When I began to read this intriguing book about the crisis of sexual abuse of children that corrupted the Catholic church in the United States in the second half of the 20th century, I could not imagine why the author, Michael D’Antonio, began it with an account of the fall of papal Rome to Italian national troops at the battle of Porta Pia in 1878. That seemed an odd place and time to start a book about the American church in the late 1900s and early 2000s. But by the end of the book, the realization dawned: D’Antonio was simply implying that the sexual abuse crisis and the church’s mishandling of it is the second fall of papal Rome. The first, with the end of the papal states, deprived the church of its earthly authority. The second deprived the church of its moral credibility.
That is really too bad, because the end of the 20th century was, as others have said, shaping up to be the Catholic moment, that point in history when the church’s vocabulary and wealth of thought on issues like social and economic justice, just war, the protection of life and so many other issues confronting humankind would set the terms of civil society’s debate of those issues and, in the best result, provide the means of analysis as well. Alas, that did not happen. The Catholic moment was never to be, and the reasons for that are exposed by the stories told in Mortal Sins.
I say stories, plural, because D’Antonio’s book is an artful stringing together of a number of accounts, beginning in 1984, when the sexual abuse crisis first broke with the case of the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, a serial molester of children in the Diocese of Lafayette, La., and ending with the conviction in 2012 of Msgr. William Lynn, former secretary for clergy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, on a charge of child endangerment. These episodes are appropriate book ends because they emphasize two of the major themes: the horrible abuse perpetrated by the church’s ordained ministers and the utter mishandling of these abusers by so many chancery officials, from clergy personnel directors to diocesan bishops.
All well-told stories must have characters, and there are many well-drawn characters in Mortal Sins. We meet and learn the personal flaws and foibles of Jeff Anderson, the plaintiff’s lawyer from Minnesota who made an industry out of suing dioceses across the country while fighting his own personal, financial and drinking problems. There is Thomas P. Doyle, O.P., canon lawyer at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1984, a member of the National Rifle Association, a certified pilot and eventually an ardent victim’s rights advocate, troubled by his own alcoholism. There is the Rev. Michael Peterson, founder of St. Luke Institute, the psychiatric facility in suburban Washington, D.C., that treated so many of the priest abusers, who was a closeted homosexual and died an early death of AIDS. Ray Mouton, Gauthe’s defense lawyer, was depressed and alcohol dependent, and lost his marriage and his family; Jason Berry, an excellent reporter, first broke the Gauthe story. We meet Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine, noted author and often expert witness for abuse victims. Many more are portrayed: dedicated defense lawyers, committed investigators, fearless judges.
By far the most touching persons in the book are the victims. We meet many of them, and D’Antonio does not spare us the details of the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of men “whom they were taught to call Father.” The details, though, are not so much prurient as heart-breaking. At age 13 Barbara Blaine was sexually assaulted numerous times by her parish priest, the Rev. Chet Warren. She remained a devout Catholic after her abuse, and as a young woman lived a life of near poverty as a volunteer in a Catholic Worker House, imitating her heroine, Dorothy Day. When, as an adult, she confronted the superiors in the religious order of her abuser, their response was to ask her to attend joint therapy sessions with the man! She was so devoted to working within the church that she actually attended two sessions before the abuser decided that the sessions made him too uncomfortable. All during this time the abuser remained in ministry.
In D’Antonio’s account, the Catholic hierarchy, both in America and Rome, does not come off very well. He has the details of too many bishops looking the other way, or covering up when their priests sexually abused children, for anyone to dispute his assessment. The Vatican and John Paul II are criticized by D’Antonio for minimizing the sexual abuse crisis. He might be onto something there. As a John Paul II admirer, I remain perplexed at his handling of the sexual abuse allegations against Marcial Maciel Degollado, L.C., founder and head of the Legionaries of Christ. Since this book is almost entirely about the American crisis (with a few detours to Ireland), the Maciel mess did not make it into its pages. It didn’t have too, though, since the American rogues gallery of perpetrators that D’Antonio does cover—Fathers Gauthe, Adamson, Kos, Murphy, Geoghan, O’Grady and others—is more than enough.
D’Antonio’s book has some failings. A more balanced history might have mentioned the American bishops who got it right and did keep sexually abusive priests out of ministry. That would have broken the dramatic line of his narrative, though, which is pretty much about what the church got wrong, not what it got right. The guidelines published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1992 on how to handle sexually abusive priests were right, as were the Dallas Charter and norms they issued in 2002. In a balanced history, more credit might have been given to the bishops who scrupulously followed these values.
There are many tragedies in this book. The worst are the individual ones, the soul-scarring evil done to individual boys and girls by individual priests. Those stories loom large in this book, like so many grave markers. As you read them, you want to mourn, indeed cry, for what was lost: innocence, youthful joy, the perpetual smile on a young child’s face, a lifetime of potential. But there is another tragedy here as well.
Entombed also was the church’s moral credibility. Its ability to take the good news and place it at the service of humankind, to take all that is good, well-considered and perceptive in 2,000 years of moral and ethical thought and use it to frame and advance the civil debate, at a critical time when the world was seeking this direction, was, if not lost, then sadly mislaid. And that is a Porta Pia of the soul.