As Scandal Keeps Growing, Church and Its Faithful
By Laurie Goodstein and Allessandra Stanley
NY Times, March 17, 2002
By Tuesday, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, Me.,
has promised to turn over to local prosecutors a file containing
all accusations of sexual misconduct involving its priests.
The district attorney wants to see every accusation ever made
against a living priest.
"Even if it was triple hearsay, let me decide,"
said Stephanie Anderson, the district attorney of Cumberland
County, who said she would follow their transfers from parish
to parish in search of victims new and old. She wants to track
the history of every priest accused of sexual misconduct.
"It is my belief that if these people victimize once,
they generally do not stop," Ms. Anderson said.
The sexual abuse scandal engulfing the Roman Catholic Church,
far from being nearly over, has only begun. Across the country,
in an effort to restore credibility, many dioceses are volunteering
to turn over their records to prosecutors. The publicity is
emboldening more people to step forward with accusations of
sexual abuse. The news media daily are exposing new cases
of priests accused as pedophiles and new reports of cover-ups.
Already, the scandal has traumatized the church's faithful,
demoralized the clergy and threatened the hard-won moral authority
of its bishops. It has brought down a bishop, removed dozens
of priests and tarnished the nation's pre-eminent prelate,
Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston. But the real extent of
the impact on the church's life, status and future is only
now becoming clear.
From schools of theology to dining- room tables, a growing
number of Catholics are questioning the bedrock on which the
church is built the all-male, celibate priesthood.
Parishioners are calling for open dialogue and debate about
a tenet that Pope John Paul II has said is closed for discussion.
In a startling step, the official Catholic newspaper of the
Archdiocese of Boston said in an editorial on Friday that
the Catholic Church must now confront questions and commission
studies about whether the celibate, unmarried, all-male priesthood
should be continued.
Cardinal Law, who is considered a conservative Vatican loyalist,
said on Friday night that the editorial was not intended to
question the church's position on clerical celibacy but to
reflect issues raised by others because of the scandal. No
church leaders expect any immediate change in a doctrine that
has served the church for centuries. But the practical effects
of the scandal are evident.
The church is at risk of losing some of the legal protections
that have shielded it from criminal prosecution in the United
States, and its moral authority on issues like social justice
and family values is also in peril.
Financially, a church widely perceived as wealthy is scraping
to pay multimillion- dollar settlements to the victims of
its priests. Insurance has not been sufficient to cover the
settlements. So some dioceses have been forced to borrow from
one another, beg from major donors or sell property
sometimes bartering away beloved churches and schools.
"People are wrong to think the Vatican can just write
a check," said Mark E. Chopko, general counsel of the
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who emphasized
that each diocese is financially independent. "No bishop
wants to shut down Catholic Charities to pay off settlements."
The most serious danger to the church, and the most difficult
to measure, is disaffection among believers. Many Catholics
say they could no more leave their faith than leave their
families. But distrust of the church hierarchy could drive
some to abandon the church.
Peggy Morales, who lives in East Harlem, sends her children
to parochial school and attends Mass on Sunday, said she was
having second thoughts about a weekly habit ingrained since
"I always said going to church was setting the right
example for my kids," she said. "Now I am just so
glad my son has never been an altar boy."
For the future of Catholicism, another ominous aspect of
the scandal is that it could further deter men from joining
the priesthood of a church that is already struggling with
the shortage of clergymen.
Last week, in an East Harlem church, Cardinal Edward Michael
Egan ordained Andris Alexis Moronta as a priest, one of God's
representatives on earth. "A priest," the cardinal
intoned, must act as "a mirror held up to divinity."
Cardinal Egan, delivering his homily last Thursday in St.
Paul's Church, where fresh carnations masked cracking plaster,
did not allude to problems in the priesthood. But although
the ordination of a new priest untouched by scandal was a
joyous event, some parishioners could not entirely forget
the church's disgrace.
"We are going through this terrible thing," said
Carmen Perdomo, who was moved to tears when the new priest
prostrated himself on the church floor as a symbol of his
renunciation of worldly sin. "But you just have to take
it out of your mind and pray that God will help them from
The career of Father Moronta, 28, illustrates the church's
inability to recruit priests in the United States: He is a
Dominican who was sent to an American parish as a missionary.
Although raised in New York, he is a Dominican citizen who
studied for the priesthood in Argentina. He is ministering
to a Brooklyn parish as a missionary of his Argentine order.
After his ordination, well-wishers hugged him and nuns kissed
his palms in a sign of respect. Moments later, Father Moronta
said: "I am aware that this is a difficult time to be
a priest. My testimony shows that there are young people who
are willing to give up everything to bring people to God."
Silent Strategy Evolved
Many church leaders admit they are stunned at the ferocity
of this scandal because they thought it was a problem they
had already laid to rest.
The issue first surfaced in 1985, when The Times of Acadiana,
a weekly newspaper, reported the case of a Louisiana priest,
Gilbert Gauthe, who confessed to molesting dozens of children
and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The American bishops
studied the problem and in the early 1990's issued policy
recommendations called "Restoring Trust."
After more cases of priests with multiple victims emerged
in Dallas; Santa Fe, N.M.; Fall River, Mass.; and Santa Rosa,
Calif., many dioceses adopted the recommendations. They called
for removing priests accused of abuse from service, sending
them into treatment and providing victims with counseling
and pastoral care. The issue faded from the public view.
Behind the scenes, however, victims were still coming forward.
Quietly, insisting that confidentiality was necessary for
the victims and the accused, church lawyers settled what plaintiffs'
lawyers estimate were as many as 1,000 lawsuits, paying victims
anywhere from a few thousand dollars to millions each. In
what many bishops have now acknowledged was a grave mistake,
the church also quietly reassigned many of the priests to
"Any bishop who made this mistake before 1985 I think
is forgivable because there was great ignorance and naïveté,"
said one priest and church scholar who, like many, spoke on
the condition of anonymity. "But in 1985 when the Louisiana
case blew up, that had to be the beginning of the wake-up
"The farther away you get from that, the more incompetent,
stupid or immoral the bishops are for not dealing with this
thing. Even just in the interest of retaining your insurance,
if you're told that trampolines and high dives are a risk,
you get rid of trampolines and high dives."
Questions about the church's handling of the abuse issue,
which had been the subject of articles in several local newspapers
in the late 1990's, resurfaced nationally this year.
In January, The Boston Globe disclosed that Cardinal Law
had shifted the Rev. John J. Geoghan Jr., 66, who was accused
of molesting children, from parish to parish.
Internal church documents showed that from the mid-1980's
and into the 90's Cardinal Law and his top aides were aware
of the problems of Father Geoghan, who was eventually accused
of molesting more than 130 children over 30 years. In February,
he was sentenced to 9 to 10 years in prison for fondling a
10-year-old boy. After the church's role in protecting Father
Geoghan became known, the cardinal gave local prosecutors
the names of more than 80 priests accused of sexual abuse
Within weeks, bishops across the country began purging their
dioceses of priests who had been serving despite accusations
of child abuse. Since January, at least 55 priests in 17 dioceses
have been removed, suspended, put on administrative leave
or forced to resign or retire.
They include at least 6 priests in Philadelphia, 7 in Manchester,
N.H., 2 in St. Louis, 2 in Maine, 1 in Fargo, N.D., and as
many as 12 in Los Angeles. There are 194 Catholic dioceses
in the nation.
Most of the priests removed had been involved in old cases,
but new accusations have come to light recently. On Long Island,
the Rev. Michael Hands, 35, pleaded guilty on March 7 to having
sex with a 13-year-old boy in 1999 and 2000 at the St. Raphael
Rectory in East Meadow.
In Florida, the scandal recently claimed its second bishop.
Anthony J. O'Connell, the bishop of Palm Beach, resigned on
March 8 after The St. Louis Post-Dispatch disclosed that he
had molested a student at a seminary in Missouri in the 1970's.
The diocese in Missouri had paid the accuser $125,000 in a
confidential settlement in 1996. Despite that, in 1999, the
Vatican promoted Bishop O'Connell to Palm Beach to heal that
diocese, where the previous bishop had been forced to resign
the year before amid accusations of sexually abusing children.
A vivid sign of upheaval within the church was the editorial
on Friday in The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese
of Boston. The editorial urged church leaders to study whether
priestly celibacy rules had any link to the sexual abuse of
minors. While dissident Catholic thinkers have long questioned
the Vatican's adherence to celibacy and its refusal to ordain
women, the latest call for a discussion of change was coming
from the church newspaper published by Cardinal Law.
"These questions have taken on a deeper intensity in
more Catholic minds than prior to these sexual scandals,"
Msgr. Peter V. Conley, the paper's executive editor, wrote.
"Even if our present woes in the archdiocese were suddenly
to disappear, these questions have taken on an urgency and
will not slip quietly away."
Differences Over Cause
Liberal and traditional Catholics, long at war over such
issues as abortion and divorce, are now clashing over the
causes of the scandal.
Some argue that sexual abuse in the church grows out of fundamental
flaws in Catholicism. "The division of body and soul
is a mistaken model," said Eugene Kennedy, a psychologist
and former priest, who wrote, "The Unhealed Wound: The
Church and Human Sexuality."
Mr. Kennedy added: "The church uses sexuality to control
people in a punitive atmosphere. If flesh is evil, you cannot
teach celibacy in a healthy way."
Others argue that the abuse was made possible by a church
that had become too lax. "These cases are the detritus
of the sexual revolution," said Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard
law professor who serves on two Vatican commissions. She said
that 1960's culture pressured priests to explore their sexuality.
"We need a reaffirmation of clerical self-discipline,"
All sides agree that the church is in danger of losing the
moral credibility in speaking out on political as well as
social issues, including the death penalty and the status
of Jerusalem. "If the church does not respond vigorously
to this scandal, then the authority the hierarchy has to teach
morally will vanish," said R. Scott Appleby, director
of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism
at Notre Dame. "It won't just be a crisis, it will be
all over but the shouting. There will be no moral credibility
for the bishops to speak about justice, truth, racial equality,
war or immigration if they can't get their own house in order."
Answers From the Vatican
The answers can come from only one place, Rome. But the Vatican's
resistance to public action has become part of the controversy.
In interviews in and around the Vatican last week, concern
was expressed that the Vatican appeared to be promoting a
policy of silence that some critics compared to Pope Pius
XII's failure to speak out forcefully against the Holocaust
during World War II. Pope John Paul has vehemently condemned
clergymen who prey on children, but the Vatican has not led
efforts to uproot the abuse.
In fact, when the pope issued rules in January requiring
local bishops to report sex abuse accusations directly to
Rome, they were buried in a voluminous report, published in
Latin, about a bishops' conference. Part of the reason the
Vatican has kept its distance is that it has seen sexual abuse
as largely an American problem, church officials say. That
perception may change.
In John Paul's native Poland, the archbishop of Poznan, Juliusz
Paetz, was accused in the news media this month of molesting
seminarians. Archbishop Paetz, 67, a former Vatican prelate
appointed by the pope to his present job, denied the accusations
but has remained a center of attention because of events in
the United States.
In Austria, grass-roots pressure forced the retirement in
1998 of the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer,
after he was accused of molesting seminarians. He denied the
accusations but his replacement, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn,
said they were true, and apologized on his behalf.
In a financial settlement reached this year, the Roman Catholic
Church in Ireland agreed to pay the equivalent of $110 million
to compensate thousands of victims of molestation in church-run
schools and child care centers over most of the last century.
French prosecutors have aggressively pursued abuse cases
among priests. In recent years, about 30 priests have been
convicted for pedophile acts and 11 are in prison. In September,
the bishop of Bayeux- Lisieux, Pierre Pican, was given a three-
month suspended sentence for not reporting a pedophile priest
in his diocese to the civilian authorities. Still, even with
problems of abuse appearing in Europe, the Vatican's approach
Msgr. Piero Monni, an expert on pedophilia who has led the
Vatican's campaign for the last decade against tourists who
travel abroad to find children for sexual exploitation, argued
that the church had the moral authority to fight pedophilia.
He is the author of "The Archipelago of Shame: Sexual
Tourism and Pedophilia," which was published this month.
In an interview in Rome last week, he said, "The airplanes
filled with sexual tourists heading for Thailand or the Philippines
are not filled with priests."
Financial Threat Looms
In Boston now, some Catholics are threatening to withhold
donations, and the diocese is talking about selling churches
to help pay for settlements that plaintiffs' lawyers say could
total $100 million.
But the financial fallout in Dallas, where in 1996 a jury
ordered the archdiocese to pay $119.6 million in damages to
sexual abuse victims, illustrates both the church's financial
resilience, and the price it may pay in the goodwill of lifelong
The Dallas diocese negotiated a reduction of the judgment
to $31 million with the plaintiffs. Insurance covered only
$20 million, forcing the diocese to raise the remaining $11
million, said Bronson Havard, a spokesman who is a deacon
of the church.
Like many Catholic dioceses, Dallas owned surplus property
it could mortgage or sell. No parishioners protested when
the diocese sold two empty lots. But its most valuable unused
property, in a fast-developing downtown neighborhood, was
an abandoned school called St. Ann's that many Hispanics in
Dallas considered sacred.
"This was the spiritual center of the community,"
said Councilwoman Veletta Forsythe Lill, who represents the
Dallas district that includes the school. "It was really
the center of Hispanic life for Mexican immigrants who had
come to Dallas in the 20's and 30's following the Mexican
Parishioners protested, formed a Save St. Ann's group, and
tried to persuade the City Council to designate the site a
historic landmark. The battle lasted about a year and a half,
but in the end the diocese sold the property, raising $4 million
to help pay the sexual abuse victims, Mr. Havard said.
"The sex abuse case made the sale more bitter,"
Ms. Lill said. "Some in the community felt that the failings
of the diocese pushed the church into the sale."
The diocese of Dallas paid all its debts by 2000, Mr. Havard
said. In diocesan fund- raising campaigns each year since
the settlement, parishioners have come through with contributions
that exceeded the goal by several hundred thousand dollars,
raising $4.8 million last year, he said.
"We never lost financial support from the faithful,"
Mr. Havard said.
One clear financial impact has been on the ability of the
church to buy insurance.
Before the spate of claims involving sexual misdeeds, dioceses
were able to obtain liability insurance of as much as $50
million. As it turned out, many of those policies provided
scant protection, said Michael Sean Quinn, a lawyer in Austin,
Tex., who has handled many cases around the country involving
misconduct by clergymen.
Insurance companies, Mr. Quinn said, often declined to cover
the cost of multimillion dollar settlements, saying the actions
were deliberate and not covered by insurance. In recent years,
industry experts said, insurances companies have further reduced
their risk by raising prices and limiting the coverage.
"If you can buy it at all," said one broker, "it
might be for a million or, at most, $5 million in coverage.
And the deductible could be as much as $500,000."
Prosecutors Moving In
Until recently, the church has managed to keep most of the
legal cases involving sexual abuse by priests out of court.
While there have been a handful of well-publicized trials,
the bulk of the cases have been civil suits that have been
settled quietly, with the evidence placed under court seal.
Few cases were referred to prosecutors.
But in Portland, Boston and Philadelphia and elsewhere, prosecutors
are taking a more assertive approach, demanding records and
declaring their intention to follow the evidence wherever
"There will be false charges, too, but that doesn't
mean a witch hunt," said Linda A. Fairstein, who until
last year was chief of the Manhattan district attorney's sex
crimes unit. "In New York and many other states there
are now specialists who can distinguish false from true. The
police and prosecutors should be doing the investigations,
not the clergy."
About half the states exempt church officials from laws that
require schools and therapists to report sexual abuse. Now,
legislators and judges in some of those states, like Massachusetts,
are calling for the removal of those exemptions.
New York exempts priests from its mandatory reporting law.
Legislatures in Pennsylvania and other states are considering
extending the statutes of limitations to make it easier to
prosecute sexual abusers.
Jeffrey R. Anderson, a St. Paul lawyer for hundreds of people
who contend that they have been abused by priests, said, "The
abuse won't stop until a bishop hears the clang of a prison
door behind him."
Many priests untainted by the accusations say they are being
punished. "You're sort of implicated in it because you're
a priest," said a respected church official who spoke
on condition of anonymity.
The Rev. Carmine Funaro, a Capucin friar at the Church of
Our Lady Queen of Angels, which runs a parochial school in
Manhattan, expressed sadness over what has been lost. "People
are understanding but I feel so stiff," Father Funaro
said. "We have to be standoffish so people won't say,
`He touched my child.' " Father Funaro said clergymen
had been warned by church leaders never to be alone in a room
with a child.
Msgr. Philip Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life
Center in New York, which works with parishes across the country,
said a nurse at a hospital recently asked, "What is the
most urgent problem facing the church today?"
Monsignor Murnion said he replied: "I think the most
basic question is, where is God? Then I said, there is this
more immediate problem of this sexual abuse scandal and the
need to restore trust."
The nurse, he said, told him: "That's what I really
was asking about. I don't think you can even think about where
is God until you've answered that."