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Divisions of the faithful
A survey of recent books on the clerical sexual abuse scandals
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The 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. Catholicism—because 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 priests—Gilbert Gauthé in Louisiana, James Porter in Massachusetts, Thomas Adamson in Minnesota—had 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When that charge was withdrawn, the crisis seemed to deflate with an almost audible hiss.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.

Betrayal: 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 the Church

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 Catholic Church

by Michael S. Rose (Regnery Publishing Corp., 276 pp. $27.95)

Shaken By Scandals: Catholics Speak Out About Priests' Sexual Abuse
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 Church
(reissue)
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 Needed—and Why"
by Peter Steinfels, Commonweal, April 9, 2002.


The revelations in Boston have called forth a wave of reports of similar cover-ups elsewhere—in 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" clerical subcultures.

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 children.

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 teachings.

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" men—that 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 editors—notably Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute and Philip Lawler of Catholic World Report—have 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 embarrassment—that 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 spins."

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 Henry Newman.

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 centuries—from 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 women priests.

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 ago—Jason 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 problem—and, regrettably, it is not much. Such data as we do have suggest, however, that the number of true pedophiles—adults who prey on prepubescent children—among 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 opportunity—the majority of sex offenses with minor girls occur within the family—or 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 are—probably because of the stigma of homosexuality—and 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 abusers—60 percent—were 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

Charles R. Morris is the author of American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most Powerful Church (1997).

Photo: Gary Wayne Gilbert



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