilty, what the church does with him later within its own walls and strictures—defrock him, send him to a pedophile resort in New Mexico, give him a desk job—is beside the point and, frankly, unimportant.

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia seems to be the only guy in the church who understands this. The cardinal has said he believes that no priest guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor—"both past and future"—should function "in any capacity in our dioceses."

Let's put aside the fact that most psychotherapists who deal with sexual abuse of minors say it's a crime committed by repeat offenders, and therefore, the hypothetical put forth by the cardinals—a priest who fell off the wagon once in his youth—is slightly silly. For now, let's give the cardinals the benefit of the doubt.

The most benign possible circumstance of a priest molesting a minor, let's say, is a drunken night of caressing between a 23-year-old priest and a 16-year-old girl. Jump ahead 30 years, and the now 46-year-old woman is upset: That night with the cute priest was confusing; it screwed up her ability to trust authority. She has problems with intimacy and has low self-esteem. Is that a result of the night Father Billy took her shirt off behind the Dairy Queen? Perhaps. But this is not the kind of thing American Catholics are furious about right now.

It's the Father Granadinos whom American Catholics are furious about. It's because, according to accusations, 18 years ago the Reverend David F. Granadino would visit the California home of 13-year-old altar boy Jeff Griswold (whose father had died years before) on the pretense of hearing the boy's confession. Instead, when the two were alone, Father Granadino would "take off some of the boy's clothing and spank, kiss, or massage him," according to The New York Times.

Even if this sort of thing happens only once, even if it happens decades ago, and even if it happens to a post-pubescent minor—it happens. And someone has to be held responsible for the pain.

"These are kids who are exploited for the sexual gratification of adults," says Dr. Diane Schetky, a child forensic psychiatrist in Maine. For that child, "there's a loss of trust in authority, and there are permutations in their adult life. It's not OK that it happens just once. It's never OK."

Sadly, sexual abuse of children happens a lot in this country, and it probably happens much more often in lay society than it does in the Catholic Church. There are 46,000 priests in the United States, and while there is no empirical data detailing how many priests have sexually molested minors, the most likely estimate is around 1 percent. (The Vatican says the number is smaller; groups of victims of clerical sexual abuse say it's bigger.) The Associated Press has reported that "at least 176 priests suspected of molesting minors have either resigned or been taken off duty in 28 states" since January.

It's a horrible thing that 99 percent of priests who do their job admirably and with respect for both Catholicism and for their parishioners are afraid or embarrassed to go out in public wearing their collars. But that pain was inflicted by their bosses, not the guys who give them dirty looks at the gas station.

This scandal, as many have pointed out, is less about sexual abuse than it is about cover-up. But really, it's about the abuse of power on two levels. The first is the repugnant abuse of moral, authoritative, and physical power a priest might use to exploit a confused or naive child or teenager. And the second is the maddeningly arrogant abuse of power the leaders of the church have employed to hide the facts from America's 62 million Catholics.

As much as the cardinals would like the issue to fade, it won't. "We now believe that we are in control of the situation and this will not happen again," said Cardinal McCarrick in reference to moving priests around the country. But take a look at last week's headlines: Reverend Paul Shanley arrested for child rape. State legislators amending statutes of limitations for abuse victims, giving them more time to sue the church. The Boston Archdiocese backing out of a multimillion-dollar settlement it had agreed to with some victims of priest John J. Geoghan, provoking fresh outrage among Boston Catholics.

"Every day you hear something new" about the crisis, the Times reported the Boston Archdiocese's chancellor as saying. "Every day someone else comes forward" to allege sexual abuse. "The problem's expanding."

At the U.S. Conference of Bishops meetings in June, lay Catholics will no doubt voice their discontent with the way the church's leaders have behaved. But they need to do more, and some are. Lay Catholic grassroots movements are beginning to sprout and get noticed. One group, Voice of the Faithful, is headed by Dr. Jim Muller, a founder of the U.S. branch of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. The church needs to acknowledge these movements and adopt their ideas (and some of their demands) into the way it conducts its business. A good start would be to institute strict, enforceable nationwide policies on sexual abuse—past and future—of minors.

But after claiming he wanted to listen to Boston's laity, Cardinal Law ordered his priests to ignore an uprising of lay Catholic leaders last month organized by parish pastoral councils. The volunteers—who were not appointed by the archdiocese—wanted to form an organization that would help their church leaders organize and fundraise. Cardinal Law called the idea "potentially divisive."

The laity has a history of changing the church through grassroots efforts—at least every 900 years or so. "Up until the late 11th century, lay people had a large influence in appointing bishops and priests in their area," said Boston College theology professor Elise Feyerherm. The current climate seems ideal for lay Catholics to change the church's direction, even if those inside it resist.


Related Story:
"Burning Issues: Gay Catholics Try to Face Down the Church's Demons" by Patrick Giles

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