Tracing the Sins of the Fathers
A Book Follows the Priest Sex Scandal to the Vatican
By Carol Eisenberg
Newsday [United States]
May 4, 2004
Veteran reporter Jason Berry says his issue is not with God, but with the men who govern the Roman Catholic Church.
That's why he remains a practicing Catholic, even after 15 years of church muckraking. ("Blame it on the Jesuits," he says. "I had benevolent experiences with priests and nuns growing up.")
And that's why Berry leads off his latest dissection of church corruption with a quote from his beloved Flannery O'Connor: "Sin is sin whether it is committed by the Pope, bishops, priests or lay people. The Pope goes to confession like the rest of us.... The Church is mighty realistic about human nature."
Twelve years after Berry exposed the story of priest sex abuse and its cover-up in his book "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," he has teamed up with former Hartford Courant religion reporter Gerald Renner to trace that story all the way up the hierarchy in "Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II."
For those who believe the pope and his top lieutenants played no role in the sex scandals in the American church, Berry's and Renner's thesis will be disquieting. "People do not want to connect John Paul to this crisis, and the argument this book makes is you cannot ignore his role in the crisis," Berry said in an interview from his home in New Orleans.
"Vows of Silence" finds the same system of secrecy and protection that pervaded the American scandals in evidence in the Vatican. It chronicles the way in which top church officials squelched an investigation into accusations of sex abuse by the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the influential founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative, Rome-based order held in great favor by this papacy. And it tells of the unsuccessful, decades-long efforts of nine ex-Legionaries who accused Maciel of molesting them as young seminarians to get their stories heard - among them, two former Rockville Centre priests.
As for the scandals in America, the authors contend that Rome was repeatedly briefed on the problem of pedophilia in the United States, a decade before the scandal became a front-page story in this country. They say the Vatican even rebuffed a plea from the American bishops in the late 1980s to speed the process to defrock abusive priests because Rome was angry the Americans had been too permissive on marriage annulments.
"When I heard that, my jaw dropped," Berry said. "It told me how dreadfully out of touch they are with the world in which most Catholics live."
Berry was hard at work on a book about jazz band funerals in New Orleans when the Boston Globe series on the church's cover-up of priest pedophilia appeared in January 2002. "My phone started ringing in early January 2002, and it didn't stop," Berry said. "I was getting 30 phone calls a day."
He and Renner, who had collaborated on a 1997 Hartford Courant series about the allegations against Maciel, decided to team up on a book that would explore the exercise of church power through the prism of two priests' lives: that of Maciel, whose career rose like a juggernaut, despite the multiple allegations against him; and that of the Rev. Tom Doyle, once a fast-rising canon lawyer in Washington, D.C., whose career was derailed after he helped write a 1985 report on sexual abuse in the American priesthood.
Maciel declined to be interviewed by the authors, but he has denied any wrongdoing, saying his accusers are part of a conspiracy against him. At age 84, he remains a powerful player in Rome: His order, with a U.S. headquarters in Cheshire, Conn., now claims 2,500 seminarians and 600 priests in 20 countries around the world.
Berry responds to Maciel's defense with one question.
"Why would nine men [Maciel's accusers] spend 25 years of their lives doing this?" he asked. "They've never asked for money. They haven't gone after him civilly. This is a moral quest for these men. And that puts it on a level that the Vatican has no authentic response to."
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