Priests and Vows of Silence

By Kevin Horrigan
The Post-Dispatch [United States]
March 14, 2004

Twenty years ago, a grand jury in Lafayette, La., indicted a man named Gilbert Gauthe on 34 counts of child sexual abuse. The case was horrific enough - nine little boys had been victimized over at least five years - but what made it truly shocking was the fact that Gilbert Gauthe was a Catholic priest and some of his victims had been altar boys.

It is a measure of how far the stain of priest sexual abuse has spread in the last two decades that the Gauthe case no longer is quite so shocking. Indeed, the pattern set in his case would become all too common - shame, confession, cover-up and complicity by church officials in trying to hide the case.

Two studies commissioned by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, released last month, revealed that at least 4 percent of the priests serving in America in the past five decades had been accused of sexual abuse. Those 4,397 priests were alleged to have sexually victimized no fewer than 10,667 children. The church paid out at least $572 million in settlements, judgments and therapy costs.

Those numbers are conservative. Sexual abuse is a crime that goes under-reported. And until the Boston Globe began shining the spotlight on the problem in January 2002, many church leaders were less than aggressive in pursuing predator priests; some still are. Still, in the past 30 months, more than 700 of the nation's 45,713 priests have been removed from the active ministry because of sex abuse.

In "Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II," Jason Berry and Gerald Renner trace the origins of the crisis. Berry, who as a young reporter in Louisiana covered the Gauthe case, is the nation's leading journalistic authority on the sex-abuse crisis. Renner is a veteran religion reporter now retired from the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.

"Vows of Silence" is two books in one. Berry's half tells the story of the crisis in the 1980s and 1990s through the eyes of Father Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer who seemed to pop up, like Forrest Gump, whenever a priest was accused of abuse. Perhaps that was because Father Doyle took the matter seriously, sacrificing his career trying to hold the church accountable.

Renner's half recounts his coverage for the Courant of the Legion of Christ, a mysterious ultra-conservative order of priests led by a charismatic Mexican priest named Marcial Maciel. Though Father Maciel himself was accused of sex abuse, he dodged punishment, in large part, Renner writes, because the Legion of Christ had become a favorite of church leaders, including Pope John Paul II.

Father Doyle's heroic efforts also foundered at the papal doorstep.

Berry and Renner blame John Paul's "myopia on the church's corruption." Within the Vatican, oaths were sworn to protect the church from scandal.

"The paradox is awesome," Berry and Renner write. "The pope who championed freedom from political dictatorships turned a cold shoulder to human rights within the church."

This readable account is not the complete story of the abuse crisis, but it sheds valuable light on its early history and the political intrigue that fostered it - and still does. But in telling the story of Father Tom Doyle, Berry and Renner offer reassurance to Catholics that men of integrity still wear the Roman collar.

In "Priests: A Calling in Crisis," Andrew M. Greeley, one of the best-known priests in America, takes up the cause of men like Tom Doyle - men who do a tough job in difficult circumstances. A sociologist, Greeley examines the abuse crisis through the prism of statistics. He concludes that most priests like their work. Celibacy is not a burden to most of them. Dissatisfaction comes in not being appreciated, either by their bishops or a public that now views too many of them with suspicion.

Father Greeley deals bluntly with questions about the "gay subculture" within the priesthood, the church's inability to deal with questions of sex and the culpability of bishops in the abuse crisis. Yet for most priests, he says, these questions are tangential. They're working too hard trying to save souls.

This dense, number-laden book will not be confused with Father Greeley's semi-steamy popular novels. But it adds an important empirical perspective to discussions of the abuse crisis and should be of comfort to worried Catholics and the men who minister to them.

"Priests: A Calling in Crisis"
By Andrew M. Greeley
Published by University of Chicago Press, 156 pages, $19

"Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II"
By Jason Berry and Gerald Renner
Published by the Free Press, 353 pages, $26

Reviewer Kevin Horrigan
Phone: 314-340-8135


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