By Charles Redfern
Don’t stop me. I’m doing it. I’m throwing every stitch of clothing into a pack, including those wool socks for polar weather and the straw hat to fend off Amazon bugs. I’m on a world-wide quest, an expedition, a voyage, a mission. I will find the great reset button in the sky and I will press it. Brace yourself for a sudden jolt and then bathe in Wonderland’s warmth: Closeted skeletons will vanish and doors will creak open and formerly crazy aunts will roam free. Best of all, cardinals and bishops won’t listen to attorneys any more. They’ll remember the Church is strongest when it embraces weakness and they’ll follow their Lord to the cross, not their lawyers to the negotiating table.
I must find the button because things are now askew. On the one hand, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops rang eloquent in a May 5th letter in which they called budget-debating representatives to remember the poor; on the other, fallout in the wake of recent indictments involving the Philadelphia archdiocese suggests the magisterium still doesn’t get it. They’ve stalled. They’ve withheld information from its own sexual-abuse review board. They’ve tarnished the church’s reputation while skating the legal ice, naïve of their own harm and supplying fodder for their many opponents. Just to confuse things even more, a newly-released five-year study shows the US Church at least attempting to wrestle with one of its bleakest chapters.
Such is the Beauty and the Beast of the contemporary Catholic Church. The Beauty must flourish. The Beast must go.
The May 5th letter transforms me into a wanna-be Catholic. The bishops were civil: “We wish to express our prayers and gratitude to you and other leaders for your generous service to our nation. We also wish to clearly acknowledge the difficult challenges that the Congress, Administration and government at all levels face to get our financial house in order …” They were encouraging: “We welcome the kind of bipartisan action that prevented a federal government shutdown …” They were holistically pro-life: “As Catholic bishops, we lead a community that brings both moral principles and everyday experience to this discussion. We defend the unborn, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, educate the young, welcome refugees, and care for the sick both at home and abroad.” They argued for a different starting point on budgetary discussions: the needs of “the least of these.” The letter was steeped in the Church’s social teaching and moral theology and conviction coupled with grace: Catholicism at its best.
But, in the background, I remember last month’s crude bark from D.J. Bettencourt, the Republican New Hampshire House leader and Church member, who responded to Bishop John McCormack’s similar plea on the state level: “Would the Bishop like to discuss his history of protecting the ‘vulnerable’? This man is a pedophile pimp who should have been led away from the State House in handcuffs with a rain coat over his head in disgrace. He has absolutely no moral credibility to lecture anyone.”
Bettencourt’s denunciation was unbecoming – he was accusing his bishop of a crime for which he was never even charged, let alone
exonerated – but he later showed integrity in a poignant letter of apology to McCormack: “Upon humble reflection, the characterization of my feelings toward your leadership as bishop was at best undiplomatic and a better choice of words was both warranted and appropriate. I pride myself on ‘calling it as I see it’ and standing strong for the things that I believe in. But in this case my frank words distracted from my genuine sentiment, one which is shared by many Catholics in New Hampshire and across the country …” He pointed out that McCormack assisted Cardinal Law when abusers were shuttled from church to church. “As a Catholic myself, I cannot separate your involvement in what has been the darkest period of our Church’s recent history. While ultimately the Lord will judge each of us, many people judge our faith by our leaders and I feel that is why a large number have left the Church.”
I could coach Bettencourt on a better apology, but I cannot dismiss his “genuine sentiment.” He coarsely articulated what many privately think: “How can you invoke morality?” All childhood abuse is horrible and leaves a wake of fear and distrust, but molestation from a priest and diocesan complicity ranks the most foul – especially in light of Catholicism’s lofty view of the Church and clergy: The priest, as a divine representative, portrays God as a monster. Heaven is not safe. Perhaps ugly thoughts lurk in some victims’ minds: “I’d rather be in Hell. The Devil will protect me from God.”
Reset button, please.
Proportion and balance is needed even on this emotionally-laden issue, which rushed out of the shadows and into the limelight in 2002 and refuses to die. As David Gibson comments, “amid the hue and cry, sensible voices were drowned out, and many myths arose.” One “sensible,” albeit likely flawed, voice sounded on May 18 after a five-year study: Researches at The John Jay College of Criminal Justice released a 300-page report showing that nearly 6,000 priests were accused of abuse over 50 years, roughly five percent of the total number of clerics, with only four percent of those considered pedophiles (those who sexually assault children younger than 10, a definition drawing legitimate criticism). These percentages correspond to society’s numbers. What’s more, no evidence shows that gay priests are more likely to abuse minors, nor is there any proof that celibacy was a factor.
As usual with such reports, few will be satisfied. Observes Gibson: “The findings will likely unsettle both liberal and conservative critics, as well as victims’ advocates.” And, as usual, headline writers often muddle the facts. The study says poorly prepared, stressed-out priests were caught in the social and sexual turmoil of the 1960’s and ‘70s. The Boston Globe blared: “Study blames culture of era for church’s abuse crisis.” Wrong. The blame lay in inadequate preparation for the cultural circumstances, not in the culture itself, but deadline pressure and a craving for drama silences nuance. The headline writer for the old gray lady, The New York Times, got it right: “Church Report Cites Social Tumult in Priest Scandals” (emphasis added). But it was too late. Victim advocacy groups were already criticizing the report based on the newspaper accounts. No doubt factually based criticism is merited, but the real truth must be upheld especially on such an intrinsically and legitimately emotional issue.
And, even here, we should view all the angles. Gibson’s Seven Myths About The Catholic Church And Sex Abuse: An American Journalist’s View is helpful. He finds that the current pope is neither the story’s villain nor its hero; it is not a homosexual scandal; abuse is no more prevalent in the Catholic Church than in the rest of society; abuse is not worse in the United States than elsewhere; the media are not targeting the Catholic Church; and the scandal has not spurred a mass exodus, Bettencourt’s understandable lament notwithstanding. I’ll add that Catholics are not ducking this controversy. Their web sites bristle with reams of information and denunciations. They make laptops growl.
Seeing things through the curia’s eyes is vitally important when we disagree with its decisions. The Vatican issued a May 16th letter in which it ordered bishops to draw up guidelines to deal with child-abusing priests and obligating them to cooperate with local law enforcement officials. But the directive has no teeth: There are no sanctions for non-complying bishops.
Not good enough. Go back to the drawing board.
But immediate assaults on papal sincerity thwarts understanding and, therefore, resolution: Great autonomy is usually given to local dioceses and, as Stephan Faris points out, “The Vatican has had to walk a fine line between ensuring its bishops cooperate with officials in the just prosecution of sex offenders under their authority while also assuring their autonomy from civil authorities, especially in repressive regimes in East Asia and the Middle East, where the church can often have an antagonistic relationship with the state,” which is why the letter elevates the judgment of bishops over civilian review boards in the US and Ireland.
Remember all those martyrs? Catholics still offer bushels of them and, no kidding, the cardinals really care. They know dictators no longer like their church and will use any means to get at their membership rolls. Most of them are not Americans and read our nation’s Catholic-bashing opinion pieces with alarm. They don’t take governmental benevolence for granted and they’d rather keep their saints on the Earth as long as possible.
Such is the price of Beauty.
The archdiocese of brotherly love?
But then the Beast roars again and we covet the reset button. In February, a grand jury indicted four priests in the Philadelphia archdiocese and, in a skin-crawling, 124-page report, claimed it found “substantial evidence” for abusive behavior among 37 others. There’s more: Prosecutors peered into a dungeon filled with inertia, cover-ups, and obfuscation – which was incredible in light of the fact that Archdiocese had been investigated in 2005 and, after sordid grand jury findings, pledged a clean-up. It hired a victim advocate but failed to implement her suggestions. “Instead,” wrote the district attorney, “the present process is burdened by misinformation and conflict of interest.” Supposed “victim assistant coordinators” assure complainants of confidentiality, then forward their accusations to Archdiocese lawyers, who are ethically bound to protect their majestic client. “Most disheartening … was what we learned about the current practice toward accused abusers in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. We would have assumed, by the year 2011, after all the revelations both here and around the world, that the church would not risk its youth by leaving them in the presence of priests subject to substantial evidence of abuse. That is not the case … We understand that accusations are not proof; but we just cannot understand the Archdiocese’s apparent absence of any sense of urgency.”
Grand jury reports can be riddled with evidentiary holes despite their authoritative bearing, so truck in the salt and remember the innocent-until-proven-guilty clause. Alas, Ana Maria Catanzaro, the chairperson of the Archdiocese’s sexual-abuse review board (which was appointed after the 2005 findings), lended the district attorney credence in a May 12th essay in Commonweal magazine. She addressed one prosecutorial broadside on how her committee reviewed ten cases – the jurors never asked her or any other member to testify so they could explain their decisions – then dropped a bomb: “… Until the grand-jury report came out, the board was under the impression that we were reviewing every abuse allegation received by the archdiocese. Instead, we had been advised only about allegations previously determined by archdiocesan officials to have involved the sexual abuse of a minor – a determination we had been under the impression was ours to make. The board still doesn’t know who made those decisions.”
The archdiocese was withholding information from its own review board.
Not that I want to slam my fist on the table or anything, but tell me, oh miter-topped vicars, how do we avoid mentioning Bernard Cardinal Law and the bad old days before the grand enlightenment on protection from predators (which could have come years before if you had listened to Protestant warnings after their own scandals)? Why shouldn’t Bettencourt fume? Cantanzaro writes of meetings in which bishops give non-apology apologies (they were sorry about “the way the media had treated the review board.” Thanks) and of how Cardinal Justin Francis Rigali subsequently suspended 21 priests and implied that her board had reviewed the cases, which it had not. She describes canon lawyers confining the board to canon law and canon statutes to determine a complaint’s viability. Everything’s about guarding and protecting the Church, the potential defendant, against potential plaintiffs: Law, legal, lawyerly, attorney-client privilege and to-the-best-of-my-recollection-your-honor and I-have-no-comment-at-this-time and I-need-to-consult-my-notes and we-may-have-unintentionally-misinformed.
Another query, if you’ve got a moment: What about pastoral care? What about the victims? What about those who may have been manipulated in the name of the Prince of Peace and shiver at the thought of Heaven and tremble at the sight of a Roman collar? Are those baptized church members expendable for the sake of the Church? Are they casualties of war? The battlefield’s abandoned wounded? Collateral damage? What about all their catechism lessons?
Did you take those vows of celibacy and dedicate yourself to hellish work schedules so you could protect an institution against its own victims? Do you remember your calling in decades past? Remember the surrender and vows of poverty? When did you last meditate on your Eucharist and the stance of its Great Apostle and High Priest: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28), and of whom it was said, “And being found in appearance as man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8).
A gleam of hope: Other American bishops and canon lawyers told Cantanzaro their review boards did not operate like hers. They stay away from canon law and merely weigh a given accusation’s evidence.
“We should expect more from our bishops,” Cantanzaro writes of her own leaders. Merely protecting the archdiocese from liability is “simply wrong” and she concludes that its supervisors are plagued with “clericalism.” She calls upon them to “live the gospel.”
I tasted Bettencourt’s rage while reading the 2011 Philadelphia grand jury report and its shocking molestation allegations. I longed to grab something and throw it against a wall. But I also know that predators sometimes sneak through the safety nets we now build into our children’s ministries. When that happens, we minister by taking accusations seriously while understanding that false charges are sometimes made and misunderstandings occur. We don’t perform a second rape by treating the child as an adversary. I thought everyone knew that by now; evidence suggests that the Philadelphia curia has been out of the loop, to put it mildly.
Yet I can’t help but remember the May 2, 2010 Nicholas Kristof op-ed column in the New York Times. After a few obligatory cheap shots at the Vatican – it seems all cardinals stalk the halls with nefarious motives; no sincerity here – he describes his tour of Sudan in which he met Father Michael Barton. The priest left his comfortable Indiana niche in 1978 and has never looked back, even though he’s run the gauntlet of civil war, imprisonment, beatings, and disease. There was also Sister Cathy Arata, who has trained 600 school teachers, and Father Mario Falconi, who rescued 3,000 from the Rwanda genocide and now works in a refugee camp.
I think back. I can’t help but remember the Maryknoll sisters and Jesuit priests who martyred themselves in Central America – and few will forget El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, whom a death squad assassinated while he performed a mass. Multiply those people by the tens of thousands and a truer picture emerges. They stand on a 2,000-year heritage, bearing such names as Augustine, Francis, Clare, Theresa of Avilla, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Pope John XXIII. And – don’t tell anyone I said this – but the Church rescued Western civilization more than once. Of course there was the Spanish Inquisition and the Medici Popes, but Catholicism is not there anymore. Given its membership (about a billion) and its lifespan, I can understand why it’s slow to respond to what it would view as an upstart toddler mouthing off in its terrible two’s (that would be the United States).
Kristoff was right on this score: “There is often a liberal and secular snobbishness toward the church as a whole – and that is unfair.”
The Beauty lives.
Memo To Me: “Unpack Your Bags”
Perhaps I don’t need to seek the reset button. Perhaps the people in Kristof’s column already are. Perhaps Cantanzaro and her board began pressing it when they chose not to resign. They resolved to force the prelates to listen.
I wish them well and I will pray for them. I will pray for Philadelphia’s bishops as well. I’ll pray they’ll see the wisdom in their own rich heritage of shack-dwelling saints, who intuitively knew that Christianity flourishes when we say “yes” to our Lord’s directive to the rich young ruler: “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Stop protecting yourselves and give it all up. Give up your wealth. Give up your reputations. Give up your buildings if necessary. Put it all at the feet of Christ.
If you do, you too will join the throng pressing the reset button.
For further reading:
Blaire, Most Reverend Stephen E.; Hubbard, Most Reverend Howard J., Untitled Letter to the United States Senate, May 5, 2011,
Catanzaro, Ana Maria, “The Fog of Scandal: The chair of the Philadelphia review board speaks,” Commonweal, 5/12/2011 http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/fog-scandal-1
Clarke, Kevin, “John Jay Says Stress, Isolation (‘60s?) Led to Abuse Crisis,” America, The National Catholic Weekly, In All Things, Our Group Blog, May 17, 2011,
Faris, Stephan: “Vatican Gets Tough on Child Abuse, but Not Tough Enough,” TIME,
Gibson, David, “RNS Exclusive: Report Spreads Blame for Catholic sex abuse,” Religion News Service, May 17, 2001,
________, “Seven Myths About The Catholic Church and Clergy Sex Abuse: An American Journalist’s View,” AmericanCatholic.org.
Goodstein, Laurie, “Church Reports Cites Social Tumult in Priest Scandals,”
John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City of New York, The John Jay College Research Team, “The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States: A Research Study Conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice,”
Kandra, Greg, “NH Legislator calls bishop a pedophile pimp,” Patheos.com, http://www.patheos.com/community/deaconsbench/2011/04/03/legislator-calls-bishop-a-pedophile-pimp/
Kristof, Nicholas D., “Who Can Mock This Church?” The New York Times, May 2, 2010,
Martin, James, S.J., John Jay Report: “Not Blaming Homosexual Priests,” America, In All Things, May 17, 2011,
National Survivor Advocates Coalition:
Wangsness, Lisa, “Study blames culture of era for church’s abuse crisis,”
Williams, R. Seth, District Attorney of Philadelphia, In the Court of Common Pleas, First Judicial District of Philadelphia, Criminal Trial Division, MISC. NO. 0009901-2008, COUNTY INVESTIGATING GRAND JURY, XXIII, Report of the Grand Jury