Spring 2003, Vol. 6, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2003

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Articles in this issue

In the South:
The GOP Gets Religion

What Christian Right?

The Undetected Tide

Church Notes

The New Governing Party

The Bible in Memphis

The Decalogue in Montgomery


A World of Hurt

James in the Box

O Brother, Who Art Thou?


What Would Jesus Drive?


A World of Hurt
By Andrew Walsh

As the immense Catholic sexual abuse scandal grinds into its second year, patterns of coverage are shifting. Fewer major investigative projects have appeared in recent months, but the volume of coverage is still immense as journalists continue to track new revelations, responses, and especially ongoing legal developments.

Getting a handle on the scandal is one of the chief struggles of the moment. That’s why Laurie Goodstein’s January 14 New York Times article, headlined “Trail of Pain in Church Crisis Leads to Nearly Every Diocese,” has been the most important piece of journalism so far this year.

Summarizing “the most complete compilation of data on the problem available,” Goodstein reported that, at minimum, the scandal involved more than 1,200 Catholic priests who “are known to have abused more than 4,000 minors over the past six decades.” So far, the Times reported, public records suggest that 1.8 percent of all priests ordained from 1950 to 2001 had been accused, by name, of abuse.

But extrapolating from those dioceses that had either voluntarily or under court order released what they claimed were complete lists of abusive priests, Goodstein suggested that the percentage was probably far higher. In Baltimore, an estimated 6.2 percent of priests ordained in the last half-century have been implicated in the abuse of minors. In Manchester, New Hampshire, the percentage is 7.7 percent and in Boston it is 5.3 percent.

Half of the priests in the Times database have been accused of molesting more than one minor, with 16 percent accused of abusing more than five. And while the majority “were accused of molesting teenagers only, 43 percent were accused of molesting children 12 and younger.”

The Times’ survey, which—along with the Dallas Morning News’ June 2002 survey showing that two-thirds of current Catholic bishops have reassigned or reinstated priests accused of sexual misconduct—stands as the best available summary of the scope of the crisis, provoked a fiery and widely noted response from Catholic commentator and sociologist, Father Andrew Greeley.

Writing in the invective mode in the Jesuit weekly America, Greeley complained that the Times had “labored mightily to bring forth a mountain of priest abusers in its recent census and produced only a mouse.” The most accurate way to read the survey’s results, he contended, is that 98.2 percent of Catholic priests haven’t been accused of sexual misconduct. Stoking a long-standing argument that American journalists, like most Americans, are reflexively hostile to the idea of a celibate clergy, Greeley asserted that “despite the New York Times, most priests are reasonably mature, happy men. They are not the crowd of cowering, craven, sexually frustrated “unhealthy” males that the media have portrayed this past year.” The Times had, he claimed, “ventured on to the stomping grounds of virulent anti-Catholicism.”

While Greeley worked hard to ensure that not all priests be blamed for the sins of a few, even he admitted that the bishops bear heavy responsibility for how accusations were handled, and that most priests “still do not take the abuse crisis seriously.” And, so far, no official Catholic sources have advanced a clear and well-documented national summary of the total number of known offenders.

The body charged with gathering that information, the lay review board appointed last summer by that national Catholic bishops conference, has begun its work. The board, led by Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, will eventually issue four separate reports. A statistical summary is due in June and an audit of diocesan compliance with national charter approved by the bishops and the Vatican last fall for handling charges of abuse by priests will follow in December. Then there will be studies of the causes of the crises, and of the celibate clergy.

It is not yet clear how fully the nation’s bishops will cooperate with the National Review Board, but there are signs that some bishops aren’t inclined to be especially helpful. The Times and other New York papers reported in January that Cardinal Edward Egan was refusing to meet with the board in New York, or to allow any of the Archdiocese of New York’s bishops to celebrate Mass for the board during its working visit to New York. Egan’s spokesman said that Egan would only meet with the board at its offices in Washington.

Whatever the bishops do, however, the centrality of their administrative processes in the scandal has been underlined again and again in the criminal and civil legal processes taking place all over the country. On the criminal side, the biggest news in recent months has come from Long Island and New Hampshire, where prosecutors released reports on their local dioceses’ handling of abuse cases.

The 180-page report of a Suffolk County grand jury, released by District Attorney Thomas Spota on January 17, painted a picture of particularly aggressive efforts to cover up priestly misconduct. According to the report, the Diocese of Rockville Center had protected scores of priest offenders for decades by using what it described as “sham policies and a diocesan intervention team that was supposed to investigate offenses but actually worked to persuade victims not to file criminal complaints or lawsuits.”

In New Hampshire, the Manchester Union-Leader reported in early March that the 9,000 pages of church documents released by the state attorney general’s office illuminated a church culture that “nurtured the desire of church officials to conceal the abuses and enable the abusers.”

Columnist Jack Kenny pointed out that the documents suggested that, through the 1980s, New Hampshire law enforcement officials had colluded with the church to cover up allegations of sexual misconduct against the clergy. For example, in 1975, Nashua narcotics detectives discovered the Rev. Paul Aube having sex with a boy from his parish youth group in a car in front of the church.

“Bishop Odore Gendron then interceded on Aube’s behalf with the Nashua police,” Kenny reported. “He said, oh, by the way, I contacted the police chief in Nashua and I asked him to do me a favor and make sure that no record of this is in the files, and he assured me that, you know that would be taken care of.” Gendron then reassigned Aube to run the youth program at Holy Rosary Parish in Rochester, “where he assaulted at least seven minors over the next five years.”

On the civil litigation front, the release of scores of new files in December cast doubt on many of Cardinal Bernard Law’s claims that he knew little of the details of the Archdiocese of Boston’s reassignments of priests accused of sexual misconduct. Law’s resignation followed in short order.

Meanwhile, complex litigation of hundreds of new lawsuits by victims is proceeding in Massachusetts, California, and Kentucky. The relatively small Archdiocese of Louisville now faces at least 200 civil suits, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported. In Michigan and Wisconsin, church leaders are considering mediation in order to resolve large backlogs of suits without going to trial.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, who was installed last summer, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he was driven to consider mediation because of his responsibility to “protect the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s limited resources.”  Dolan told reporter Tom Heinen that mediation was “kind of uncharted,” but necessary, because, “We’ve got this great stereotype that we can’t seem to shake that the archdiocese has tons of money…because we just don’t. And the money that we do have is very scrupulously set aside for the specific purposes of the donor.”

But the likelihood that mediation will solve the church’s problems is small. As Larry Stammer reported March 10 in the Los Angeles Times, other states seem to be preparing to follow California’s lead in extending the time limits both “for criminal prosecutions of abusive priests and for civil lawsuits against church officials accused of shielding them.”

In recent months, there has been a surge in coverage of the financial problems the scandal and the general economic slow-down have created for the church. Here, as in many areas of coverage of the enormous and decentralized Catholic church, there is confusing diversity.

Cutbacks in giving have been reported in Boston, Cleveland, and Louisville. The Boston Globe reported that the Archdiocese of Boston’s central budget would be cut by 20 percent this year, on top of 30 percent last year. A $300 million capital campaign may end up $100 million short. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on March 5 that the Diocese of Cleveland is “freezing purchases, cutting employee salaries, and selling off church property.”

In Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore, on the other hand, 2002 was a record year for fundraising. “The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Millennium Campaign flourished despite the sagging economy, the prospect of war, an effort to withhold donations to the archdiocese in the wake of the priest sex-abuse scandal,” Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun Times reported on March 6.

In a February 7 story headlined “Despite Scandal, Catholics Give More,” John Rivera of the Baltimore Sun showed that while there is much reluctance to give to the dioceses, support for parish-level giving remains strong. “Catholics express anger in national polls at the actions of bishops and other leaders that led to the scandal,” wrote Rivera, but “they also say they like their pastors and local parishes.”

As has often been the case in the past year, the Boston Globe has produced superior reporting on the institutional effects of the scandal. On March 5, Walter Robinson and Thomas Farragher reported that deep cuts in the central archdiocesan budget will probably lead soon to large numbers of parish and school closings in Massachusetts.

Cardinal Law, like many bishops, had been very averse to closing parishes, and often used subsidies from the archdiocese to support poor, lightly attended, inner-city parishes. But as the central budget shrinks, there is less and less available to support them. The Globe reported that some priests expect to see 30 to 40 parishes closed in eastern Massachusetts, not only as a result of the financial scandal, but also because of the shortage of priests, a chronic problem that has been exacerbated by the suspension of those accused of abuse.

“People are going to have to make some painful adjustments,” the Rev. Francis Cloherty, pastor of St. Patrick Church in the struggling ex-industrial city of Brockton and a regional vicar supervising 18 parishes, told the Globe.

Some of the vast reservoir of rage that has built up within the church is now being directed at the news media. Brooks Egerton of the Dallas Morning News quoted Father Benedict Groeschel, a prominent priest-psychologist whose views reach millions through his books, lectures, and appearances on the Catholic Eternal World Television Network complaining that “reporters ‘doing the work of Satan’ are driven to lie…because they hate the Church’s moral teachings.”

The conservative Catholic weekly, Our Sunday Visitor, ran a lengthy piece on March 3 charging that the media has refused to listen to expert voices suggesting that at least some priests who have been sexual abusers can be treated effectively and return to at least limited forms of ministry. The piece focused on the Rev. Canice Connors, president of the conference of superiors of Catholic men’s religious orders and a “recognized expert in treating emotional or behavioral disorders and sexual or substance addictions among clergy.” Connors claimed that the New York Times repeatedly solicited an op-ed piece from him making the case that many priest-abusers could be treated effectively, but then declined to run it.

Not all the anger has flowed toward the secular opponents of Catholicism. On February 26, Katie Thomas of Newsday reported on the case of a Long Island priest considered to be too liberal by some of his parishioners. Critics of the Rev. Charles Papa apparently called the police when a member of their group who worked as the parish’s business manager found records of visits to pornographic Web sites on Papa’s office computer.

A police investigation resulted in no allegations against Papa, Thomas reported, “nor did it find that he had visited child porn Web sites.” But the priest was suspended as pastor of the parish when the investigation began and is now on medical leave. His supporters in the parish complained that “he has been caught up in a witch-hunt made possible by the atmosphere of mistrust of priests.”

On March 10, Michael Paulsen of the Boston Globe wrote about criticism leveled by “some leading conservative Catholics” against the 58 Boston priests who had called for Cardinal Law to resign. Paulsen noted that George Weigel, in a column published in the Boston Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, had described the priests as “men who had repeatedly and publicly denied the Church’s teaching on the moral truth.”

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a New York priest and conservative author, also condemned “some” of the priests who signed the letter last fall. “Among them are long-standing advocates of gay causes, habitual ranters against Rome’s putative oppression, and those who go far beyond respectful dissent in publicly declaring that authoritative teachings of the Church as simply false,” Neuhaus wrote. “Whoever succeeds Law as archbishop, it has been suggested, keep that list of 58 handy, for they represent that culture of infidelity that is the source of priestly miscreance in doctrine and life.”

It is noteworthy that both Weigel and Neuhaus have been prominent critics of the bishops’ handling of sexual abuse cases.

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