The Fight to Reveal Abuses by Catholic Priests

By Clyde Haberman (New York Times)
March 30, 2014

Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the former Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, is in no way the principal face of the sexual abuse scandals that have buffeted the church and its priesthood almost without pause for three decades. But he embodies a certain mind-set among some in the highest clerical ranks. It is an attitude that has led critics, who of late include the authors of a scathing United Nations committee report, to wonder about the depth of the church’s commitment to atone for past predations and to ensure that those sins of the fathers are visited on no one else.

In 2002, with the scandal in crescendo and the American Catholic Church knocked back on its heels, Cardinal Egan reacted with obvious ambivalence to accounts of priestly abuses that occurred in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., which he had led before moving to New York. “If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry,” he said in a letter to parishioners.

The conditional nature of the apology, a style favored by innumerable politicians caught with hands in the till, was not lost on many listeners. Nor was the cardinal’s use of “mistakes” to describe a pattern routinely described by district attorneys as a cover-up. As if that were not enough, the reluctant penitent turned thoroughly unrepentant a decade later. By then retired, he withdrew his apology. “I never should have said that,” the cardinal told Connecticut magazine in 2012. “I did say if we did anything wrong, I’m sorry, but I don’t think we did anything wrong.”

That sort of unyielding stance amid institutional promises of change continues to bedevil the American church, the Holy See in Rome and, no doubt, many among the faithful. This issue shapes the latest installment of Retro Report, a weekly series of documentary videos, with this one reaching back to the mid-1980s to explore clergymen who prey.

By now, the story is amply familiar. Thousands of wayward clerics have been found to have sexually abused and emotionally scarred many more thousands of boys and girls. It is, too, a story of the church hierarchy as enabler: bishops who ignored the criminality, or evaded public exposure by shuffling abusers from parish to parish. The scandals have cost the church dearly, both in lost moral suasion and in its coffers. According to a monitoring group called BishopAccountability.org, United States dioceses and their insurers have had to pay out more than $3 billion, most of that money going to victims.

Nor is this a uniquely American peril. Similar scandals have erupted in Europe, Latin America, Canada and Australia. The Vatican, struggling to show it is far from indifferent to the problem, confirmed in January that it had defrocked 384 priests worldwide in 2011 and 2012. That was an unusually large number, though some cases may have been decades old.

For sure, sexual maltreatment of children and cover-up are not Catholic monopolies. Charges have been brought against predatory rabbis in New York and elsewhere. In the Hasidic world, a code of silence governs much of life in this regard. Those who break it, by taking allegations to the civil authorities, find themselves ostracized. The existence of a website like StopBaptistPredators.org points to problems in other denominations. As for secular institutions, who could be unaware of abuses within the Boy Scouts of America and at Penn State?

But the Catholic Church has a hierarchical structure unlike any other, not to mention two millenniums of tradition and a claim to universality. It also has a history of moving glacially on a broad range of matters. (It took 359 years, after all, for the Vatican to acknowledge that it was wrong to have condemned Galileo in 1633 for proving that the earth orbited the sun.)

Then again, the church in this country has plenty of concerns other than sexual misconduct. There are more American Catholics than ever — about 67 million, says the Official Catholic Directory — but for many of them, unquestioning adherence to doctrine is in the rearview mirror. Only one in four attends weekly Mass, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The number of American priests, 39,600 last year, is two-thirds what it was at the time of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Ordinations of new priests, 511 in 2013, amount to barely half the total of five decades ago. The painful closing of Catholic schools by financially burdened dioceses has become routine. There are bright spots: the Georgetown researchers say that Catholic seminary enrollment rose in 2013 to 3,694, the highest level in years. Still, that is less than half what it was 50 years ago.

But it is the abuse scandals that loom ever-large. In early February, the report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child sternly took the Vatican to task for, in the panel’s view, not having acknowledged the extent of past criminality and not doing enough to protect today’s children. The relatively new pope, Francis, recognizes the problem. He has spoken about the horrors of pedophilia. This month, he named four women and four men to a special commission that is supposed to advise him on how to proceed in cleansing this enduring stain. Among the appointees was an Irish activist on this issue, Marie Collins, who as a girl in the 1960s was abused by a priest.

Yet as popular as Pope Francis is, he has left some skeptics wondering where his heart lies. He did not endear himself with support groups for abuse victims when, in an interview with two newspapers in early March, he said of the scandal: “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No one else has done more. Yet the church is the only one to have been attacked.”

To some ears, those remarks sounded almost Egan-like in defensiveness.