In an auditorium in the Minnesota countryside one June day, the bishops of the American Roman Catholic Church were gathered in closed conclave. It was a heady time. They had used their moral standing to plunge into the nation’s political debates, taking bold positions on the dangers of capitalism and nuclear arms. But those were not the agenda items of this session.
The bishops were being briefed about priests who sexually abuse minors. And a new, internal-eyes-only document was circulating at the highest levels that bore a chilling, simple message: The abuse problem had catastrophic potential.
It had been written, in part, by a canon lawyer, the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle. As the bishops met, two other men with a vital interest in the issue sat on a garden bench nearby. One was Thomas C. Fox, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, which had published a stunning report on abuse only days before. The other was Eugene C. Kennedy, a psychology professor whose exploration of the emotional maturity of priests had suggested the underpinnings of abuse cases.
The evidence — from Doyle, Fox, Kennedy, among others — was great and growing. Doyle thought the bishops would heed it. “I was naive,” he said. Kennedy and Fox, sitting on the bench, thought the worst. “We both had a sinking feeling,” Fox said. Their fear was, “They don’t get it. And they’re gonna blow it.”
That was in 1985.
Today, in Dallas, the Catholic leadership will convene to confront again the scourge of its sexually abusive priests. The scandal in Boston was the immediate impetus, but there have been many Bostons in the past 17 years, antecedents that have cost the church millions of dollars in settlements and an incalculable amount of moral authority, precisely as Doyle, Fox and Kennedy had feared.
During the intervening years, the hierarchy — far from doing nothing — has formulated guidelines, sought expertise and encouraged every diocese to develop policies. A former nun, Barbara S. Balboni, who studied the handling of sexual abuse cases for a dissertation at Northeastern University, wrote in 1998 that the bishops are now “probably more knowledgeable than . . . leaders in major corporations, the Boy Scouts and other youth organizations, law enforcement and school personnel.”
In an April article in the Catholic magazine America, the Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute, the church-sponsored psychiatric hospital for priests in Silver Spring, wrote that, during the past decade, he had “witnessed bishops tackling scores of cases with great care and solicitude for victims and perpetrators. Yet they are currently being depicted as grossly negligent.”
But the mere fact of the current crisis suggests that, however much they have tried, the bishops have not mastered the problem in the ranks. Indeed, they have apologized often in recent weeks. Why a corps of smart and spiritual men, politically adept enough to rise to the top of their institution, was not able to successfully confront the problem of abuse is a question not on the Dallas agenda, which focuses more narrowly on what should be done with priests who have sinned with minors.
“I have wondered why from the beginning,” Doyle said.
The answer, to an extent, may be found in the mundane traits of any large, tradition-bound organization: resistance to swift action, reflexive protection of itself against attack, skepticism toward those who blow whistles. The answer may lie, too, in the traits unique to Catholicism, a religion that forgives sinners; that believes its priests are priests forever; that invests each bishop with enormous power to do a lot or a little.
What happened can be seen through the interlaced sagas of three people who sounded warnings. They are not the only ones who did, but their involvement stretches to that June 17 years ago, if not further. Doyle is still a priest. Fox is now publisher of his paper. Kennedy is still a professor. All three have hopes for Dallas. But each knows the church has been here before.
The first article in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) about priests and pedophilia ran in 1983. The case was in Oregon. Then, the next year, came the case of the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, accused of molesting dozens of boys in Lafayette, La. “We said, ‘There’s a pattern here. And we really need to understand what this is,’ ” Fox said.
Now 58, Fox had done service for many mainstream publications until, in 1980, he took command of NCR, a liberal weekly based in Kansas City that has no financial links to the church. It had 42,000 subscribers then, not a great number compared to the circulation of big-city dailies, but they included the men of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy. “They all subscribed,” Fox said.
Led by reporter Jason Berry, now a figure of legend in the coverage of sexual abuse by priests, NCR began connecting dots, talking to victims. “It takes about two or three of those conversations for you to be in virtual knots and tears, and understanding the pain that’s involved,” Fox said.
Yet publishing an inevitably damning compilation would be explosive. As Catholic immigrants had poured into the United States from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their church had given them a shield against the biases of established America. It educated them in its schools and helped in their neighborhoods.
So revered was the church that many Catholics had been reluctant to embarrass it by suing or seeking publicity when abuse happened. “Most parents who reported to us would say, ‘Just take care of this fellow. There’s something wrong with him.’ They were not so angry,” a bishop told Balboni, the former nun who interviewed 20 bishops and archbishops for her dissertation.
Such unquestioned fealty had long since faded by the 1980s, as Catholics had moved into the middle class and out of immigrant-only neighborhoods. Still, NCR was so worried its findings would be too much for too many that its 1985 report did not begin on Page One. Instead, there was an editors’ synopsis to prepare readers for the details published inside.
“In cases throughout the nation,” the summary began on June 7, 1985, “the Catholic Church is facing scandals and being forced to pay millions of dollars in claims to families whose sons have been molested by Catholic priests.” The leadership of the church had no policy for dealing with the problem, NCR said, too often gave priests the benefit of the doubt and even shuffled offenders from one parish to the next.
The allegations that are so familiar now were all there then.
“We knew we were going to take a lot of criticism,” Fox said. “And the criticism is what we got. ‘You are destroying the church. You don’t care. You are insensitive, and you are irresponsible.’ ”
Report Given to Bishops
Fox was not alone, though. Preparing the articles, he had encountered the research tracks of Michael Peterson, a priest and classmate from Stanford Unversity who then led St. Luke. Peterson, who is now dead, told Fox about a “hush-hush-hush” report he was writing with a lawyer from Louisiana and a Dominican priest named Thomas Doyle.
Doyle, now 57, was working at the Vatican Embassy in Washington but came out of the archdiocese of Chicago. His main job then, he said, was to keep tabs on the transfers and nominations of bishops, which must be approved by the Vatican. But the papal nuncio — the ambassador, Archbishop Pio Laghi — had asked for updates on the Louisiana case, and Doyle delved into it, eventually encountering Peterson and a church lawyer involved in the case, F. Ray Mouton. What had happened in Louisiana “blew my mind,” Doyle said.
The three men began preparing a report on the scope of the problem of sexual abuse by priests. In the years that followed, the 92-page document has sometimes been portrayed as a defiant, revolutionary attack on the church, but its tone was more one of pleading and of offering helpful suggestions.
It warned of “the possible cost to the Catholic Church of many millions of dollars and the potential devastating injury to its image,” and it urged the hierarchy to do two things to tamp the problem. One, form a “crisis control team” that could provide swift legal, investigative and medical advice to any bishop confronted with evidence of an abusive priest. Two, form a “policy and planning group” to broaden knowledge of every aspect of the problem, from insurance risks and the treatment of offenders to the screening of men for priestly vocations and public relations.
Everyone the report team encountered seemed encouraging, Doyle said, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who headed an important committee. In the spring of 1985, Doyle said, he met with Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, who is now dead but was a senior cardinal then. He had been given a draft. “And Krol opened up his briefcase and he opened up the report . . . and said ‘If I had asked for a report to be done for me, on this problem, this is exactly what I would have expected.’ And we knew we had a winner.”
The final version was completed in May 1985, in time for the bishops’ annual meeting held at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn. The authors gave the report to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington and several individual bishops.
But by the time the bishops assembled in Collegeville, the report’s progress had been stalled, Doyle said. He blamed Monsignor Daniel Hoye, then the general secretary of the bishops’ organization and now a parish priest in Massachusetts.
“I’ve heard it, but it’s totally false,” Hoye said. “It’s not the role of the general secretary to determine the agenda of the conference.” Moreover, just because the bishops did not leap to adopt Doyle’s report does not mean they did not know about or care about the issue, Hoye said. With the Louisiana case well known, the Collegeville agenda already included a panel discussion about the legal and medical aspects of sexual abuse by priests, he said.
“Even though the report wasn’t going anywhere, the issue was,” Hoye said.
Still, Hoye said, “maybe it [the issue] wasn’t handled in the best way it could have been.” He thought Doyle, Peterson and Mouton were overstating how bad the problem was, “but I don’t think they were, in hindsight.” Remember, the bishops were “on a learning curve” about the compulsive nature of abuse, Hoye said, treating it as a moral and not criminal issue — “a huge mistake.”
To Doyle, now an Air Force chaplain in Germany, the bishops over the years suffered from “the virus of clericalism,” which he called “a mindset that somehow we are above the lay people.” It is an accusation made by others, who suggest that bishops were too removed, enjoyed too much deference and identified primarily with their priests, the people they worked with every day.
Not having children, some said, bishops could not understand at a gut level the horror parents felt when their children were abused. They were also steeped in the notion that sinners are to be helped and not cast out, that the sacramental ordination of a priest should not be easily nullified. Finally, there is not one “church” in America, but 178 — the individual dioceses, ruled by their bishops — which complicates the coordination of action or the imposition of mandatory policies.
After Collegeville, Doyle sent a copy of the report to the papal nuncio with a letter pleading that “this will not get side-tracked or watered down in certain higher levels.” In a handwritten reply scrawled at the bottom of the cover letter, Laghi said: “I hope Card. Law will be willing and able to support the ‘strategy’ proposed within this paper.”
Law is now at the nexus of the Boston scandal.
A Truckload of Woes
At least one cardinal, apparently, took the report to heart, Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. He wanted a memo written about how a more formal examination of the problem might be done, and he wanted the memo sent to the hierarchy. To write it, he summoned an old friend.
Eugene Kennedy, now 73, was a logical choice. Not only was he a former priest, not only was he on the faculty of Loyola University of Chicago, but he had been a part of one of the most comprehensive examinations of the psychology of priests ever done. And he had done it at the direct request of the Catholic hierarchy.
The study, published in 1971, involved 271 priests from around the country. It found, Kennedy said, that two-thirds were emotionally underdeveloped, which he said meant they lacked the skills needed to form healthy, trusting, nonsexual relationships and to develop accurate portraits of who they were. It meant they were adolescents. To Kennedy, a truckload of problems was careering toward the church. “How could you miss it?”
But, he said, “I think it was just too much for the bishops.” The report went nowhere, for which Kennedy does not blame the bishops. It was an era when priests were exalted, when little was known about sexual deviance, when the misdeeds of those held in public esteem were excused, quietly. “I see these men as men of their times,” Kennedy said.
Years later, an auxiliary bishop told Balboni that the bishops “just totally refused to look at those studies.” If they had, if more had been done to help priests cope and learn, “[we] probably could have avoided some of the problems that we got into,” the auxiliary bishop said.
There were very public problems by the time Bernardin sought Kennedy’s help in the winter of 1986 with the memo about abuse by priests. Helped by his wife, Kennedy wrote three pages that Bernardin sent to Washington. Kennedy said a reply came from the general secretary, Hoye. Nothing would be done about Bernardin’s request for a comprehensive study, Kennedy said.
“I don’t recall the specifics of that,” Hoye said. “I’d love to see the letter I wrote.”
In the years that followed, the National Catholic Reporter probably printed an article about abuse by priests once a week, Fox said. “There was a period of time when even the editors, we’d be seeing these things over and over again, and our response was ‘My God, do we have to write about this again?’ ”
The church was responding, though, particularly in the 1990s after two infamous cases became public, one involving the Rev. Rudolph Kos, accused of molesting at least 11 altar boys in Dallas over a period of 11 years, and one involving the Rev. James R. Porter, accused of molesting dozens of people years before in Fall River, Mass.
In 1992, the bishops announced that any priests credibly accused would be suspended pending an inquiry and that dioceses would provide “pastoral care” to victims and cooperate with civil authorities. In June 1993, the bishops created a committee to, among other things, help bishops screen applicants for the priesthood and assess the possibility of reassignments for priests found guilty of sexual offenses.
Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, a spokesman for the bishops, said in a 1994 interview that although claims of abuse that occurred decades earlier were rising, there had been a “precipitous decline” in contemporary cases, suggesting that reforms were taking hold. Indeed, in an interview in March with the Catholic News Service, the bishops’ general counsel, Mark Chopko, derided suggestions that little has been done.
“People seem to have let themselves be persuaded by the secular media that the bishops have been asleep at the switch,” Chopko said. A victim today, he said, would be “listened to, appreciated and responded to by skilled people.”
“That’s not the way things were done 20 years ago,” Chopko said. “This is by and large the result of the hard work of individual bishops and the bishops collectively that has made this a much different church than it was 20 years ago.”
Yet Doyle, Fox and Kennedy are dubious. Mocking the bishops as “clueless” in an April article for the online magazine Salon, Kennedy said that “Catholics don’t think it’s rocket science, or even heavy theology, for bishops to understand what they know so simply in their hearts” about truth, openness and action. But the bishops seem more like “citizens of Pompeii, fixed in the expressions of eternal puzzlement,” Kennedy wrote.
Fox said he has “not heard any bishop yet” asking “what does this say about us, what does this mean, what outside appraisal is required here of our own actions?” Doyle said, “Why can’t anybody get up and say, ‘We screwed it up, because we were more worried about ourselves than the kids?’ ”
On the eve of Dallas, though, anger toward the bishops has deepened among victims and ordinary Catholics. “I don’t remember in my lifetime a siege for holy mother church that’s gone on that long,” said Doyle. The siege might be so intense, he said, that Dallas will not be Collegeville.
Copyright 2002, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
For 3 Who Warned Church, Fears Borne Out
Priest, Journalist and Professor Who Foresaw Sex Abuse Scandal Frustrated by Bishops’ Response
Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post