January marked the fourth anniversary of the Boston Globe's
landmark investigation of the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by
Catholic clergy and, even more pointedly, the hierarchy's failure to treat
that abuse as criminal. The Globe series turned the abuse story,
which had convulsed a number of dioceses episodically since the mid-1980s,
into the greatest crisis ever endured by the Catholic church in America,
unmatched in impact, scope, and duration.
Indeed, notable episodes are still unfolding in the saga.
But, four years out, these episodes have largely receded to local, rather
than national, stages. Last fall, Philadelphia and Los Angeles occupied the
spotlight. And, as in most places in the nation, the legal process, rather
than journalistic crusading or even new developments within the church, is
now driving the story.
The biggest uproar took place in Philadelphia, where
District Attorney Lynn Abraham released a slashing 418-page grand jury
report - similar to previous blasts in Massachusetts and Long Island - on
abuse and cover-up in the archdiocese on September 22.
"The leaders of the Philadelphia Archdiocese - including
two former archbishops - actively concealed sexual abuse by priests for
decades, but no criminal charges can be brought against the church or its
priests because of the constraints of state law," the Allentown Morning
Call reported in a page one story on September 22.
Over 40 months of work beginning in 2002, two
Philadelphia grand juries heard more than 100 witnesses testify, including
Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, archbishop from 1988 to 2002, who testified
10 times for a total of 27 hours. The report, issued by grand jury number
two, said that witnesses made accusations against 169 priests who had served
in eastern Pennsylvania since 1967, and identified 63 priests by name, often
with very graphic accounts of the accusations made against them. Along the
way, more than 30,000 pages of archdiocesan records were gathered,
continuing a characteristic trend of using access to internal church records
as the basis of charges in the sex abuse scandal.
What stands out about the Philadelphia grand jury is the
fury directed at the top leadership of the church: "Grand jurors have
evidence the Cardinals Bevilacqua and Krol, and their aides, were aware that
priests in the diocese were perpetrating massive amounts of child
molestation and sexual assaults. The Archdiocese's own files reveal a steady
stream of reports and allegations....In many
cases, the same priests were reported again and again."
The archdiocese's lawyers responded to the report with a
76-page rebuttal, calling the grand jury report a "vile, mean-spirited
diatribe against the church," and a "sensationalized, tabloid-like
presentation of events that transpired years ago, which is neither fair nor
accurate." The report was, the lawyers said, "nothing more than an attempt
to convict in the court of public opinion those whom it does not indict in a
court of law."
One archdiocesan lawyer, William Sasso, told Inquirer
reporter Kitty Caparella on September 22, that the report was "incredibly
biased and anti-Catholic." For his part, Cardinal Justin Rigali, who was
transferred to Philadelphia from St. Louis in 2003, took a softer line in
his initial response, expressing '"deep regrets
and sincere apologies' to young victims who were 'violated'
and 'humiliated,'" Caparella wrote.
"The archdiocese acknowledges and completely repents
mistakes that were made in the handling of some cases," Rigali told the
Inquirer's David O'Reilly on September 23. "What we can't accept is the
inference that there was any intentional, unlawful, or criminal behavior on
the part of officials of the archdiocese."
That, however, was the crux of the matter. As on Long
Island, the rage of prosecutors in Philadelphia was driven by their sense
that during the 1990s, long after priestly sexual abuse became a public
issue, the hierarchy was crafting more sophisticated strategies to prevent
external scrutiny of their policies for investigating and resolving charges
In Philadelphia, the grand jury report argued that
Cardinal John Krol, who served as archbishop from 1961 to 1988, covered up
priestly misconduct because he was "intent on avoiding what the church
called 'general scandal,' transferring priests and
pressuring victims not to go to the police," the Inquirer's Craig R.
McCoy reported on September 22.
McCoy went on to note that, according to the report,
while Bevilacqua "shared his predecessor's obsession with public relations,"
he also "had an abiding interest in limiting the church's legal exposure
during years when the abuse problem was beginning to spawn lawsuits
"Of the two cardinals," McCoy wrote, "the report
portrayed Bevilacqua, who holds a degree in civil law from St. John's
University and a doctorate in canon law from Rome's Gregorian University, as
the more sophisticated in his orchestration of the cover-up."
Under Bevilacqua, the archdiocese's approach to the
investigation of charges against priests was to restrict investigations and
to mislead complainants. "The jury contended that Bevilacqua had his staff
cripple the church's investigatory process, shutting a case down as soon as
a priest denied assaults and deliberately refraining from interviewing
victims and church staff or seeking to corroborate accusations," McCoy
The report accused the archdiocese's secretary of the
clergy, Monsignor William J. Lynn, whose staff was charged with
investigating clerical misconduct, of orchestrating Bevilacqua's campaign to
limit the impact of potential legal action against the archdiocese. McCoy
reported that the grand jury was "initially incredulous" that Bevilacqua had
praised Lynn's work. "It became apparent to the grand jurors that Msgr. Lynn
was handling the cases precisely as his boss wished."
"To protect themselves and their aides from negative
publicity or expensive lawsuits - while keeping abusive priests active - the
cardinals and their aides hid the priests' crimes from parishioners, police,
and the general public," the National Catholic Reporter quoted the
grand jury report in its October 7 issue. "Under Bevilacqua and Lynn, the
report said, "the only 'investigation' conducted
after a victim reported being abused was to ask the priest if he did what
was alleged. If the accused priest, whose very crime is characterized by
deceit and secretiveness, denied the allegation, archdiocese officials
considered the allegation unproven."
The report said that the cardinal told the grand jury,
the Reporter continued, "that when assigning or promoting priests, he
disregarded anonymous or third-party reports of sexual crimes against
children that were contained in priests' files." His staff "never truly
investigated these reports - no matter how serious, how believable, or how
Rigali responded at two levels, first by telling the
Inquirer and other journalists that, since 2002, the archdiocese has
taken "extraordinary" steps to ensure the safety of children, including
reporting all allegations to police, following the new national Catholic
bishops' protocol of permanently removing from ministry all priests found
guilty of any sexual misconduct with children, and mounting a massive
training program for everyone involved in ministry.
In a letter to all Catholics in the archdiocese, he also
defended Bevilacqua stoutly. "The report is unjustifiably critical of
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Cardinal John Krol and others who worked in the
administration of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In every single case of
abuse reported to archdiocesan officials, action was taken based on the best
medical information available at the time."
The archdiocese's lawyers complained in their document of
a "gratuitous attack" on Cardinal Krol, developed by "reading between the
lines of archdiocesan documents and speculating on the cardinal's underlying
motives, undeterred by the fact that the Cardinal Krol is no longer alive to
"Perhaps the cruelest treatment of any archdiocesan
witness is reserved for Cardinal Bevilacqua," it said. "The report takes
excessive liberties with the facts, places unwarranted interpretation on the
written documents, tortures Cardinal Bevilacqua's live testimony and ignores
much of what he said to cast him in the role of a leader insensitive to
children and preoccupied with issues of legal liability....The
view of Cardinal Bevilacqua is so distorted and so unfair that those who
know him and were influenced by his ministry cannot help but be offended."
The rebuttal went on to emphasize that accused priests
"were removed from their current assignments and required to undergo
psychological treatment and evaluation before decisions were rendered
regarding their further treatment or future ministry." Any mistakes that
were made were "the result of human error - not criminal intent - and a
society-wide misunderstanding of the nature of these disorders."
The bulk of the grand jury report, however, catalogued a
long series of cases in which repeatedly accused priests continued to be
recycled into positions of authority. The Inquirer's McCoy reported
on September 22 that Bevilacqua had many times promoted, and even honored,
the Rev. Albert Kostelnick, "even though the church had received a constant
stream of abuse allegations against him, including an eyewitness account
from a fellow priest." The grand jury said that Kostelnick had at least 18
victims - the largest number of allegations documented involving a single
The grand jury report's catalogue of charges and
descriptions was brutally graphic, crafted explicitly to puncture
bureaucratic posturing and denial: "We should begin by making one thing
clear, when we say abuse, we don't just mean 'inappropriate
touching' (as the Archdiocese often chooses to refer to it). We mean rape.
Boys who were raped orally, boys who were raped anally, girls who were raped
Lay response to the report was dramatic, with headlines
like "Among Catholics, sadness and fury," "Some angry at church, others at
D.A.," "Prof Sees 'Disaster' for church here," and
"Their faith in God, not in men, unshaken." Over the following weekend,
homilies on the report by local priests were widely reported. And by the
following week, the Inquirer was reporting that Catholic audiences
were responding coldly to Rigali.
"Crowd members lash out at cardinal at Villanova" was the
headline on an Inquirer story covering a speech by Rigali at
Villanova University on the 40th anniversary of a document of the Second
Vatican Council. Frederick Cusick reported that the first questioner, a lay
woman named Judy Grady, noted that "Rigali had mentioned
'human dignity' 37 times in his speech" and "wanted to know how that
squared with his support of 'criminal cardinals
who have protected oral and anal rape.'" A series of hostile questions
followed until organizers intervened to restrict discussion to the Vatican
On September 28, Inquirer reporters David O'Reilly
and Jim Remsen reported that several priests had challenged Rigali's defense
of Krol and Bevilacqua at a private meeting of 300 archdiocesan priests. One
priest reportedly told Rigali he had chosen "the wrong time to defend the
Rumbling under the discussion was unhappiness with
Pennsylvania criminal and civil statutes, which have relatively tight
statutes of limitation on prosecuting crimes against children, or even on
pursuing civil remedies. Among the chief public justifications of the grand
jury report was the desire of prosecutors to get the time limits extended.
California is one place where, in the wake of the abuse
scandal, action was taken to reopen civil liability. A 2003 law gave
plaintiffs an additional year to files civil suits against institutions that
failed to protect them from knowing predators, even decades after the
assaults. A huge wave of litigation has followed.
On October 12, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles
released to the Associated Press summaries of 126 personnel records of
priests accused of molesting children and adolescents - something, the
Los Angles Times pointed out, Mahony had been promising to do "for
more than two years." The skepticism of journalists and victim advocates was
captured in the day's headline: "Records Release Is Criticized: Critics
dismiss as a PR ploy the disclosure by the L.A. Archdiocese of documents on
"I urged Cardinal Mahony to provide the fullest possible
disclosure of evidence of sexual abuse by clergy," District Attorney Steve
Cooley said in a printed statement quoted by the Los Angeles Daily News
on October 13. "Despite two court rulings, Cardinal Mahony continues to
claim 'confidentiality privileges' that no court
"What we're looking for is evidence and investigative
leads, not institutional mea culpas," Cooley said.
Mahony's lawyers took a less aggressive approach than
Rigali's, with J. Michael Hennigan telling reporters, "We have a church that
is embarrassed, contrite, ashamed of what happened in the past." Church
officials are now, Hennigan told the Daily News's Rachel Uranga and
Rick Orlov, "strongly committed to reform."
The Times' Jean Guccione and Sandy Banks noted
that same day that the Los Angeles archdiocese might end up paying out the
largest civil judgments of any diocese in the United States, because of the
re-opening of civil liability in California. They reported that the total
paid out by the church in California has already topped $250 million,
including a $100 million settlement to 90 people in Orange County.
And, in a separate story double-bylined with Doug Smith,
Guccione used a Times study reaching back to 1950 to track the extent
of the sexual abuse crisis in southern California. "Molestations have
occurred at roughly 100 parishes," they wrote. "But because the accused
priests moved around the archdiocese on average every 4.5 years, the total
number of parishes in which accused abusers served is far larger - more than
three-fourths of the 288 parishes."
Guccione and Smith noted that the parishes included
neighborhoods "both rich and poor, suburban and urban, some predominantly
white and others with African-American or Latino majorities." The study did
not "support the contention made by some critics of the church that problem
priests were dumped into poor, Latino or African-American communities."
On November 9, the Los Angeles archdiocese got some good
news from California Superior Court when Judge Haley J. Fromholz ruled
against four insurance companies seeking to avoid paying claims against the
archdiocese on the grounds that Cardinal Mahony had withheld information
about clergy abuse allegations. Fromholz found no evidence that Mahony had
done so - thereby, in the view of many, opening the door to serious
settlement talks with plaintiffs.
But then, on November 17, the Times published a
long story by Paul Pringle considering the roots of a misconduct scandal at
the archdiocesan seminary, St. John's in Camarillo. The school had,
according to Pringle, "produced a disproportionate number of alleged sexual
abusers as it prepared men for a life of ministry and celibacy."
Pringle reported that about 10 percent of the 625 St.
John's graduates ordained as priests of the archdiocese since 1950 have been
accused of molesting minors, and that in two classes - 1966 and 1972 - a
third of the graduates were later accused of molestation. A long string of
former students, some of whom were later involved in litigation against the
church, painted a picture of "a licentious atmosphere at St. John's that
might have accommodated a range of sexual behavior, especially in the years
before the 1990s."
Even as archdiocesan officials denied "that the seminary
was in any way responsible" for later problems, J. Michael Hennigan, the
archdiocese's lawyer, told Pringle that "there were a couple of years at
that seminary where lightning struck." Hennigan said he doubted "we'll ever
figure out why."
Down the coast, meanwhile, the Diocese of San Diego was
litigating to get the state law reopening liability overturned, while up the
coast, the Archdiocese of San Francisco was trying to settle its own large
abuse case load. And in courts around the state, a series of high profile
trials of alleged abusers was beginning, including one against former Los
Angeles priest Michael Edwin Wempe, whose lawyer admitted that Wempe had
abused 13 boys in the 1970s and 1980s as part of a legal maneuver to limit
damaging testimony about older abuse cases.
Elsewhere, it was a crazy quilt of legal developments.
In Kentucky, the Diocese of Covington, a tiny and
unprosperous jurisdiction, agreed to set up a $80 million fund to compensate
hundreds of victims of abuse, the largest single settlement to date in the
In Connecticut, the Archdiocese of Hartford announced a
$22 million settlement with 43 victims. At the same time, the Hartford
Courant was making progress in its legal battle to force the Diocese of
Bridgeport (former see of Cardinal William Egan of New York) to release its
internal records about priestly misconduct.
No legal event had more potential significance, however,
than an August ruling by the federal bankruptcy judge handling the Chapter
11 filing of the Diocese of Spokane, Washington. The assets of a Catholic
diocese, declared Judge Patricia Williams, can be liquidated to pay victims
of sexual abuse by priests.
"We are going to see a surge in claims, to put it a bit
crassly," Peter Borre, cochairman of the Council of Parishes, a lay group
helping parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston oppose mandatory closing, told
the Boston Globe on August 29. "Sexual-abuse victims and their
attorneys will now see much larger sums of money available for settlement.
Everything within the diocese is now potentially on the table if it comes to
Chapter 11 proceedings."
So American Catholics, and indeed all Americans, are
still waist deep in this Big Muddy. When is enough, enough?
Editorializing on October 5, the Pittsburgh Post
Gazette went out on a limb to oppose reopening civil liability in child
abuse cases. "The child abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in
America seems never to stop casting its long shadow, even though church
leaders are well past condoning the grave errors that allowed it to occur,"
the paper began.
"At first reckoning, the indignation expressed by
advocates for those abused seems justified. The crimes were so shocking that
emotionally, it is hard to entertain the idea that pursuit of justice should
ever stop. But when rationality returns to overrule emotion, the idea of
respecting a statute of limitations is not so crazy or profane."
In the face of the truculence of the Philadelphia
archdiocese, however, or the PR moves of its Los Angeles counterpart, public
opinion seems to be: Enough is not yet enough.