Dialogue 14


Part of the struggle in every sex abuse law suit against the Catholic Church is to get bishops to admit that they “knew” about the problem of sexual abuse generally and specifically in each case.

Like Sergeant Schultz, in the old Hogan’s Heroes television series, most bishops piously protest their ignorance about sexual activity of priests or the problem of abuse of minors. Almost comically—like Schultz “I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing”—in depositions and public statements bishops make declarations that are simply incredible. For instance Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles said in deposition that he does “not receive homosexual priests” into his diocese. (9/13/07) In an earlier deposition he said he did “not know of any priest who had violated his celibacy.” (11, 24, 04) Not one!

It has taken millions upon millions of dollars to verify and validate the facts about clergy sexual abuse. The truth is won on the backs of the wounded and suffering victims. But there is an upside to the painful process. A history of the complicity and the corruption of the Catholic Church in the United States is being written in the grand jury reports, depositions, accounts of abuse, and the exposure of duplicity that make their way into the press and public domain. The factual record already forms a mountain of information.

The church admits that the crisis has already cost them over 2 billion dollars. A substantial proportion of that money has been spent for its lawyers to stall victims’ claims for redress, even when the guilt of the priest and the system is apparent.

Another portion of money and effort is being expended on propaganda. Yes, Propaganda—“deceptive or distorted information that is systematically spread.” Remember how derisive this concept became when applied to Communist Russian pronouncements.

The first propaganda drive of the bishops I became aware of was in 1994 when I served as the board chair for a 40 member interfaith group concerned with sexual trauma caused by clergy. One member of the board was a vicar general. He talked about the problem of the press that was “anti-religion, anti-priest, and anti-Catholic.” It was not difficult to put together that this was the “line” that the USCCB was pushing to combat the growing awareness of clergy abuse being exposed by the press. It was a footnote to the earlier pronouncement of Cardinal Law calling down “the wrath of God” on the Boston Globe for reporting the notorious case of Fr. James Porter’s abuses.

The latest propaganda line shows itself in the 4-point declaration of Cardinal Bertone, Vatican secretary of state. (Cf. In Depth Does the Vatican Understand?)  This is the 2007 program: 1.) Blame the victims’ lawyers; claim they are in it only for the money. 2.) Minimize the number of priest abusers to “a very small percentage.” 3. Emphasize that other groups also have this problem. 4.) Claim that the RC church has been more open than any other organization and challenge them to deal with the problem of abuse with “an equal degree of courage and realism.”

I was reminded recently how the United States bishops as a body are set on propaganda and public relations programs rather than real and convincing “accountability for the scandal” of sexual abuse in their ranks that historian C. Colt Anderson outlines in his 2004 Theological Studies article. (Cf. Documents and Controversy)1.

On May 22, 2007 Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry hosted a reception during the National Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. I accepted an invitation since I had a minor and part time connection with the child and adolescent division for 25 years. Before I had a chance to talk to some old friends I spotted Paul Mc Hugh who had headed the Department and now serves as an emeritus. He has the distinction of serving on the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. One requirement of every member is that he or she must be a practicing Catholic. Paul is.

Across the buffet table I said, “Hi Paul.”

He responded immediately in a clear and relatively loud voice, “Boy, do the bishops hate you.”

In the course of the conversation that followed, Mc Hugh loudly announced that he knows “everything” about the clergy sex abuse crisis; “the church has been more open about the problem in its ranks than any other organization; why don’t the Boy Scouts and other churches come forward and do as much?” He faithfully followed the propaganda line point by point just like Bertone.

When I asked if he had read the recent book I wrote with Tom Doyle and Pat Wall, without admitting that he had not, he again said he knew “everything about clergy abuse in the church.” When I mentioned that 11.5 percent of the priests active in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1983 have been credibly alleged sexual abusers, he protested that he knew that and, in fact, the church reported that fact. (Not true. Jean Guccione a reporter for the LA Times did that research.)

During and after the reception several psychiatrists commented on the exchange. Paul Mc Hugh did not represent the church’s cause well or convincingly. Propaganda rarely does. Retired judge Michael R. Mertz of Cincinnati has recently been appointed chair of the National Review Board by the USCCB. Two of his predecessors—Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, and Anne Burke, Chief Judge of the Illinois Supreme Court—have expressed disillusionment after working with the American bishops: one asserting that bishops operate like “cosa nostra,” the other claiming that the bishops want “business as usual,” not reform. Only time will tell whether the objectivity of the bench will prevail or the malleability of Catholic devotion will succumb to propaganda. Or worse yet will produce an agent of propaganda.

My 40 years of experience with victims and priest abusers have not yet taught me everything I need to know about the system that has selected, trained, produced, and covered up the sexual abuse of bishops and priests. Twelve Grand Jury investigations have found reprehensible or indictable material in each of the jurisdictions examined. And there is much more for all of us to learn before we can truthfully insure that the young and the vulnerable are safe from clerical sexual abuse.

But Mc Hugh does make an excellent point: he, and of course, the bishops for whom he is a spokesman, know and have known for a long time the nature and extent of sexual abuse of minors among their ranks in the United States. They knew it was common; they knew it was a violation of celibacy; they knew it was criminal. No bishop needed a psychiatrist or lawyer to tell him those truths recorded in their own canon law and Vatican directives along with the documents in their files and achieves. (Cf. Chronology in Sex, Priests & Secret Codes, Pp. 296-300)

More and more documents are being uncovered or unsealed to show that U.S. bishops were well informed about sex abuse long before their 2002 Dallas meeting that declared a “zero tolerance” policy with priest sexual abusers. Not bishop abusers. One of the treasure troves of documents about clergy sexual abuse in the U.S. is the correspondence of Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald. That correspondence had been under court seal, but is now open. It indeed indicates an awareness of sex abuse of minors at the highest levels of the Church long before 1950. (Cf. also Code Words) Fr. Fitzgerald spoke clearly to bishops and to three popes about the problem of American priests and bishops abusing minors.

Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, [GF] s.P. [Servants of the Paraclete] founded his community of priests to help troubled or problem priests in 1946. A year later his house was filled to capacity. His ideas about the spiritual rehabilitation of priests (rather than psychiatric, AA, or medical intervention) remained consistent until his death in 1969. At first, alcohol seemed to be the major problem of priests in trouble. And alcohol and substance abuse does play a large part in the lives of clergy who abuse others sexually.  (In one analysis 26 percent of offending priests were also listed for alcohol abuse. Cf. Another View of Sex Abuse p.6) Fitzgerald was aware before beginning his mission that some priests sexually abused children and he held out no hope that their behavior could be altered; in his estimation the only hope was to isolate them from society. He judged that they should be removed from the priesthood. His evaluation presages the conclusion the American bishops reached in Dallas-2002 under the duress of public exposure. What follows is but a sample of the written documentation of knowledge of abuse.

In a letter dated September 27, 1948:

GF wrote to a priest, (of an Order since GF indicates that he will notify “Fr. General”) that he could not accept him for residency at Via Coeli-Jemez Springs, New Mexico. He indicates he observed the priest’s “past talent with young people,” and fears scandal if the priest were to stay at VC. GF states that it is “now the fixed policy of our house to refuse problem cases that involve abnormalities of sex.”

He indicates that the “house” is dedicated to priests with alcohol problems.

In paragraph 5 he states a hope to have an “island or mountain refuge far apart from civilization,” where  “this terrible type of moral disease” could be controlled. The ideas that the problem of a priest who abused minors was irreversible and that he should leave the priesthood or be completely isolated from society were fixed even before he founded his community. Fitzgerald made these assessments not after years of experience at Via Coeli, but at the time of founding; certainly from experience already garnered from his years in ministry.

In the final paragraph he suggests that the priest go somewhere he is not known and work out his “salvation in the humble honest labor of a man of the world.” He adds, “That is actually the big job of a priest who has once fallen under the spell of abnormal relations.”

Despite the stated policy of 1948 some sexual abusers did come to VC. And they came in sufficient numbers to cause GF concern. Bishops were sufficiently insistent for GF to appeal to his bishop co-founder for help in staving off the onslaught of priest abusers referred to VC. Already in 1952 GF wrote to Robert Dwyer, bishop of Reno about Fr. Edmund Boyle who had been at Via Coeli, and was known to have sexually abused boys. (He continued his pattern of abuse for many years and in several dioceses.):

“We find it quite common, almost universal with the handful of men we have seen in the last five years who have been under similar charges…that they seem to be lacking in appreciation of the serious situation.”… “I myself would be inclined to favor laicization for any priest, upon objective evidence, for tampering with the virtue of the young.”… “Many bishops believe men are never free from the approximate danger once they have begun.”  [Clearly this is a reference to sex with minor boys.]

Contrary to his convictions about priests who abuse minors GF did continue to receive abusers into his care. Doubtless some infiltrated the system under the label of alcohol, but bishops increased pressure on the Paracletes to accept more and more abusers. (I.e. Bishop Buddy, who had supported GF in the Via Coeli venture from its inception sent Fr. Franz Robie, a notorious abuser of pre adolescent girls, there in 1957.) GF had to stride a fine line because he was dependent on financial support from the bishops who were also sending their problem priests to him.

On September 18 of that year GF wrote to Edwin V. Byrne, archbishop of Santa Fe considered co-founder of VC, asking his support in resisting bishops’ requests to send sexual abusers to VC.

“May I beg Your Excellency to concur and approve of what I consider a very vital decision on our part—that for the sake of preventing scandal that might endanger the good name of Via Coeli we will not offer hospitality to men who have seduced or attempted to seduce little boys or girls? These men, Your Excellency are devils and the wrath of God is upon them and if I were a Bishop I would tremble when I failed to report them to Rome for involuntary layization”(sic).  He continues, “Experience has taught us these men are too dangerous to the children of the Parish and neighborhood for us to be justified in receiving them here.”

“It is for this class of rattlesnake I have always wished the island retreat…” In his last paragraph GF refers to his upcoming meeting with Pope Pius XII. “When I see the Holy Father I am going to speak of this class to His Holiness—they should be ipso facto reduced to lay men when they act thus.”

GF also had audiences with Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. The Vatican addressed sexual concerns in a 1961 letter to all major religious superiors about the selection and training of candidates. In 1962 he issued the secret letter on the Crime of Solicitation that addressed explicitly clergy who have sex with children.

A great deal more will be said about Fr. Fitzgerald’s interaction with bishops. For those who think that the crisis of clergy sex abuse is over I say: Stay Tuned. History is in the making.

1. Cf. C. Colt Anderson,

Posted: 25 September 2007

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