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Thomas H. StahelApril 19, 2004
Our Fathersby By David FranceBroadway Books. 656p $26.95

You’ll need an iron stomach and a leather bottom to get through these two investigative reports, but if you want to know about sexual abuse in the church, they are indispensable. You will also have to put up with cute titles and chapter heads, as well as an occasionally questionable judgment. On the whole, however, both books have ample annotation to help the faltering, incredulous or weeping reader. Given the fact that the principal players are sometimes the same, it is surprising there is not more overlap between the two—one specific example of overlap being the story about Cardinal Bernard Law telling the abuse victim Tom Blanchette, “I bind you by the power of the confessional never to speak of this again.” But the books take different approaches.

Jason Berry, the freelance journalist who broke the first stories of sexual abuse in southwest Louisiana 20 years ago—it now seems like centuries—has teamed up with Gerald Renner, a reporter for The Hartford Courant, to describe present-day stonewalling in the upper echelons of the church. Set in the United States, Mexico and the Vatican, the scope of Vows of Silence is international, its layout a shifting mise-en-scène.

The book is divided into three stories about how church secrecy continues to abuse people: First, how Father Tom Doyle, Dominican canonist, was sidelined for trying to get the U.S. bishops to come clean about abuse. This was when he worked at the papal nunciature in Washington. After they got rid of him (or “shit-canned” him, as he puts it), he found ways to make his views known. Second, how Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, has evaded multiple allegations of sexual abuse because of “Rome’s stonewalling.” Third, how “religious duress”—a term from Tom Doyle denoting the special mixture of doctrinal respect and canonical exemption that shields the Catholic hierarchy—still promotes secrecy and hides abuse at the highest levels of the church even now after all that has happened.

Much of the investigative energy of Vows of Silence, and the collaborative link between Berry and Renner, focuses on Father Maciel. By now nine men, all former legionaries, have accused him of sexual abuse. With specific and graphic allegations out in the open, there still is no way to bring Father Maciel to book, the authors charge, because Rome refuses to take any action. One Roman functionary, when pressed, said “Porque ahora?” “Why now?” as if to say, Father Maciel has done such good, why bring up this dirty stuff? In the U.S. context, it would be like saying: Why make an issue of Bruce Ritter, seeing all the good that came from Covenant House? If Father Maciel were a priest in the United States and subject to the U.S. bishops’ protocols, he would now be on administrative leave at least. But he is not in the United States, and Italian rules of legal discovery are different.

It is Berry’s and Renner’s view that the power play used in sexual abuse is mirrored in the power plays used by the hierarchy to shut people up about it, as when Cardinal Law swore an abuse victim to confessional secrecy. But there was also a pervasive Catholic reluctance to talk about sex, which silenced people at many levels and worked to the church’s detriment. The authors seem to concede this more benign judgment at the end of the book. For though their culminating charge is that John Paul II, whatever his other virtues, must be judged in the light of the human suffering “wrought by internal corruption on his watch,” one sentence later they speak of this corrupt blindness as “tragic naïveté.”

In Our Fathers David France, a Newsweek editor, keeps his gaze steadily on this human suffering as the crisis mounted in the United States, and especially in Boston, where the trove of church files was pried open thanks to The Boston Globe and court orders. The focus of this book is more strictly American, its method chronological.

Starting in “Late Summer 1953” and ending “March 22, 2003,” the book is laid out in bite-sized episodes that intermingle dismaying narratives of abuse with concomitant developments in church and world, a backdrop against which the sad revelations unfold. This comprehensive dating proves an ingenious device, and it took a lot of work. In his acknowledgments the author modestly says, “How a book was ever written before Google, I don’t know.” The endnotes too are laid out according to this calendar, with each successive batch of documentation for an episode labeled according to its corresponding date. Occasionally the author seems to leap to a Keatsian wild surmise, but on the whole he relies on documentation.

In fact, the apparatus the reader can lean on during this death march is one of the book’s most distinctive features: not only the basic chronology with corresponding endnotes, but index, bibliography and a six-page “Cast of Characters” divided into categories to help the reader keep track of victims, lawyers, prelates, assorted priests and nuns and, of course, abusers. Perhaps the dramatis personae persuaded Showtime to turn the book into a movie. There is plenty of lurid material here for Showtime viewers—everything from the fact that Joseph Birmingham molested 128 boys in Lowell, Mass., to John J. Geoghan’s abuse of 86 boys all over Boston, to the suicides of Father Rooney in Ohio and Father Bietighofer in Maryland and the murder of Father Geoghan in a Massachusetts prison. Showtime says the movie will not be exploitative. Uh-huh.

The book is better than any movie will be. It has fascinating if incidental historical narrative besides stories of abuse and coverup. For instance, how Barbara Blaine founded SNAP (“Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests”). How The Boston Globe changed from being protective of the church to being adversarial. How Dominic Spagniola got his priesthood, lost it, got it back, then lost it again.

There is dialectic that takes your breath away but will probably not make it into the movie: Why in all the pages of church files on Father Geoghan was there never any concern expressed for his victims? On page 537 Mary Ann Glendon criticizes the press for purveying old news and for singling out the Catholic Church. “Awarding a Pulitzer to The Boston Globe,” she says, “would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.” On the other hand, page 550 quotes Judge Constance Sweeney: “Records obtained through discovery reveal that some offending priests may well have been assigned to parishes, youth groups and the like, even though the cardinal or other archdiocesan personnel knew that the priests in question were at the least suspected of engaging in continuing sexual encounters with children.”

Will the U.S. bishops ever get to the point, asks survivor David Clohessy, of being grateful to survivors for having courage to come forth and make demands? Good question, and not just for the bishops.

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