The tipping point
'Betrayal' details a stunning pattern of clerical sexual abuse and coverup, as one unsettling example follows another
By Andrew M. Greeley, 7/7/2002
Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church
By the investigative staff of The Boston Globe
Little, Brown, 274 pp., $23.95
A Honduran cardinal, who a lot of people think will be the next pope, has accused the American media (this paper included) of persecuting the Catholic Church as did the Nazis, the Communists, Nero, and Diocletian.
The poor man doesn't have a clue.
In fact, the investigative staff of The Boston Globe has done the Catholic Church an enormous favor. It has forced reform on a reluctant Catholic hierarchy. It has revealed to the Catholic laity the ignorance, arrogance, stupidity, and insensitivity of the hierarchy. It has bared a pattern of sinfulness that has been a cancer eating at the church and has forced the bishops to excise it. If it had not been for the Globe's investigation, the bishops would never have enacted the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" at their Dallas conference in June. Much less would they have appointed a lay supervisory board to assure compliance in the respective dioceses.
The book is essentially a reprise of the articles the Globe's team produced in the first five months of 2002. For those deeply involved in the issue of clerical sexual abuse, it provides rather little new information. Its great power, however, lies in the piling on of one sexual horror story and one hierarchical malfeasance after another. One wants to cry out, "For the love of God, Your Eminence, stop it!"
God bless the Globe, says I. They were the good guys, the guys in the white hats as opposed to the bad guys in the red hats. Thank heaven they won. Also, while we're at it, God bless Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney for forcing Cardinal Bernard Law's files into the public record.
The bishops can't say they weren't warned. In 1985 a concerned team outlined the problem to them at their annual meetings and recommended solutions. In the early 1990s there was a flurry of scandals that led to the formation by the bishops of an ad hoc committee on sexual abuse. The proposals of 1985 were never voted on. Nor were the recommendations of 1993 by the ad hoc committee -- recommendations that anticipate the Dallas charter. The bishops also could have read Jason Berry's 1992 book about abuse in Lafayette, La., "Lead Us Not Into Temptation."
In Chicago in 1991, Mary Ann Ahern, an NBC beat reporter, became the first whistle-blower in that city, because she was worried about her own children. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin set up two commissions, one to search the files for all past credible allegations and the other to examine whether an accused priest should be removed from a parish. The laity were in the majority on both commissions. He distributed 400 copies of his plan to his colleagues. Many dioceses copied the Chicago program, some of them poorly. Others -- patently Boston and Bridgeport, Conn. -- felt no need to learn anything from Chicago.
I had been warning about abusive priests since 1985, in books, columns, and novels. All I had accomplished was to distance myself from most of my fellow priests and find my column yanked out of a Chicago paper (it's back in now). After false abuse charges were made in 1993 against Bernardin, the media backed off.
I felt then that the policy of DCS (denial, cover up, stonewall) was in retreat. Hence I was astonished to learn from the Globe and The Hartford Courant that into the middle and late '90s Law and then Bishop Edward Egan were blithely reassigning known child molesters to parishes with access to children. I could hardly believe that, even after the scandals, the suits, and the recommended reforms that had come out of the early '90s, some of the bishops were still playing the same old sinful game.
I say "sinful" advisedly. Only God knows the consciences of Law and Egan and other clueless leaders. However, in the objective order, if it is a sin to abuse children, it is a sin to cooperate in that abuse. If the reassignment of priests John Geoghan and Paul Shanley or the continuing appointments (in Bridgeport) of Lawrence Brett and Charles Carr -- with full knowledge of what they had done -- was not cooperation in abuse, nothing might be. The responsible cardinals are in the objective sense notorious and public sinners.
The national scandal that the Globe ignited finally brought out into the open the whole sorry mess, infuriated the laity, and forced the bishops to run to Rome and then to Dallas to deal with it. For this, those of us who have been fighting child abuse for the last 16 years will be eternally grateful. Better late than never, one says. But criminally late, sinfully late.
Put together quickly, "Betrayal" has some weaknesses. It takes seriously the worthless data offered by psychotherapist and former priest A. W. Richard Sipe, data that the Globe would never cite in coverage of a presidential or gubernatorial campaign. (Sipe's data are based on clinical interviews, stories he's heard, and people he's met at conferences. From such data, no conclusion about the incidence of abusers in the church is valid.) It considers celibacy and homosexuality to be sources of the problem, thus playing the game of Catholic ideologues on the left and the right. In fact, the problem is caused by bishops sending back to parishes known abusers.
Yet the book sticks pretty close to the facts, is carefully evenhanded, and rarely indulges in the routine anti-Catholicism of other media outlets. It tries to be fair to Law. The suggestion that somehow he had become isolated from his people seems to make sense. As long as he remains in Boston (and Egan in New York), it does not seem likely that the angry laity will be satisfied with the Dallas reforms. Yet there is no reason to think that a new bishop would be an improvement. The new man in Newark, John J. Myers, left behind in Peoria, Ill., eight abusing priests for his successor to remove. Better the divil you know, as the Irish say, than the divil you don't know.
Many Catholic Panglosses say that good will come out of this crisis. The only likely good is that few bishops will take the risk of reassigning an abusive priest again. That's progress of a sort, I guess. And for that we should be grateful to the Globe.
Andrew M. Greeley is a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago, teaches sociology at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona, and is author of "The Catholic Imagination" and, most recently, "The Bishop in the West Wing."
This story ran on page D3 of the Boston Globe on 7/7/2002.