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 Volume 1.5  This View’s Column March 11, 2002 


Wolves in Shepherd’s Clothing

Perfidious Priests and What Must Be Done About Them (Part One)


For decades, a crisis has been brewing in the Catholic Church in the USA: a crisis of faith, a crisis of morals, a crisis of courage. Scandalous revelations in the fallout from the prosecution of a predatory pedophile among the priests of the Archdiocese of Boston may, finally, bring the crisis to its turning point. The priest was allowed to continue in ministry with little or no supervision, for at least 15 years and perhaps for much longer, resulting in the abuse of 130 children. These revelations — and others since brought to light, or more into the light — have elicited outcries of outrage, especially among Catholics. How could these horrendous activities have been allowed to happen? Why have perfidious priests — some of whom have committed criminal acts — been allowed to continue in sacred ministry? And what must now be done?


In addressing the issue of recent clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the USA, I do not want to make the situation out to be more complicated than it is; nor do I wish to oversimplify. First, I will relate the facts of the situation, as far as I can determine them to be: this will take some time and attention to detail. (Nor will I refrain from comment in the midst.) Later, I will propose my own analysis: how realistic that may be, I do not know.

I rely on recent news reports for the facts of the current situation. Philip Jenkins’ book Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (Oxford University Press, 1996) is the best source of detailed information, historical trends and wide-ranging analysis. Writers at the National Review Online provide a contemporary viewpoint from well-educated, articulate Catholic laity. And, as always, the redoubtable editor and other writers at the monthly Catholic World Report provide the most insightful extended analysis, outside of books, in the March 2002 issue. (As I write, CWR is available on-line only through January.)

A Review of the Current Situation
(from recent news stories and opinion pieces)

The sorry and sordid story made headlines starting Jan. 6 & 7, when the Boston Globe ran a two-part series recounting the sexual crimes of John J. Geoghan — who had been a priest of the Boston archdiocese before he was finally “defrocked” in 1998 — and the shameful manner in which his superiors had handled his case. The Boston Archdiocese was forced, by court order, to make public its internal documentation of the case. From that information, National Review Online’s Rod Dreher related some facts about how Geoghan had been mollycoddled, in a Jan. 25 column:

  • In 1996, as state authorities were preparing to arrest Father John Geoghan, Bernard Cardinal Law wrote to the man whom he knew to be a serial molester of children: “Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness.... God bless you, Jack.”
  • Brooklyn Bishop Thomas V. Daily, who oversaw Geoghan in his previous role as an auxiliary Boston bishop, explained the kid-gloves treatment archdiocesan officials gave Geoghan as “concern of the public reaction.” Said Daily, excusing his own inaction: “I am not a policeman; I am a shepherd....”
  • Newly public Church documents show that Monsignor Francis S. Rossiter, the pastor at Geoghan’s final parish, had been made aware that Geoghan had been removed from several parishes for abusing children. Yet he assigned Geoghan to work with altar boys and youth groups....
  • Even as Geoghan was removed from parish after parish following allegations of child molestation, his superiors, including two cardinals, wrote to him with kindness and warmth....

Dreher continued:

Nowhere in any of these documents is there evidence that the churchmen who so agonized about the welfare of Father Geoghan ever showed concern for the children he was raping and fondling, or their families.

As the scandal in Boston “mushroomed”, bishops around the country decided to take action publicly against priests who had been reliably accused of sexual misconduct. As reported in an article in the Los Angeles Times, Mar. 4, Cardinal Mahony had dismissed up to a dozen priests from service:

None of the priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese are believed to be involved in any recent cases of sexually abusing minors. Their cases occurred as long as a decade ago, and all had undergone psychological counseling, according to one of the sources.

Nonetheless, since the scandal over the sexual abuse of minors erupted anew in the Boston archdiocese last month, dioceses across the country, including the Diocese of Orange and Diocese of San Bernardino, have been under increasing pressure to rid themselves of any priests with a history of sexual misconduct.

Not all dioceses have waited until the Boston scandal erupted; according to a New York Times piece, Mar. 3, the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, has had a firm policy of dealing with priests accused of sexual abuse:

The priests who have been accused of sexual abuse no longer work in churches. One performs karaoke on Wednesday nights at the Lincoln Jug restaurant in Belleville and another pumps gas at his mother's service station in the small town of Columbia.

In the mid-1990’s, the Diocese of Belleville publicly ousted 13 priests accused of inappropriate sexual contact with children, leaving them in an odd limbo — on the church payroll yet without portfolio [sic], called “Father” but barred from administering sacraments or wearing the collar.

Some individuals have questioned whether some dioceses have actually gone too far in removing accused priests, especially if they have already served without blame for a long time since having fallen. And we certainly must not blithely accept every accusation as true, especially because an atmosphere of frenzy-feeding would make it possible for a false accuser to ruin someone out of malice and spite. I nonetheless find it difficult to understand why it is not thought wise to make sure a perfidious priest does not continue to gain respect and support from the church — social, psychological, and financial — after having committed criminal or otherwise immoral acts with those entrusted to his pastoral care. A second chance, so long as it follows true repentance and the opportunity of asking and receiving real forgiveness from the injured parties, should not be out of the question: a third chance, let alone a 130th chance, certainly should be.

A Review of Recent Historical Trends
(from Jenkins’ Pedophiles and Priests)

Philip Jenkin’s book Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, provides considerable background for the current situation. I will quote from the book at what may seem extraordinary length. But the book is 214 pages long, including about 40 pages of footnotes, and I quote but small, fragmented portions of two or three of the book’s ten chapters.

Though not widespread, earlier accusations of clerical misconduct surfaced occasionally through the 1970s. Church officials and mass media alike attempted to deal with them quietly:

Generations of jokes and rumors have helped create a willingness to believe the worst of a celibate clergy, so that the reporting of a few authentic cases of pedophilia quickly leads to acceptance of the most extreme charges about systemic corruption. However, the same religious mythology initially made mainstream media more reluctant to give credence to such allegations, for fear of repeating canards that seemed more suitable for vulgar jokes. (p. 32)

There were certainly cases in the 1960s and 1970s when Catholic clergy were found to be sexually involved with children or adult parishioners. However, the media generally cooperated with the church in avoiding scandal. Clerical offenders were dealt with quietly, usually being transferred from their parishes without obvious publicity, and were required to submit to periods of seclusion and therapy that were neither long nor arduous. (p. 33)

The number of accusations grew dramatically in the 1980s, and unfortunately set something of a pattern to be followed over the next two decades or so:

The major breakthrough in establishing the scale and reality of a “clergy-abuse” problem occurred in the Louisiana diocese of Lafayette in 1984-1985, when Father Gilbert Gauthe was tried on multiple counts of molestation. He was suspected of molesting children of both sexes as early as 1972, and charges involved forcible abuse as well as child pornography. On several occasions, though, church authorities who learned of his misdeeds responded merely by transferring him to new parishes, where the cycle would begin afresh. (pp. 34f)

The Gauthe affair did much to establish the stereotypical characteristics expected of the “clergy-abuse” offender. Apart from illustrating the extensive harm that one individual could do in a position of trust, the case suggested that the church as a whole had acquiesced in the wrongdoing, perhaps even aggravated it, by refusing to take decisive and punitive action at an early stage. The affair set the precedent that failure to intervene should result in serious financial penalties and compensatory damages for the families. (p. 36)

In 1985, a confidential report to the bishops of the USA warned that more vigorous, more rigorous, action was required:

The burgeoning number of scandals evoked deep concern among some Catholic observers, and in 1985 a confidential report entitled “The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Matter” was submitted to the Catholic hierarchy. The authors included Gauthe’s attorney, F. Ray Mouton, and two clerics [priests], Thomas P. Doyle and Michael Peterson.... The group warned of the need to take urgent action in the face of scandals, to react swiftly to complaints, and also to avoid charges of secretive proceedings or cover-ups. (p. 37)

Tragically, either this advice was not followed, or not followed often enough, or not followed well enough.

Cases of abuse have not been confined to the USA; in Canada, one instance culminated in an episcopal resignation because of the way cases had been handled:

The Newfoundland [Canada] cases were the first of the new wave of scandals... In the spring of 1989 attention shifted to the long history of both physical and sexual abuse committed by members of the Christian Brothers order against teenage boys in the Mount Cashel boys home in St. John’s.... During the original clandestine inquiry, some Brothers implicated in molestation had been permitted to leave the province to undertake new assignments. There were no sexual allegations against the province’s archbishop, but he resigned in 1990 under attack for church policies during the earlier investigations and cover-up. (p. 39)

After the number of cases skyrocketed in Chicago, the archdiocese initiated radical changes in its policies:

[In the Chicago archdiocese] in the 1960s and 1970s there had on average been two or three cases each year in which priests were accused of sexual misconduct with minors. The rate rose dramatically to seventeen complaints between 1986 an 1988, and to nineteen in the two years 1990-1991. (p. 41)

In September 1992 the Chicago archdiocese instituted the most comprehensive changes, including a pledge to remove forthwith any clergy accused of child abuse in order to prevent any potential harm to future victims.... Where charges were substantiated, priests would in effect pay for the offense for the rest of their lives. There would be years of therapy and counseling, and after this: “We recommend for each priest that has successfully completed the four year aftercare program: restricted ministry, a mandate restricting access to children, supervised residence, participation in a support group, assignment of a monitor or supervisor for life, and if indicated, ongoing therapy.” The Chicago policy was widely imitated, especially the use of a lay-dominated review board. (pp. 49f)

Imitated? Widely?

Contrary to much opinion, this is not a “Catholic” problem:

Clergy of most major denominations were to some extent tainted by such cases from the late 1980s. (p. 50)

The Church Mutual Insurance Company reported that by 1993 “it currently has open claims against four hundred non-Catholic clergy and has closed three hundred others since 1984. About half of them concern child sex abuse....” During 1992 alone, molestation charges were brought against Baptist ministers in rural Michigan, in New Orleans, and in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the last case, multiple allegations of rape and molestation were directed against three brothers from one family, all of whom served as ministers in their respective churches. In 1994 there were molestation cases in Baptist churches in Georgia and in Houston, Texas.... Episcopalians encountered a lengthy series of misconduct cases, many involving minors; insurance claims for church liability in sexual matters rose from an annual average of five or so in the late 1980s to thirty-nine in 1992. (p. 51)

These cases, however, do not garner as much media attention as do those involving Catholic ministers. Many Catholic observers, including me, think this is due partly to a widespread hostility towards the Catholic Church among mainstream media.

(How long, for instance, will we have to wait until the Boston Globe, or the New York Times, or the Los Angeles Times, or the Washington Post does some intensive investigative reporting into Jenkins’ account of the Church Mutual Insurance Company having receiving seven hundred claims in cases of sexual abuse involving non-Catholic clergy in one ten-year span — half of them involving children? Until hell freezes over, that’s how long.)

Now, almost every case in which a priest is accused of sexually abusing youngsters is called “pedophilia”. This is not always the case. In fact, it is not usually the case:

When considered in detail, the cases often suggest sexual liaisons between priests and boys or young men in their late teens or early twenties. This behavior may be reprehensible in terms of violating ecclesiastical and moral codes of sexual conduct, and breaching vows of celibacy, and the power relationship between priest and young parishioner renders it difficult to speak of the behavior as fully consensual. However, it is not properly pedophilia.... We are therefore left with the obscure word ephebophilia: the sexual preference for boys, epi hebe, upon puberty. (pp. 78f)

The Chicago data indicate that less than 2 percent of all serving American priests are or have been involved with minors, about a thousand “pederasts” in all nationwide, with the great majority of this group being homosexual ephebophiles. True pedophiles would be counted at most in the hundreds, and “predators” like Gauthe [and Geoghan ELC]... constitute a small handful of priests accused of abuse, a few dozen at any given time in the whole of North America. To assert this is in no way to play down the damage that can be done by such individuals or to deflect the culpability of any superior who might have tolerated their activities, but it does provide an essential context for appreciating the dimensions of the “abuse problem.” The number of “pedophile priests” has been magnified by a factor of twenty or more. (pp. 82f)

As we can see, though recent revelations have been shocking, the number of individual priests involved does not (for now, at least) seem to be significantly larger than what should have been expected, according to recent studies. The general Catholic population, however, was not made aware of these statistics.

Jenkins attempts some explanations of how the situation evolved over the past 30 years:

Church attitudes were also conditioned by demographic changes within the priesthood, which suffered an alarming decline in numbers from 1968 onward.... In consequence, clergy and seminarians were a scarce commodity whose careers should not be lightly jeopardized. For that reason, dioceses granted a wider latitude in accepting ordinands of suspected homosexual disposition, and were reluctant to take severe action against priests with a sexual predilection for minors. Clerical authorities were predisposed to place their hopes in the efficacy of treatment and therapy rather than punitive measures. (p. 92)

He also responds to assertions by some observers that the clergy-abuse problem is the greatest crisis the Catholic Church has ever faced:

From a global perspective, the “greatest-crisis” language is fatuous. The contemporary abuse issue directly affects perhaps a few hundred priests on one continent, and it fades into insignificance beside such political conflicts as the spread of Islam and Protestantism in the early modern period, the rise of communism and fascism in the early twentieth century, and such intellectual crises as the Enlightenment and the growing hegemony of science and rationalism in the nineteenth century. (p. 167)

But he also warns that the consequences should not be underestimated:

Though falling short of these other menaces past and present, the abuse problem has already had complex effects on North American Catholicism, and there may be serious long-term consequences. Catholic observers frequently note how easily outsiders are misled by the divisive and even vicious tone of controversies with the church; in reality these have little impact on “real” Catholic life, which revolves around the enduring verities of the parish and the Sacraments. In the abuse issue, however, lies a serious threat to exactly these core phenomena that have survived unscathed the decades of skirmishing over matters like contraception and women’s ordination. (p. 167)

More on the Current Situation
(from recent news stories and opinion pieces)

The American scandals are starting, finally, to get the attention of Rome. As reported in an article in the New York Times, Mar. 2:

Many Vatican officials, conservative and liberal alike, say it will take a sweeping reform of the priesthood to stop the pedophile scandals. The liberals want better psychological screening and revamped training in seminaries. The conservatives shift the focus elsewhere, saying that sexual abuse cases in the church mainly involve teenage boys, not young children, and for that reason they say the priesthood should become less welcoming to gays. Priests who said this made clear they were not suggesting that gays were any more likely to be pedophiles. But they said most of the sex cases being investigated did not fit the classic definition of pedophilia.

As already indicated above, by Jenkins, “pedophilia” is an inaccurate — mistaken, erroneous, just plain wrong — description of most of the activity now being scrutinized. Contrary to the opinion of the priests cited anonymously in that article, some professionals do not hesitate to “suggest” that homosexuals are, indeed, more likely to be sexually attracted to much younger persons than are heterosexuals.

For instance, Catholic psychologist Richard Cross clarifies certain aspects of the situation, in an article in the March 2002 issue of Catholic World Report:

People who molest children fall into two basic types. There are pedophiles who are, strictly speaking, heterosexual (although they might not be exclusively so). These would be men who molest girls, or women who molest boys. Then there is the pederast, who is homosexual.... The most common form of pedophilia involves men molesting girls. The second most common form involves an older girl or a woman molesting a boy. Then you have the third form, which is what we are seeing in the press lately: the pederasts; the adult male molesting the younger male. (This could be either a pre-pubescent male or an early adolescent male.) .... The most recent data that I have seen suggests that there is more abuse of men against girls than men against boys, as I’ve mentioned. That is, abuse by heterosexuals is more common than abuse by homosexuals, or pederasty. However, there is a much smaller percentage of heterosexuals who are molesters than homosexuals who molest. Up to one-third of all homosexuals have pederastic tendencies. (p. 43; emphasis in original)

The Vatican had already gotten immediately involved in another recent case. Though the incident seems to have gone unnoticed, as far as I can tell, in the American press, the archbishop of Cardiff in Wales was ordered by the pope to resign last year, as reported in a Guardian article, Oct. 27, 2001:

The Pope yesterday took the extraordinary step of ordering the retirement of Archbishop John Aloysius Ward, the most senior member of the Roman Catholic Church in Wales, in the wake of a paedophile scandal which has rocked his diocese to its foundations. The 72-year-old archbishop, who had been under severe criticism from clergy and congregations following the convictions of two priests for child sexual abuse offences, was forced to resign despite making clear his determination to stay in office. He had been accused of repeatedly ignoring warnings about the two priests’ conduct.

Indeed, the archbishop had ordained one of those men to the priesthood in 1998, despite the ordinand having already been accused of child sexual abuse, and in the teeth of warnings from a fellow bishop that the man was “unworthy”.

(The precise manner of the archbishop’s exit from office is disputed: he claims that he was not ordered to resign. I interpret the evidence this way: Vatican officials had, shall we say, strongly suggested to the archbishop that he resign or retire early. He repeatedly and publicly refused to do so. After Ward met with the pope, he was told that he must resign or he would be deposed. So he resigned.)

As mentioned above, child sexual abuse isn’t only a “Catholic” problem; it’s not only a “clergy” problem, either. Witness recent news stories:

  • An AP story, Jan. 10: “An Orange County Superior Court judge already facing a federal charge of possessing child pornography was arrested Thursday in a child molestation case more than 25 years old. Judge Ronald C. Kline, 61, was booked for investigation of four counts of lewd conduct with a child under the age of 14, said Irvine police Lt. Sam Allevato.”
  • A story in Insight in the News, Mar. 2: “Steve Elson, a former Navy SEAL and former member of the FAA’s elite and secret ‘Red Team’ that conducted mock raids to test security at U.S. airports, tells Insight that over the years he has been made aware of sexual exploitation of children by traveling U.S. aviation-security personnel. ‘I heard them talk about having sex with young girls,’ he says. ‘Some of them talked about how [the children] were hairless [in their pubic area]. It was disgusting. My impression is that the behavior was pretty well-known. It was kind of a joke.’”
  • A story at NewsMax, Mar. 8: “At a confidential forum, the United States and the international community castigated the U.N. Refugee Agency for the sex scandal surrounding the alleged mass abuse of West African refugee children by aid workers and ‘peacekeepers,’ according to senior diplomats.... The U.S. delegation told a closed-door session of UNHCR’s top executive committee Tuesday, ‘These allegations of abuse by the very people entrusted with care of refugee people are deeply distressing and utterly appalling to all of us.’”

(The New York Times is owned by the same company that owns the Boston Globe. If the NYT has attempted, or does in the future attempt, to investigate charges of child sexual abuse by agents of the UN, which is headquartered in New York, as vigorously as the BG has investigated the Catholic hierarchy in Boston, please let me know. Do not think it necessary to also send contemporary reports of flying pigs.)

Sadly, some clergymen seem to have trouble dealing with the reality that they are sinners, that they have sinned, and that they need to repent and reform their lives. An almost piteously tragicomic aspect of the Boston story comes in the person of Fr. D. George Spagnolia. He had been dismissed from his position by Cardinal Law because of an accusation of having molested a 14-year-old boy in 1971. Spagnolia protested his innocence, refused to leave the rectory as he had been ordered to do, hired a lawyer, and even appeared (with his lawyer) on The Factor, Bill O’Reilly’s program on the Fox News Channel, to state his case.

Beginning in 1973, Spagnolia had left priestly ministry for 20 years, and has since publicly claimed to have been chaste during that time. This turned out to be a lie, as revealed in the Boston Globe, Mar. 2:

Spagnolia also disclosed that in addition to his nearly four-year relationship with Winston F. Reed after leaving the priesthood in 1973, which was reported by the Globe yesterday, he also had a year-long relationship with another man in 1981 or 1982 before resuming a life of celibacy. He had previously said that he had no other sexual relationships after parting with Reed in 1980.

He apologized to his supporters, insisting that he never meant to deceive anyone and lied to protect the privacy of himself and his partners. However it was Spagnolia who brought up the issue of celibacy during an interview with the Globe on Tuesday, insisting that he had lived a celibate life during his 20 years away from the priesthood.

Spagnolia still insists that he is not guilty of the 1971 charge. What moron would believe him now? And what on earth is one to say when a man claims that, by lying, he didn’t mean to deceive anybody?

Hello? Hello?

Sadly, too, some bishops seem to have great difficulty accepting the reality of their own shameful failures in contributing to this sorry situation. Perhaps the most astonishing quotation in this regard, it seems to me, came from Cardinal Law as reported in the Boston Globe, Mar. 10. The Cardinal had met with roughly 3,000 lay leaders from the archdiocese of Boston at a convocation, which I gather is an annual event. He is quoted as follows:

In his response at the end of the convocation, Law said, “In my most horrible nightmares, I would never have imagined that we would have come to the situation in which we find ourselves.”

Say what?

Cardinal Law, you yourself personally were responsible for compounding one Parents’ Nightmare with Another Parents’ Nightmare: a trusted priest abused their children, and a respected bishop allowed the predator to continue his ways. Any other nightmare that has followed was caused by the nightmares for which you were partly responsible, personally.

If that is all the recognition — all the conscience, all the consciousness — we can expect from Cardinal Law and other American bishops, the nightmare has only begun.

This column will continue next time in The View.

ELC 2002


The View from the Core, and all original material, © E. L. Core 2002. All rights reserved.

Cor ad cor loquitur J. H. Newman — “Heart speaks to heart”