Spring 2002, Vol. 5, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2002

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in this issue

The Scandal of Secrecy

The Cardinal and the Globe

The Mormons Score a 9.6

The Indispensable Source

Harry and the Evangelicals

Returning to Normalcy

The Media vs. the Church
by Mark Silk

It was not a coincidence that on March 3 both the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran major stories which compared how the neighboring Catholic dioceses of St. Louis, Missouri and Belleville, Illinois deal with priests accused of sexually abusing young people.

Several weeks earlier, the Times National Desk, eager to get involved in the latest round of "priest pedophile" coverage, dispatched reporters Laurie Goodstein and Jodi Wilgoren in pursuit of this tale of two Midwestern dioceses—one hunkered down, the other "zero tolerance." Hearing that the Times was in town, the Post-Dispatch kicked into gear.

Because of the Post-Dispatch’s revived interest in the issue of clergy abuse, a young man approached the paper with an accusation that Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell of Palm Beach had abused him years before at a seminary in Hannibal. Within a few days, the bishop had resigned, and the South Florida newspapers got into the act.

Then the Boston Globe and the Hartford Courant broke major stories alleging cover-ups by Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn (a former auxiliary bishop of Boston) and Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York (sometime bishop of Bridgeport). Beaten to the punch by a pair of provincials, the New York papers now became fully engaged in the priest pedophile story for the first time in its 15-year history.

Meanwhile, out in San Diego, the Globe was pursuing a story that Bishop Robert H. Brom had settled an abuse case against him for nearly $100,000. When the Union-Leader, which had been trying to nail down the story for a while, got wind that the Globe was about to publish, it rushed into print, a day ahead of Boston.

And so it went.

Next year the Globe will win the Pulitzer Prize that does, indeed, shimmer like a grail before the eyes of all newspaper folk embarking on big investigative projects. But for the rest of the newspaper world, the motivation to do this story has been grounded in self-defense. There is nothing more humiliating that having an out-of-town paper expose a scandal in your backyard. And the way Roman Catholic clergy move around the country, there are a lot of trails leading into a lot of backyards.

As investigative journalism goes, the Globe deserves high marks—for combing through court papers, debriefing plaintiffs’ lawyers, matching accusations against the notices of priest assignments and transfers. Other news organizations have, with varying degrees of success, worked to catch up, not just with the Globe but with the Catholic Church, that complex web of people, places, culture, and belief that dominates the religious life of most big American cities.

For truth to tell, the church has not been well covered in recent years. Even as newspapers expanded their religion beats in the 1990s, they turned their attention away from the institutional life of the major religious bodies. Around the country, the 2002 edition of the priest pedophile story has been a voyage of discovery, in more senses than one.

Take Omaha.

On February 25, the World-Herald reported that a priest named Rob Allgaier was being investigated for having spent ten or twelve hours a week looking at child pornography on the Internet while serving as a teacher at Norfolk Catholic High School. Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss had become aware of Allgaier’s viewing habits a year earlier, after two young men observed suspicious web sites on his computer and reported what they saw to another priest.

Curtiss initially removed Allgaier from his teaching position and restricted his contact with children. Then, over the summer, he transferred the priest to St. Gerald Catholic Church in Ralston, where he taught religion classes in the parish elementary and middle schools and worked with the youth group. Norfolk law enforcement opened its investigation in October.

On February 28, Allgaier was charged with the misdemeanor of attempted possession of child pornography. On March 3, a World-Herald article posed the question, "Why was a priest with the taint of alleged sexual misconduct shuffled from one parish to another rather than removed from the active priesthood altogether?"

On March 4, Curtiss released a statement pointing out that Allgaier had not been accused of abusing anyone. He said that when Allgaier’s activity surfaced the priest had been sent to a "prominent psychologist" for evaluation and been given counseling, the upshot of which was a determination that he was "no threat to children or anyone else." Allgaier would nonetheless, Curtiss said, be undergoing "an in-depth therapy program." The bishop also stated his archdiocese’s "zero tolerance level for sexual abuse of children" and its policy of cooperation with civil authorities "in reporting accusations of sexual misconduct or abuse against children."

The explanation did not mollify the parishioners at St. Gerald, many of whom, according to the World-Herald, informed the parish council that they thought the archdiocese had made a bad decision in assigning Allgaier to them. And some area Catholics took to the newspaper’s letters column to vent their criticism.

Jeanne Bast, for one, wrote on March 13 that Curtiss had done "a disservice to the people of the archdiocese and owes them a public apology for not being truthful and forthright about this problem from the very beginning. The Church needs to demand that bishops stop cover-up practices in these matters."

On March 19, the World-Herald reported that Bast and another letter writer, Frank Ayers, had received letters of rebuke from Curtiss (with copies to their pastors). "Any Catholic who uses the secular media to air complaints against the leadership of the church, without dialogue with that leadership, is a disgrace to the church," Curtiss wrote to Ayers.

"The clergy and the laity have been silent about this in the past, and it has not served the church well," Ayers, a 58-year-old parishioner at St. Gerald, told the paper. "We’re going to discuss it openly and publicly. The bishops in the United States aren’t going to be allowed to handle this quietly any longer."

Bast, who turned out to be a grandmother of 11 and a retired Catholic grade-school teacher, received the following: "I am surprised that a woman your age and with your background would write such a negative letter in the secular press against me without any previous dialogue. You should be ashamed of yourself!…The Church has enough trouble defending herself against non-Catholic attacks without having to contend with disloyal Catholics. For your penance you say one Hail Mary for me."

"You should be ashamed of yourself?" asked Bast. "Nobody says that to an 80-year-old woman. And what does my age have to with it?" Calling the imposition of penance laughable, she said, "I’m not seeking absolution."

On March 20, Jeff Koterba’s editorial page cartoon pictured Curtiss bearing a stone tablet inscribed with an eleventh commandment: "Thou shalt not criticize your archbishop in public!!!"

The following day, a poll by KMTV-Channel Three found that 69 percent of non-Catholics and 65 percent of Catholics disagreed with how Curtiss had handled the Allgaier situation, and 80 percent of non-Catholics and 79 percent of Catholics disagreed with his rebuke of the two letter-writers. A state senator called for Curtiss’ resignation.

On March 25, in remarks during mass, the archbishop issued a species of apology. "I’m sorry that my previous letter to you was interpreted as being demeaning or insulting," he said. "I never meant it to be such."

Then on March 27, speaking on Catholic radio station KVSS’s "The Shepherd’s Corner," Curtiss allowed as how he would not have let Allgaier work in a parish "had I known that this was going to become public and that I was going to have to interrupt his ministry and then have this reaction from people." The case, he said, "is a disaster for people both in Norfolk and St. Gerald. It’s a disaster for the archdiocese, and it shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t a felony. There wasn’t anybody abused, and we were trying to deal with it."

Curtiss stands out among princes of the church for speaking his mind, but from the private episcopal communications that have come to light—in filings from cases in Boston and Bridgeport, in Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony’s leaked e-mails—his attitude does not seem untypical. As far as the church hierarchy is concerned, disclosure and open discussion of clergy sexual abuse are at best grim necessities, not virtues to be sought.

It is an attitude more devoutly embraced by Catholic clerical culture than is generally recognized.

No institution likes having its dirty linen hung out for all to see, but in the Catholic Church there is doctrinal warrant for making sure it isn’t. The term of art is "scandal," which Thomas Aquinas defines as "an unrighteous word or deed that occasions the ruin of another." The worst kind of scandal is whatever calls the church into disrepute, because that undermines the faith of believers.

Canon law not only specifies ecclesiastical punishment for clergy who cause scandal by their misbehavior, but also provides for the suspension of penalties if these cannot be imposed "without danger of serious scandal or infamy." Better, in other words, to let punishment go by the board than to scandalize the faithful by publishing clerical misdeeds.

The news media rationalize their behavior by an alternative theology: The truth shall set you free.


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