The sad story of clerical child abuse in the United States reaches the shores of public consciousness in waves. In terms of actual cases, the numbers of perpetrators and victims appear to be in decline. The valuable John Jay Study , commissioned to study the causes of American Catholic clerical abuse, reports that “the annual count of abuse incidents over this time period increased steadily from 1950 through the 1970s and then began to decline sharply at or about 1985, with the decline continuing through 2002.”
From a pastoral perspective, however, general awareness in the lay Catholic population was not a gradual process but a progression of shocks spaced about fifteen years apart. The first national indication of a brewing crisis—the first time that a reasonably informed Catholic might catch a tip from national media—is the trial of Father Gilbert Gauthe of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana in 1986. NPR’s 2014 essay/feature on the Father Gauthe case is appropriately titled “It All Began in Lafayette” in the sense that child abuse in the Church became a unique issue of concern, so to speak.
The Gauthe case drew attention because of the sheer number of victims involved, between 100 and 300 depending on the source, and the relatively light sentence passed down at the time, less than a decade behind bars. Ten years later Father Rudolph Kos of the Dallas diocese received a life sentence for aggravated sexual assault of a minor. A civil suit was brought by the same victim against the Dallas Diocese, which was ordered to pay $120,000,000; the damages nearly bankrupted the diocese. The Kos and Gauthe trials gave indication that, at the very least, a financial time bomb was ticking. Some dioceses, including my own, began institutional steps to protect minors and vulnerable populations, practices which would shape the USCCB’s Dallas Carter of 2002.
Moreover, the Dallas and Lafayette cases inspired several theologians, researchers, and investigators to evaluate the severity of the problem as well as reasons why the Church made no public statements. Thomas Doyle, Jason Berry, and Richard Sipe produced writings for Catholics to understand ecclesiastical dynamics; all these men and others experienced punitive actions by various segments of Church leadership. Sipe, ironically, died a week before this week’s release of the Pennsylvania grand jury release. He was the writer/researcher who assisted the Spotlight team of The Boston Globe in its investigation of abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston.
The “second wave” of parishioners’ awareness was the 2002 Boston eruption. A special investigation team of the Boston Globe, “Spotlight,” investigated the growing number of arrests of priests in its city for sex related crimes against children and minors. Two of the tried priests attracted particular attention: Father Ray Shanley, known colloquially as Boston’s “street priest” as well as a published writer on the subject of sexual morality and practice; and Father John Geoghan, whose roster of victims was stunning for its size.
Globe investigators were the first to uncover the documentation of organized cover-up by diocesan officials, up to and including the late Cardinal Bernard Law. Records indicated the pattern of moving abusive priests from parish to parish, drawing heavily on batteries of attorneys to protect the archdiocese, and doing little or nothing for victims. Cardinal Law lost the confidence of Boston faithful and clergy and was “rescued” by Pope John Paul II in 2003 and established in the Church of St. Mary Major in Rome as “archpriest.” It is hard to know the pope’s motivation for continuing to allow the Cardinal to enjoy the honor and prominence of his position in Rome.
The Globe stories energized nearly every city news outlet in the country and some district attorneys to investigate their own dioceses. One of the critics of media coverage was the Cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick, was quoted as saying to The Washington Post “that some newspapers are having a ''heyday'' with the issue.”
Concern for victims of clerical abuse and their treatment has matured considerably in this century, and actual reporting of church-related abuse has declined steadily [although the Pennsylvania State Attorney’s Office reports 150 new persons have called to report and seek treatment after the release of Wednesday’s Grand Jury report.] There has been a discernible shift to investigate the management of abusive priests. About three years after the Globe investigation, in 2005 the Philadelphia District Attorney seated a grand jury to determine if and how Cardinals John Krol and Justin Rigali were involved in an ongoing cover-up of abusive priests and their crimes in the archdiocese of Philadelphia. In 2011 a second grand jury was seated to address why the archdiocese had failed to move on the findings of the 2005 results, which established that abusive priests were still being shuffled about Philadelphia and its environs.
Concurrent with the Attorney General’s investigation of 2011 was the trial of Monsignor William Lynn, the director of priest personnel for the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Father Lynn was not accused of abuse; rather, he was charged with endangering the welfare of minors through his administrative actions. I followed this case closely because the defendant was the pastor of one of my high school buddies. There was an element of “swimming with the sharks” here because Lynn was not empowered to make assignments but to recommend them. With his three previous superiors all deceased, Lynn survived to receive a significant prison sentence. The significance of this case is that for the first time a chancery official was incarcerated.
Which brings us to August 2018, which was and remains a dark time for the American Church. At the beginning of this month the Archdiocese of New York deemed credible an accusation of abuse against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J. Pope Francis ordered him into immediate seclusion, and McCarrick withdrew from the College of Cardinals. Could things become any worse for the Church? Indeed, they could. Reporters and churchmen alike began to speak publicly about what they had known for years, that the Cardinal had demanded sex of his seminarians as a kind of rite into passage into a faster career track. The New York Times summarizes the full situation here. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington has come under significant scrutiny regarding his knowledge of McCarrick’s reputation.
Meanwhile, two seminaries have come under investigation under different circumstances. Cardinal Sean O’Malley has suspended the rector of his Boston seminary pending reports of serious lapses of conduct by some seminarians. The second seminary serves the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, and the accusations come from former students who report they were ostracized because they were heterosexuals. The Lincoln Diocese admits that a past faculty member behaved inappropriately, but the circumstances are still not clear.
I will pick up tomorrow with the Pennsylvania investigation of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese and the release of the statewide grand jury probe last Wednesday. A link to the complete Grand Jury document is here; it may be useful to browse through one diocese, as I am currently doing with Allentown.
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