Every once in a while there’s a break in the bad news about the church. The good news for several weeks has been the election of Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina as pope. His is a kind and fresh face of an elderly man with a heart, and his symbolic gestures suggest that this new face may represent a new spring for the battered church.
But I was reminded Tuesday night that the bad news is still alive and well: in the old Bleeker St. Theater in lower Manhattan a very articulate panel of five men and one woman joined forces to discuss, for a crowd of over 100, Michael D’Antonio’s Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime and The Era of Catholic Scandal. The five panelists were also leading characters in the book, a narrative of the sex abuse scandal from 1984 to the present.
Young, athletic, highly educated, ambitious and assigned to the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., Fr. Tom Doyle saw himself on a career path to becoming a cardinal. Richard Sipe, a Benedictine monk and psychologist, loved the church but was uncomfortable with obedience. Patrick Wall, also a monk, was a “fixer,” skilled in helping the order deal with problem clerics. Jeff Anderson was a very tough lawyer known for representing troublemakers and for wild parties at which he drank too much. Barbara Blaine was a full-time Chicago social worker who set up a Catholic Worker house where she worked herself into exhaustion, until one day she read the ground-breaking Jason Berry article in the National Catholic Reporter on Fr. Gilbert Gauthe. Shocked, she recognized the symptons of abuse in the article also in the disturbed people she encountered daily in her work.
Tuesday night each one explained how discovering the ugly depths of the abuse epidemic transformed each one’s life and career into one of struggle, as they saw it, against an institution—though not necessarily a faith—that covered up the crimes of priests, that valued its own status and reputation more than it did the welfare of innocent young victims. Doyle, a canon lawyer, gave up his careerism, served as an air force chaplain, researched the sex abuse issue and reported his findings to the bishops. Sipe researched the sexual life of the clergy and found too few who actually practiced the rules of celibacy. Wall, offended by the immoral behavior of his colleagues, left, married and also researched sexual behavior. Anderson learned how to take on the Catholic hierarchy with lawsuits and also to deal with his own alcoholism. Blaine founded the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
What do these five hope for in the future? Sipe feels that the church, to save itself, must give up its obsession with secrecy. Wall urges that everything be done to rid us of child pornography, which played in part in every corruption case he knew of. Doyle, who told me afterwards that he is still a priest but has had to devote his whole ministry to this cause, wants the church to do what Jesus did, reach out to the victims. Anderson still sees himself confronting “absolute corruption.” The absolute best thing the church could do, he said, is to work women into its very top management. And Blaine wants to keep the pressure up to the point of bringing the legal cases against the church to the International Criminal Court.
These are all justly angry men and women who have been transformed by the experience of what they have witnessed, and we must sympathize with them. Their last request was that the audience write their congressmen to extend the statute of limitations so more molesters could be sued. In the 1980s I wrote frequently about this issue in the National Catholic Reporter and the Newark Star Ledger, where I recommended that the church rent Yankee Stadium for a world-class penance service. Meanwhile a New Hampshire priest, Gordon MacRae (nephew of a Jesuit), sent me a book-length manuscript from prison arguing that he had been unjustly convicted. Today, almost 20 years later he has a prison website still claiming his innocence, plus a team of defenders and list of articles, including from the Wall Street Journal, supporting him. I wish someone with the resources would research it and discover the truth. And we will always remember that Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., courageously opposed the “zero tolerance” rule where one offense removes a priest from ministry for life. It’s the same question that confronts Christians in the wake of the Boston Marathon: Can Christians show compassion for both the victims and the accused? Can they refuse and still call themselves Christians?