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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 Rome.

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 facing bankruptcy.)

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 relief.

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 statements.

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 University.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests