'Vows of Silence' and 'Priests': Sins of the Fathers, Cont

By Christopher Caldwell
The New York Times [United States]
May 2, 2004

ROMAN Catholics have come to no consensus on whom to blame for the sexual-molestation scandals that have rocked their church since 2002. The liberals among them fault a haughty hierarchy that resisted the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, setting itself against human sexual reality as lived by the laity -- starting with Pope Paul VI's 1968 letter against birth control. Conservatives think Vatican II prompted leaders to wink at sexual permissiveness -- starting (again) with birth control, passing through the establishment of a gay subculture in seminaries and winding up at the priests' Caligulan excesses.

In their expose "Vows of Silence," Jason Berry and Gerald Renner see some merit in both accounts. Berry is the author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation" (1992), one of the first books to address the church's pedophilia problem; Renner was for decades the religion writer for The Hartford Courant. Like the conservatives, the authors see a "dimension of gay culture" in the scandals. Hiding priests' homosexuality, their reporting shows, fostered secrecy and occasionally blackmail. But like the liberals, they think this clerical secrecy has deep roots in church history. Left alone, Vatican II might have done away with endemic mistrust of the laity and unrealistic sexual expectations, particularly on birth control and priestly celibacy. In leading a "backlash" against Vatican II, Pope John Paul II has put clerical privilege ahead of the well-being of his flock.

Berry and Renner's account is organized around two biographies that have nothing to do with each other. The hero is the Dominican canon lawyer Thomas Doyle, a Reagan-voting, Latin Mass-loving protege of Cardinal John Cody, the former archbishop of Chicago. When priestly abuse cases started crossing his desk at the Vatican Embassy in the mid-80's, Doyle was appalled by his colleagues' indifference. His warning that this was "the most serious problem that we in the church have faced in centuries" cost him his job. So he became an Air Force chaplain, worked with awareness groups like SNAP (Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests) and helped lawyers prepare cases against the church. The authors view him as "a prophet" trapped among lesser minds and "a Catholic embodiment of the rebel, an ethos expressed by Albert Camus."

The villain is Marcial Maciel Degollado, the 84-year-old Mexican founder of a conservative priestly order, the Legionaries of Christ, who is alive and in good standing with the church. The pope has praised the Legion for its record in forming priests and evangelizing Latin America. To the authors, Maciel is secretive, fascistic and a Demerol addict, one who puts on "a heroic, saintly mask to cover his worldly genius at pulling money from the rich while hiding sex with boys in the closet of church secrets." Since the late 60's, nine former Legionaries from Mexico and Spain have accused Maciel of abusing them as seminarians and young priests in the 40's and 50's. He allegedly had some massage his penis to relieve abdominal "pains," told others he needed a semen sample and convinced still others that he had a papal dispensation for sex.

The Vatican investigated Maciel and suspended him from Legion duties for two years (presumably for the above-mentioned matters; the report is secret). Maciel returned to his position four days after the death of Pius XII in 1958, during the interregnum between popes. In 1998, the ex-Legionaries filed a canon-law suit against Maciel before the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (C.D.F.), arguing that, by offering them absolution after sex, he had violated the sacrament of confession. The case went nowhere, and the men never penetrated the secrecy of the C.D.F. Nor do the authors, although their sources say that the C.D.F.'s hard-line prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, while seeming to believe the charges, found them too "delicate" to address. As a "what did he know and when did he know it?" book, this one does not land much of a blow against the pope.


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