Books: Reasons behind the Church's Ungodly Scandal

By John D. Thomas
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
January 18, 2004

Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal. By David France. Broadway Books. $26.95. 672 pages.

The verdict: Stunning in its insight.

Recent child sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have brought new meaning to the term "white-collar crime." In "Our Fathers," an incredibly detailed and insightful examination of the crisis, author David France reveals a corporate cover-up soaked in depravity and deceit and completely devoid of compassion and Christian charity.

France, a senior editor at Newsweek, structures "Our Fathers" as a lengthy series of short, powerful diary entries. The format gives the book an amazing sense of time and place and helps the reader navigate through the nastiness. His work is essentially a retelling of a story already aggressively covered in the news media, and France gives substantial credit to his sources.

But France writes with such compassion and intelligence, his book never feels the least bit rehashed.

The story focuses on two anti-hero protagonists. The first is a group of sexually errant priests who graduated from a Massachusetts seminary in 1960. The second is Cardinal Bernard Law, who was archbishop of Boston from 1984 to 2002 and a key figure in covering up many of the priest sexual abuse cases.

Among the men who graduated in 1960, France writes: "Before reaching the age of retirement, nine graduates in a class of seventy-five men would stand accused" of abuse.

Even though the church hierarchy has placed blame for this rash of abuse on homosexuality in the priesthood, France argues that sexual orientation had little to do with motivating these crimes ("Gays were slightly less likely to violate the rule of celibacy than straights, according to surveys").

So what did motivate these men to act out so egregiously?

France pinpoints the problem as the Catholic Church's guilt-ridden attitudes about sex and sexuality. To bolster his point, the author quotes the Rev. John McNeill, author of "The Church and the Homosexual": "The church wants gay priests to interiorize homophobia and self-hatred, and this leads to all sorts of neurotic stuff."

In the mid-1980s, professors began speaking more honestly and openly about sex with seminarians. "Just by making this an acceptable topic of conversation in seminaries," France writes, "something remarkable seemed to happen. The frequency of priests' 'acting out' plunged."

France portrays Law not as a spiritual leader and healer but as a hard-nosed CEO ferried around like a "baronial potentate," doing whatever it took to prop up his company's reputation and fortunes at the expense of his clientele.

France piles up evidence to show that Law knew children were being abused by priests and that he frequently did nothing more than shuttle abusive priests among parishes.

"Our Fathers" focuses a great deal on the legal end of the crisis and the battles between lawyers on both sides. However, France never forgets the human aspect of these tragedies. His wrenching interviews with victims show how devastating the impact of being assaulted by such a powerful figure as a priest could be.

Law has since resigned as archbishop of Boston, and his replacement, Sean O'Malley, seems to be restoring faith to the faithful.

But after reading "Our Fathers," you will realize how far the church has to go to restore its good reputation.

John D. Thomas, a writer in Chicago, is a frequent contributor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The New York Times and other publications.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.