current version of what now seems to be an unending priestly sexual
abuse scandal represents one of the most serious crises in the history
of U.S. Catholicismbecause this time it is about lying bishops
more than abusive priests.
Sadly, it has become generally understood that professions with
privileged access to children do attract some individuals with warped
sexual impulses. And while it's possible that Catholic priests are
more disposed to pedophilia than, say, grade-school teachers or
social workers, there is as yet no conclusive evidence that such
is the case. But the accusation that bishops are not to be trusted
even on the most serious questions goes to the integrity of the
institution. In that light, it is not surprising that lay Catholics
have reacted even more angrily to the recent charges of cover-up
than to the original abuse revelations.
The first intimations that the U.S. Catholic Church had a sexual
abuse problem arose about 1985 with a series of investigations,
spearheaded by the National Catholic Reporter, disclosing
that certain priestsGilbert Gauthé in Louisiana, James
Porter in Massachusetts, Thomas Adamson in Minnesotahad long
histories of sexually abusing preteen boys. When the secular press,
after much hesitation, began conducting its own investigations,
the problem turned out to be much more prevalent than anyone had
suspected. Accusations rose to a crescendo in 1992 when the much-respected
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was falsely accused of abusing
a former seminarian.
When that charge was withdrawn, the crisis seemed to deflate with
an almost audible hiss. Bishops admitted that they had been blindsided
by the revelations, and virtually all dioceses set up some form
of review mechanism, usually with lay participation, to screen accusations
of clerical sexual misconduct and to make referrals to the criminal
authorities. The dominant sentiment among the faithful was probably
one of saddened relief. The revelations had been horrible, but the
problem was being dealt with and it was time to move on.
The 2002 version of the crisis was triggered with a series of stories
by an investigative team from the Boston Globe, which have
now been collected in book form as Betrayal: The Crisis in the
Catholic Church. The authors do not allege any recent cases
of sex abuse. Set mainly in the Boston area, the freshest cases
cited date from 1994 or 1995, and most are much older, some of them
dating back almost 40 years. (Of course, as journalist Peter Steinfels
points out in a superb analysis of the scandals in the April 9,
2002, issue of Commonweal, cases involving children may
take decades to come to light.) But the book does disclose that
there were many more pre-1992 cases than previously known, and that
the Boston archdiocese had quietly made financial settlements involving
more than 70 priests.
Betrayal charges that, far from being blindsided by the
scandals of 10 years ago, the leaders of the Boston archdiocese,
including Cardinal Bernard Law, who has been archbishop since 1984,
and his predecessor, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, were aware for
many years that they had a sexual abuse problem and chose to conceal
it, even at the cost of subjecting hundreds of children to continued
assault. The priests who figure most prominently in the Betrayal
account are John Geoghan and Paul Shanley. Geoghan is now
serving time in prison. Shanley is awaiting criminal trial on numerous
charges of sexual abuse. The facts of their cases have been widely
publicized. Suffice it to say that the Globe team traces
the cover-ups, repeated parish reassignments, and patterns of abuse
in excruciating detail.
Betrayal is well written, concise, and reasonably well
documented. The facts are laid out straightforwardly, and for the
most part readers are left to draw their own conclusions. Mercifully,
there is a minimum of the fictionalized conversation and internal
soliloquy that mar much contemporary reporting. Altogether, the
book must be considered a model of the "instant book" genre.
The Crisis in the Catholic Church
by the Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe (Little, Brown
and Co., 274 pp. $23.95)
The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of
by George Weigel (Basic Books, 246 pp. $22.00)
Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church
by Donald Cozzens (Liturgical Press Books, 191 pp. $19.95)
Why I Am a Catholic
by Garry Wills (Houghton Mifflin Co., 390 pp. $26.00)
The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality
by Eugene Kennedy (St. Martin's Press, 214 pp. $19.95)
Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the
by Michael S. Rose (Regnery Publishing Corp., 276 pp. $27.95)
Shaken By Scandals: Catholics Speak Out About Priests'
edited by Paul Thigpen (Servant Publications, 230 pp. $10.00)
Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and
the Sexual Abuse of Children (reissue)
by Jason Berry (University of Illinois Press, 405 pp. $19.95)
A Gospel of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic
by Frank Bruni and Elinor Burkett (Perennial, 310 pp. $13.95)
Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned: Perspectives
on Sexual Abuse Committed by Roman Catholic Priests
edited by Thomas G. Plante (Praeger, 184 pp. $64.95)
"The Church's Sex-Abuse Crisis: What's Old,
What's New, What's Neededand Why"
by Peter Steinfels, Commonweal,
April 9, 2002.
The revelations in Boston have called forth a wave of reports of
similar cover-ups elsewherein Bridgeport, Connecticut; Tucson,
Arizona; Dallas, Philadelphia, and many other places. The accumulating
scandals of concealment and dishonesty cast a wholly unflattering
light on the breed of icily remote, Romanissimus prelate
currently in fashion at the Vatican. Only under great public pressure
did Cardinal Law evince concern for the victims of his cover-ups.
Both Law and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, the former bishop
of Bridgeport, repeatedly hid behind their advisors, or claimed
to be far too busy to get involved with such administrative details
as abusive priests. Egan once suggested that priests were "independent
contractors" and in effect none of his problem. The advisors
who cleared the Boston pedophiles for parish work had no special
expertise in sexual abuse, but were handpicked "safe men"
whom Law could count on not to rock the boat. The record suggests
Law may even have asked one of them to change his counsel that Geoghan
was an "explosion waiting to happen." Any CEO in corporate
America who claimed he was "too busy" to deal with information
that one of his subordinates was raping little boys on the job would
be summarily fired and possibly indicted.
The scandals have also dragged into public view the seamy underside
of clerical sexuality. The number of priests who are faithful to
the vow of celibacy may be much smaller than most Catholics believe.
Some substantial percentage of priests are homosexual, certainly
a far higher proportion than among the laity. Many of them are sexually
active, often within the seminary or rectory walls, abetted by "lavender"
The torrent of unsavory revelations has naturally called forth a
torrent of polemic. As might be expected, recent books that fit
this description break roughly along "conservative," or
perhaps "restorationist," and "liberal" lines.
Strikingly, and refreshingly, the conservatives tend to be much
tougher on the failures of the bishops. George Weigel, for example,
is a theologian and a journalist, and author of an admiring biography
of John Paul II; in The Courage To Be Catholic he vents
his outrage at Law and Egan, bishops whose staunch pro-Vatican positions
are typically closely aligned with Weigel's own. He reserves particular
scorn for their unseemly scramble to take refuge in the psychobabble
of the American "therapeutic culture"concentrating
on "curing" abusive priests rather than protecting vulnerable
Weigel is extremely knowledgeable on the inner workings of both
the American Church and the Vatican bureaucracy. He argues that
the sexual abuse scandals are not a failure of celibacy,
but a failure of priests to be celibate, with at least
the passive connivance of their bishops. The bulk of Weigel's scorn
is heaped on prelates who are afraid to lead or command, who can
speak only in a kind of fogbound religious legalese, who have allowed
homosexual subcultures to flourish within their seminaries and priestly
communities, and who have given over their dioceses to a lay bureaucracy
that often exhibits little allegiance to Catholic values and papal
Weigel wants bishops to take back control of their dioceses, and
he wants priests and seminarians to evidence fidelity to Catholic
teaching, including celibacy and traditional Catholic sexual ethics.
Homosexual men may be admitted to the priesthood, but not "gay"
menthat is, men who adopt the gay lifestyle and define their
personalities through their homosexuality. Weigel has no doubts
that the Church could find good priests in sufficient number. Dioceses
like Denver, Colorado, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Arlington, Virginia,
where bishops have consciously adopted a strict, countercultural
model for the Church, he claims, are ordaining lots of "healthy"
young men. Based on my one extended visit to the Lincoln diocese
several years ago, he may be right. Altogether, his book is informed
and wide-ranging, clear, crisp, and direct. It is likely to be a
tocsin for the conservative cause, and liberals who ignore it will
do so at their peril.
Other conservative writers and editorsnotably Michael Novak
of the American Enterprise Institute and Philip Lawler of Catholic
World Reporthave contributed brief commentaries to an
instant book, Shaken By Scandals, prompted by recent events.
Overall, this volume expresses roughly the positions put forward
by Weigel, but less cogently and forcefully.
Donald Cozzens is a diocesan priest, a psychologist, and a college
teacher (most recently at John Carroll University in Cleveland,
Ohio), and his Sacred Silence is the implicit liberal riposte
to Weigel. Sacred Silence is notable for its quietness
and very lack of certainty. As to his target, Cozzens leaves
no doubt: It is the habit of denial inculcated by the exclusively
male, privileged, essentially medieval structure of the Church.
Just to read the conventional denials issued upon the first intimations
of the crisis that Cozzens assembles is an embarrassmentthat
the charges were not true; that abuse was very rare; that the crisis
was trumped up by the media (Cardinal Law publicly called down the
wrath of God on the Boston Globe"we call down
God's power on the media, particularly the Globe,"
he said); that the problem was no worse than in other professions;
that the victims encouraged and enjoyed priests' sexual attentions;
that the consequences were not that severe.
Cozzens first encountered the clerical brand of Orwellian double-think
as a young seminarian when he was required to take the oath against
Modernism at the same time that the bishops of the Second Vatican
Council were embracing many of the positions he was required to
forswear. The inability of bishops to deal with the abuse crisis,
Cozzens argues, is part of an ingrained habit of defensiveness,
starting with the once standard seminary regime in which "Catholic
philosophy alone has the truth" and virtually all non-Catholic
thinkers are "adversaries." Cardinals, according to Cozzens,
make an explicit vow to "keep in confidence anything that .
. . would cause a scandal or harm to the Church." Cardinal
Law, in other words, may have just been doing his job when he sheltered
Geoghan and Shanley.
The great threat to the Church, in Cozzens's view, is a clerical
mandarinate, ambitious, lost in details of ritual and regalia, remote
from workaday concerns of raising families and making a living,
and ready to conceal even terrible crimes rather than risk a loss
of status. Cozzens does not believe that celibacy causes pedophilia,
but fears that it creates too narrow a base of candidates for the
priestly life. An honest inquiry into the state of the Church, he
believes, would expose a need for major overhauls, including scrapping
the insistence on celibacy and an all-male priesthood. The path
to renewal for Cozzens, however, is less a question of specific
administrative reforms than of embracing a commitment to truth,
of listening to "contemplative voices" who will speak
with "no denial, no half-truths, no minimization, no duplicitous
Garry Wills's Why I Am a Catholic was rushed into print
after the sex abuse revelations, although it mentions them only
in passing. According to Wills, the book is a response to the question
put by many readers of his previous book, Papal Sins: Given
Wills's seemingly jaundiced view of the papacy, why doesn't he just
leave the Church? Wills's answer is that it is possible to be both
a critic of the papacy and a loyal Catholic in the tradition of
his intellectual heroes, Lord Acton, G. K. Chesterton, and John
As if to underscore that point, the greater part of his book is
a con brio retelling of the bleakest and bloodiest episodes
of papal corruption and deceit through the centuriesfrom the
tissue of forgeries that supported papal claims to secular power,
through the papal jihads launched against Cathars, Albigensians,
Muslims, and others, to the manipulations of scripture and history
in support of claims to infallibility and the impermissibility of
What really keeps Wills in the Church, however, may be his fondness
for Greek. He prefers to recite the Our Father in Greek, and ends
his book with a splendid exegesis of the Greek text of the prayer.
(I assumed at first that he was praising a translation, but according
to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the evangelist Matthew was
fluent in Greek, and there is a strong case that our Greek text
of his gospel, where the prayer appears, is actually the original
version.) Wills is a fine literary critic, and his exposition of
the prayer is not only extraordinarily beautiful but reveals a text
of astonishingly sophisticated theological sensibility. By itself,
it's worth the price of admission.
Eugene Kennedy is a psychologist and former priest who has been
making the case against the priestly celibacy rule for more than
30 years, and he makes it again in his new book, The Unhealed
Wound. This time, unfortunately, he has chosen to couch it
in the language of the Grail legend. Anfortas, the Fisher-King,
caught in illicit love in Wagner's version of the myth, was lanced
in the groin by a sorcerer, and condemned to pain-ridden immortality
until released by Parsifal, the holy fool. Get it? The "seeping
wound" is celibacy, you see, and, well . . .
In any case, the wings of metaphor carry Kennedy quite over the
top. All problems in the history of the Church stem from its drive
toward sexual power, the "male reverie of costless sexual domination."
Catholics (or clerics; it's not clear) are "penned animals,"
while sexual control is the "gratification [the Church's] officials
take as lonely men do in the last rows of a darkened theater."
Theological orthodoxy is a form of kinky sexual oppression, requiring
Catholics to "forsake their potency and, therefore, maim themselves
intentionally and suicidally at the command of, and to gratify,
the Institution." And much more in this vein. There are strong
arguments for a non-celibate male and female Catholic priesthood,
and most of them are in this book but buried under layers of nonsense.
Taking the opposing, restorationist side in the celibacy question
is Michael S. Rose, the former editor of St. Catherine's Review.
In Goodbye, Good Men, Rose focuses on some of the nuttier
experiments in post-Vatican II seminary training that, in the effort
to be "modern," fostered permissive attitudes toward heterosexual
and homosexual experimentation. Most all-male societies, from prison
populations to the 19th-century Oxford and Cambridge dons, tend
to evolve significant homosexual subcultures, at least in the absence
of aggressive repression. Rose contends that homosexual networks
took over many important seminaries in the late 1960s and 1970s,
chasing away the sexually straight and theologically orthodox. As
one priest recalls his seminary days in the 1970s: "If you
wore a cassock, you were a reactionary 'daughter of Trent.' If you
wore women's underwear, they'd make you seminarian of the year."
The fact that such a large number of the sex abuse cases involve
actively homosexual priests targeting teenage boys in seminaries
tends to support Rose's case.
The problem with Rose's argument, however, and with Kennedy's, and
Cozzen's, is that the danger of a predominantly homosexual clergy
could probably be dealt with either by dropping the all-male,
all-celibate rule or by a firm return to pre-Vatican II
disciplines. The sex abuse scandals, that is, become just one more
platform for liberal and conservative polemics, each side insisting
on a return to its own brand of first principles, which each duly
defends with reams of historical and scriptural evidence. The gap
between the restorationist and liberal sides seems much too wide
and deeply felt to be bridged by polite conversation. Civil wars,
unfortunately, are always the bloodiest and usually end only with
the total exhaustion of one side or the other.
The new sex abuse revelations have prompted the re-issue of two
books from the first round of scandals a decade agoJason Berry's
Lead Us Not Into Temptation, and Frank Bruni and Elinor
Burkett's A Gospel of Shame. Berry was a local reporter
when the Gauthé case first surfaced in Louisiana, and he
did much of the digging for the early National Catholic Reporter
investigations. He is an intelligent man and a good writer, but
his book is marred by a movie-script style of quick cuts and reconstructed
conversations that make it hard to follow. Bruni and Burkett were
part of the New York Times team on the story, and their
account is the more workmanlike.
Amid the cacophony of lay and clerical voices weighing in on the
priestly sex abuse crisis, the one constant is how little anyone
knows about its true extent. One therefore turns to a clinical book,
Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned, in eager anticipation,
finally, of some hard facts. Bless Me Father is a collection
of academic papers that grew out of a 1998 conference on clerical
sexual abuse. Many of the contributions are forbiddingly technical,
but there are several useful analyses of what is actually known
about the problemand, regrettably, it is not much. Such data
as we do have suggest, however, that the number of true pedophilesadults
who prey on prepubescent childrenamong priests is quite low.
But when priests do get involved with minors, they are much more
likely than other sex offenders to be involved with boys. That may
reflect opportunitythe majority of sex offenses with minor
girls occur within the familyor it may reflect a homosexual
orientation of the priesthood. But as the authors are quick to concede,
all data are suspect. Everything we have comes from unrepresentative
samples, and almost nothing is known about the sex lives of priests
who don't get into trouble. Worryingly, boys are much less likely
to report sexual abuse than girls areprobably because of the
stigma of homosexualityand there are some wisps of data that
suggest that the problem may be far worse than imagined. One study
of sex abusers who were themselves abused as children found that
an astonishingly large percentage of their abusers60 percentwere
Catholic priests or brothers.
And there, perhaps, is the final scandal. Almost 20 years after
the first revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, there
has still not been a comprehensive survey of the extent of the problem.
As the excuses lamely have it, each diocese is an independent entity,
responsible only to Rome, so there is no central mechanism for collecting
the data. Rome, which doesn't hesitate to dictate the exact texts
of statements from American bishops' conferences, pretends to be
too respectful of local prerogative to order a proper study.
Until that is remedied, it is hard to argue that the Church is yet
treating the problem with the seriousness that it deserves.
Charles R. Morris
Morris is the author of American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners
Who Built America's Most Powerful Church (1997).
Photo: Gary Wayne Gilbert