Clergy Sex Abuse - the Trail Leads to Rome
By Jason Berry
January 2002 - New Orleans
The archbishop's residence here is in a leafy seminary complex
just a block from my home. I have not met my new neighbor.
I feel a certain pity for Alfred Hughes. His mistakes in Boston
are under a microscope in a pedophile priest scandal alongside
the greater blunders by Cardinal Law.
We have had our share of similar scandals down here. In the
1980s seven clerics in Cajun country were recycled to new
parishes, trailed by accusations from their previous postings.
Two ended up in prison; the others evaded prosecution but
were subject to civil litigation. One fled to his native Holland,
tipped off by the chancery that four sisters in the same family
had accused him of molesting them as girls. The diocese ended
up paying $22 million in settlements and verdicts with dozens
of victims of the priests.
I wrote about those events in the weekly Times of Acadiana
in Lafayette, a city of 90,000. The late Richard Baudouin
was the editor. In January 1986 - years before clergy sex
abuse hit critical mass in the media -- Baudouin wrote a courageous
editorial calling on Bishop Gerard Frey to resign. In response
the the monsignor of the most affluent parish in town and
a retired judge in nearby Crowley, Edmund Reggie (who has
since became Senator Kennedy's father-in-law) fomented an
advertisers' boycott against the paper. Cooler heads prevailed,
though not before the paper lost $20,000 in ad revenues.
That July the Vatican installed a coadjutor bishop, Harry
Flynn, who served alongside Frey until he stepped down the
following year.The spectacle of a cardinal mired in such a
scandal is a numbing sight.Yet however jarring these events
- especially to the victims and their families -- as the national
media train a lens on Boston, there is a greater story in
The Vatican has failed to provide leadership on this traumatic
issue. Why has the Pope John Paul II failed to confront this
crisis, building over many years, a chart a path for reform?
Consider the background.
In 1985 Rev. Thomas Doyle, an American canon lawyer at the
Vatican Embassy in Washington, DC, began an informal survey
of bishops dealing with pedophile priests. Doyle was on a
career track to become a bishop or church diplomant. He drew
his findings into a 100-page report, written with a psychiatrist
and an attorney, recommending a policy to remove the offenders,
help the victims, be open with the media. A copy went to Rome.
The report went nowhere. No bishop wanted to get near the
topic. In a power structure honeycombed with secrecy, the
greatest sin is to be near a scandal when it becomes public.
Sexual secrecy and political secrecy go hand in hand. In 1986
Doyle gave a speech to a canon law gathering in New Jersey
(with reporters present) and called pedophilia "the greatest
problem that we in the church have faced in centuries."
The comment was prophetic.
A few bishops scolded Doyle; most ignored him. The Vatican
decided not renew his job. Instead of relying upon his expertise,
the hierarchy made him a pariah. Doyle began counseling victims.
He joined the Air Force as a military chaplain. He also began
testifying in civil trials against bishops in abuse cases.
His testimony was pivotal in the 1997 Dallas trial with a
stunning $121 million verdict. (The plaintiffs negotiated
a $30 million settlement after the trial with the diocese
As Father Doyle was following his conscience, the hierarchy
dug deeper into a quagmire of its own making.
In 1990, at a Midwest Canon Law Conference in Columbus, Ohio,
an auxiliary bishop of that state, James Quinn, discussed
the burgeoning crisis in remarks taped by a participant, and
ultimately reported in the press. "If there's something
you really don't want people to see, you might send it off
to the Apostolic Delegate [Vatican ambassador] because they
have immunity," the bishop, himself a canon lawyer, said.
"Something you consider dangerous, you might send it
[to the embassy.]"
Hiding damaging files to an embassy safe is a gross violation
of diplomatic immunity - and something Doyle had specifically
warned against in the report five years earlier. When confronted
about his remarks, Bishop Quinn was cryptic: "Whatever
I said was my own opinion. It was never discussed with the
nunciature" - as the embassy is called in Latin.
Scores of cases of pedophile priests made headlines in the
early 1990s. New England was rocked by the revelations of
Father James Porter. The Santa Fe archdiocese nearly went
bankrupt because of cases involving a clergy treatment center
that allowed weekend parish work by sex offenders who promptly
reoffended. Like Dallas, the Santa Fe church had to sell off
real estate to make ends meet. Most major cities in America
have been hit with pedophile priest scandals, at least once
- Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago,
Cleveland, New York, Providence, the list goes on.
Through all of these convulsions the bishops held occasional
meetings, a few spoke out about the need to help victims -
the Vatican developed no set of norms - nor, most critically,
has there to this day been a principled investigation of root
causes. In the mid-90s a group of psychotherapists at American
hospitals treating priest sex offenders asked the bishops
to approve a research project, pooling clinicians' findings,
assessing causes and patterns.
"The bishops refused," says Dr. Leslie Lothstein,
of the Institute for Living in Hartford CT. "Maybe their
lawyers were against it. I don't know."
In 1993 Santa Fe's Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez resigned
after 60 Minutes reported that he had been sexually involved
with three young women. Pope John Paul II "saw the publicity
as more damaging than the crime," wrote Jonathan Kwitney
in his largely favorable biography, Man of the Century. The
pope's response to Sanchez was to equate sin on both sides:
he asked the faithful to pray for "our brother in Santa
Fe" and "the persons affected by his actions"
- no hint of victimization in his language.
The pope continued: "A person's fall, which in itself
is a painful experience, should not become a matter for senationalism.
Unfortunately, however, sensationalism has become the particular
style of our age."
Most journalists would agree that sensationalism -- the tabloid
mentality - is a pernicious flaw in the business. But the
pope's remarks about Sanchez (who seduced females in late
adolescence and their early 20s) were another way of blaming
the messenger because of the message.
John Paul II has made statements of regret about priests
who have betrayed their trust. He has never given a public
speech devoted to the crisis or in any way that I am aware
of allied himself, morally or symbolically, with the survivors
of predatory priests. Those men, women and their battered
families deserve better from the pope. Father Andrew Greeley,
in a 1993 essay in America Magazine, estimated that 2500 priests
had abused 100,000 victims in the U.S.
The St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by
Priests has long advocated a uniform policy by which bishops
remove the offenders and offer treatment - and compassion
--- -to the victims.
The bishops claim that they lack the power to impose a policy
binding upon each diocese. Rather, they (and their lawyers)
say, each bishop is answerable to the pope. Some dioceses
have review boards to handle allegations when they arise;
others say they have stiffened the screening process in admitting
and graduating seminarians.
How can there be any uniform policy until the Roman Catholic
hierarchy demonstrates the resolve to investigate the roots
and driving causes of this crisis? Lay Catholic commentators
can offer our opinions. But it is the responsibility of the
pope and church leadership to explain why this has happened
and how to reverse course.
The pope has called pedophilia one of the "graver offenses"
against church law. The Vatican has long emphasized to bishops
the need to respect the rights of accused priests under the
Code of Canon Law to the point where some bishps have been
stymied in trying to defrock such men.
In the last decade hundreds of clergy sex abuse cases have
made headlines in Australia, Canada, Ireland and Europe. In
March the independent National Catholic Reporter published
an investigation of widespread abuse of African nuns by African
priests. In one case a priest presided over the funeral of
a sister he had impegnated - she died having an abortion.
Reports about these abuses from religious orders of sisters
were given to Vatican officials, and gathered dust until the
leaked documents made news.
News organizations tend to separate such stories from Pope
John Paul II. The pope who performed so brilliantly on the
geo-political stage as a catalyst in the fall of Soviet communism
and showed rare atonement in reaching out to Jews cannot,
so the logic goes, be responsible for every single priest.
But when the trail of accusations leads right into the Vatican,
the obsession with secrecy and cover up is thrown into high
In 1998 eight former members of the Legion of Christ religious
order filed a petition in a Vatican canon law court at the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seeking prosecution
of Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Legion founder. The
accusers include a priest retired in Spain and eight Mexicans,
among them a professor of Latin American studies with a doctorate
from Harvard; a professor of languages; a lawyer; engineer,
college guidance counselor, rancher and school teacher. A
ninth man, a former university president and native Spaniard,
dictated his own incriminating statement before his death
several years earlier.
The men claimed that Maciel sexually abused them as seminarians
in Spain and Rome in the 1950s and 60s. In news accounts [Hartford
Courant 2-23-97 and National Catholic Reporter 12-7-02], Maciel
refused to be interviewed but denied the accusations in written
The first accusation was made by one of the men, before he
left the priesthood, in a detailed letter sent to the pope
by diplomatic pouch in 1978. He received no reply to the charges.
Soon thereafter, the Spanish priest wrote Pope John Paul II
with his own accusations. Again, Rome took no action.
The Vatican refuses to comment about Maciel. The pope, however,
has showered him with praise as "an efficacious guide
to youth" and a year after the first news report named
him to a synod of bishops.
In 1999 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger dismissed the canon law
petition filed at his office, the Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith -- refusing to allow the accusers to give testimony,
giving no reason for his action.
Last year Ratzinger issued new rules to bishops ordering
immediate investigations when priests are accused, saying
that the Vatican will try such priests in secret trials if
necessary. Why is that hard to believe?
Jason Berry is the author of five books, including "Lead
Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse
of Children," which received awards from the Catholic
Press Association and Religious Public Relations Council.
He is a graduate of Jesuit High School, New Orleans, and Georgetown