Summer 2003, Vol. 6, No. 2

Table of Contents
Summer 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
St. Francis to the Rescue

Keeping the Shi'ites Straight

Masses of Torts

The Trouble with Missionaries

Jihad for Journalists

The Smart Saga

Ghosts of New York

Santorum v. Sodomy

The Irreverent Eagle

The Latest Japanese Cult Panic

Israel's Tele-Rabbi

Letters to the Editor


From the Editor:

St. Francis to the Rescue
By Mark Silk

Through winter and spring, the Catholic crisis seemed to be breaking into local bits and pieces. As compiled by the indispensable “Poynteronline Abuse Tracker” (, it was a trial here, a settlement there, and the odd statement by a bishop.

And in the run-up to their annual June get-together in St. Louis, there was every indication that the bishops meant to keep it that way. The meetings were arranged to keep public discussion of sexual abuse in the church to a bare minimum, so as to offer swarming reporters no opportunity to construct any national story other than “bishops getting back to business.”

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

In a June 12 interview with Larry Stammer of the Los Angeles Times, former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, the chairman of the bishops’ National Review Board, launched a salvo across the episcopal bow, with special notice to the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony.

“I have seen an underside that I never knew existed,” Keating said. “I have not had my faith questioned, but I certainly have concluded that a number of serious officials in my faith have very clay feet. That is disappointing and educational, but it’s a fact…. To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy.” And then: “I think there are a number of bishops—and I put Cardinal Mahony in that category—who listen too much to his lawyer and not enough to his heart.”

The next day Mahony fired back, telling Stammer that Keating’s comments were “off the wall.”

 “All I can say is, from the bishops I've listened to—and several called me this morning—this is the last straw,” he continued. “To make statements such as these—I don’t know how he can continue to have the support of the bishops. I don’t know how you back up from this.”

 Other members of the commission allowed as how they found Keating’s comments “unhelpful” and on June 16, after a majority indicated that he should resign, he did. But he declined to assume the role of penitent, stating instead: “My remarks, which some bishops found offensive, were deadly accurate.” The media were inclined to agree.

In June 18 editorial, “Keating tells it like it is,” the Boston Herald applauded him for not going quietly and expressed the hope that he would be succeeded by someone “equally dogged, equally independent.” Comparable support came from Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and the Dallas Morning News. Cartoonists had a field day, not least the Hartford Courant’s Bob Englehart, who portrayed a couple of miter-headed hit men consigning Keating to the fishes.

Meanwhile, on the evening of June 14 Bishop Thomas O’Brien of Phoenix was driving home from a confirmation ceremony when he struck and killed a jaywalker—and drove off without reporting the incident. According to Joseph A. Reaves of the Arizona Republic, O’Brien had been close to despair. In May, he signed an extraordinary agreement with the Maricopa County Attorney, admitting in exchange for immunity from prosecution that he had systematically covered up sexual abuse by priests under his supervision.

The cops booked O’Brien on June 16. On June 17, he was charged. On June 18, the Vatican, acting with unaccustomed alacrity, accepted his resignation. In case anyone missed the metaphorical import of a bishop leaving a victim dead in the street, David Gibson, the author of a new book on the church, spelled it out for Newsday’s Carol Eisenberg: “It plays into people’s sense that the hierarchy has done a hit-and-run on the entire Catholic Church.”

To replace O’Brien, Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara suggested that the bishops nominate Frank Keating. “Has the hapless hierarchy of the American Catholic Church,” she asked, “ever needed a straight talker more than now?” 

The crisis, in short, was back at the top of the news when the bishops arrived in St. Louis June 20. Frustrated, they stuck to their pre-arranged agenda, lashed out at the media, and decamped with their credibility as impaired as ever.

What righted the ship, at least momentarily, was the Vatican’s July 1 announcement of Sean P. O’Malley as permanent successor to Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, whose failures of leadership precipitated the crisis in the first place. O’Malley had earned his spurs as a sex-scandal cleanup man in Fall River, Mass. and Palm Beach. Equally important, he was a Capuchin priest, a follower of St. Francis. It is safe to say that throughout the church, and in the world at large, no Roman Catholic enjoys a better public image than the friar from Assisi.

 “A Bishop in Sandals is a Welcome Change,” ran the headline on the New York Daily News editorial, which went on to compare him invidiously to the local hierarch, Cardinal Edward Egan: “O’Malley, brown tunic, sandals on his feet, openness in his demeanor, is potentially Egan’s worst nightmare: A true priest, uncomfortable with phony trappings of wealth, privilege or power, standing alongside a guy who lives like a monarch and seems to have the impression that he is entitled to live as if any past problems with these pedophile priests belong to someone else and he is too important to be bothered by a demand from common Catholics for answers or justice.”

In the National Catholic Reporter, Joe Feuerherd suggested that O’Malley’s job description was the one St. Francis heard: “Go rebuild my church which, as you can see, is falling to ruin.

idst dithyrambs of praise for O’Malley, about the only sour sound came from former priest and retired psychology professor Eugene Kennedy, who in a dyspeptic Religion News Service column professed to see the fine hand of the departed Law in the Boston appointment. In Kennedy’s view, O’Malley was a person “with proven pastoral and human graces” but also the latest in a series of bishops to be plucked from a religious order to serve “as an unshakable supporter of the pope’s program and interests.”

Machiavelli, a close observer of the papacy of his own time, put it more unpleasantly. In his Discourses on Livy, he credited the Franciscans (and Dominicans) with restoring the church by their poverty and humility and good religious offices, which earned credibility with the people while teaching them to leave it to God to punish any errors committed by the church’s leaders. “So [the leaders] do the worst they can because they do not fear the punishment that they do not see and do not believe.”

 After his appointment was announced, O’Malley declared, “People’s lives are more important than money.” The lives in question were, presumably, the 789 or so children molested by at least 237 priests and 13 other church officials in the Boston archdiocese since 1940, according to a report issued by the Massachusetts Attorney General a few days before O’Malley’s formal installation.

Welcome to Boston, Brother Sean.


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