Patrick O'Mahen: Universal cover-up

BY PATRICK O'MAHEN

Published April 3, 2010

Yesterday’s celebration of Easter followed Lent, which Catholics use as a time for self-reflection. We try to recognize our shortcomings, seek forgiveness and try to grow spiritually. Humility is a big part of the exercise.

Unfortunately, some church leaders didn’t get the memo.

Cardinal Thomas Dolan, the archbishop of New York, provided a spirited Palm Sunday defense of Pope Benedict XVI’s reaction to the latest revelations of clergy sexual abuse, comparing the pontiff to Jesus enduring the taunts of the Jewish high priests before his crucifixion. In his Good Friday Message, the Vatican’s in-house preacher, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, compared the church’s experience during the current scandal to anti-Semitism.

The arrogance of these statements is only matched by their lack of accountability. In return for the great authority that the church's hierarchy claims for itself, bishops need to exhibit a strong sense of responsibility. In the case of the abuse, that includes public confessions and the resignation of those who are responsible, up to and including the pontiff, if the evidence dictates it.

Those are strong statements, so let’s justify them by rewinding the tape to examine the actions of Church leaders during the whole sorry episode of clergy sex abuse.

The story broke in the United States in 1983, when Louisiana journalist Jason Berry reported on civil litigation against Gilbert Gauthe, a priest in the Diocese of Lafayette accused of molesting dozens of boys. When allegations against Gauther surfaced, Bishop Gerard Frey quietly transferred him to another parish, refused to address the subject with abuse victims and never called the police. When Gauther was finally arrested, the lawsuits began. In testimony, Frey also admitted that he was sheltering another pedophile priest. By 1986, Berry’s reporting uncovered seven more priests accused of sexual abuse.

In 1987, Cannon began pursuing a similar story for the San Jose Mercury-News. His editor told him he needed to find serious allegations from at least six dioceses in order for him to claim that a pattern of abuse was occurring. With some help from an early version of Lexis-Nexis and several phone calls, he found 35 cases of abuse in two dozen dioceses the first afternoon he worked on the story.

The pattern was the same: priests would sexually abuse children and be quietly transferred by their bishops to a new assignment. Officials never informed parishioners of their crimes. When victims came forward, they were ignored or pressured to keep silent. When they sued, the church used aggressive legal tactics to silence them. Bishops didn’t notify police and church lawyers often persuaded courts to seal records when civil litigation did arise. When the story did leak out to the press, prelates like Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law played the victim and accused the media of anti-Catholic bigotry.

After two decades of slow leaking, the dam finally burst in Boston in 2002. Lawyers from the Boston Globe persuaded a judge to open the files surrounding a lawsuit that 25 abuse victims of the priest John J. Geoghan had filed against the Archdiocese of Boston. Reporters found the house of God harbored a house of horrors — not only had Geohagan abused 130 children, but parishioners had lodged complaints against 80 other priests as well.

A similar story happened in Philadelphia, where Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua stonewalled official investigations into the diocese for years. According to the District Attorney’s 2005 report, only a legal technicality prevented investigators from criminally charging the bishop and others centrally involved in connection to their despicable handling of the abuse cases — which involved nearly 200 priests and thousands of children.

The overall numbers were appalling. According to a report by the Dallas Morning News in 2003, roughly two-thirds of U.S. dioceses had become entangled in the net. According to a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 4,392 clergymen who served between 1960 and 2002 had credible allegations of abuse filed against them — roughly four percent of the clergy in the country at the time.

That means 96 percent of clergy aren’t pedophiles, but “Raise your kids Catholic, we’re 96-percent pedophilia-free” isn’t really a catchy slogan, is it?

Most recently, what had been a U.S. scandal and has spread to Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, Mexico and Germany — most notably, to the pope’s former diocese in Munich, which he served at as an archbishop. The same pattern is repeating itself: revelation of cover-ups, stonewalling, and the maddening inability of church leaders to take responsibility without insisting that someone else share the blame.

The mystery surrounding Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the central tenet of Catholic faith. But given the latest disgraceful performance from the hierarchy this Easter season, one mystery that looms large in my mind is why I’m still Catholic. At times like these, that choice requires quite a leap of faith.

Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.