The great second wave of church scandals appears this week to be settling down. In the Vatican they’re likely thinking “the worst is over” and “we’ve weathered the storm.” Is that good? Not to this Catholic. The more relaxed the institution, the less likely it will reform.
Let’s look at the first wave. Eight years ago, on April 19, 2002, I wrote in these pages of the American church scandal, calling it calamitous, a threat to the standing and reputation of the entire church. Sexual abuse by priests “was the heart of the scandal, but at the same time only the start of the scandal”: the rest was what might be called the racketeering dimension. Lawsuits had been brought charging that the church as an institution acted to cover up criminal behavior by misleading, lying and withholding facts. The most celebrated cases in 2002 were in Boston, where a judge had forced the release of 11,000 pages of church documents showing the abusive actions of priests and detailing then-Archbishop Bernard F. Law’s attempts to hide the crimes. The Boston scandal generated hundreds of lawsuits, cost hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and judgments, and included famous and blood-chilling cases—the repeat sexual abuser Father John Geoghan, who molested scores of boys and girls and was repeatedly transferred, was assigned to a parish in Waltham where he became too familiar with children in a public pool; Cardinal Law claimed he was probably “proselytizing.”
In the piece I criticized Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then archbishop of Washington, who had suggested to the Washington Post that the scandal was media-driven, that journalists are having “a heyday.” Then came the it-wasn’t-so-bad defense: The bishop of Joliet, Ill., Joseph Imesch, said that while priests who sexually abuse children should lose their jobs, priests who sexually abuse adolescents and teenagers have a “quirk” and can be treated and continue as priests.
Really, he called it a quirk.
Does any of this, the finger-pointing and blame-gaming, sound familiar? Isn’t it what we’ve been hearing the past few weeks?
At the end of the piece I called on the pope, John Paul II, to begin to show the seriousness of the church’s efforts to admit, heal and repair by taking the miter from Cardinal Law’s head and the ring from his finger and retiring him: “Send a message to those in the church who need to hear it, that covering up, going along, and paying off victims is over. That careerism is over, and Christianity is back.”
The piece didn’t go over well in the American church, or the Vatican. One interesting response came from Cardinal Law himself, whom I ran into a year later in Rome. “We don’t need friends of the church turning on the church at such a difficult time,” he said. “We need loyalty when the church is going through a tough time.”
I’d suggested in the piece that the rarefied lives cardinals led had contributed to an inability to understand the struggles of others and the pain of those abused, and soon Cardinal Law and I were talking about his mansion outside Boston. He asked me how it would look if he’d refused to live there. I told him it would look good, but more to the point, the church was going to lose the cardinal’s mansion to trial lawyers, and it should sell it first and put the money in schools.
Soon enough the mansion was gone, sold to pay the plaintiffs. Cardinal Law’s successor, Archbishop Sean O’Malley, lives in an apartment in Boston’s South End.
John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter once called Cardinal Law “the poster boy” of the American scandal. He has also became the poster boy for the church’s problems in handling the scandal. And that has to do with its old-boy network, with the continued dominance of those who grew up in the old way.
In December 2002, Cardinal Law left Boston just hours before state troopers arrived with subpoenas seeking his grand jury testimony in what the state’s attorney general, Thomas Reilly, called a massive coverup of child abuse. The cardinal made his way to Rome, where he resigned, and where he stayed with Archbishop James Harvey, a close friend and, as head of the pontifical household, the most powerful American in the Vatican. Within a year Archbishop Harvey, too, was implicated in the scandal: The Dallas Morning News reported the Vatican had promoted a priest through its diplomatic corps even though it had received persistent, high-level warnings that he had sexually abused a young girl. The warnings had gone to Archbishop Harvey.
Cardinal Law received one of the best sinecures in Rome, as head of the Basilica of Saint Maria Maggiore and a member of the Vatican office tasked with appointing new bishops and correcting misconduct.
These stories are common in the church. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former Vatican secretary of state and now dean of the College of Cardinals, was a primary protector of the now disgraced Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, described by a heroic uncoverer of the scandals, Jason Berry, in the National Catholic Reporter, as “a morphine addict who sexually abused at least twenty . . . seminarians.”
I know this from having seen it: Many—not all, but many—of the men who staff the highest levels of the Vatican have been part of the very scandal they are now charged with repairing. They are defensive and they are angry, and they will not turn the church around on their own.
In a way, the Vatican lives outside time and space. The verities it speaks of and stands for are timeless and transcendent. For those who work there, bishops and cardinals, it can become its own reality. And when those inside fight for what they think is the life of the institution, they feel fully justified in fighting any way they please. They can do this because, as they rationalize it, they are not fighting only for themselves—it’s not selfish, their fight—but to protect the greatest institution in the history of the world.
But in the past few decades, they not only fought persons—“If you were loyal you’d be silent”—they fought information.
What they don’t fully understand right now—what they can’t fully wrap their heads around—is that the information won.
The information came in through the cracks, it came in waves, in newspaper front pages, in books, in news beamed to every satellite dish in Europe and America. The information could not be controlled or stopped. The information was that something very sick was going on in the heart of the church.
Once, leaders of the Vatican felt that silence would protect the church. But now anyone who cares about it must come to understand that only speaking, revealing, admitting and changing will save the church.
The old Vatican needs new blood.
They need to let younger generations of priests and nuns rise to positions of authority within a new church. Most especially and most immediately, they need to elevate women. As a nun said to me this week, if a woman had been sitting beside a bishop transferring a priest with a history of abuse, she would have said: “Hey, wait a minute!”
If the media and the victims don’t keep the pressure on, the old ways will continue. As for Cardinal Law, he should not be where he is, nor mitred nor ringed.