Catholics about Catholics:
Church Leaders and Lay People Reflect on 'Runaway Priests'

Dallas Morning News [Dallas TX]
June 27, 2004

We asked commentators from across the spectrum of American Catholicism for their reaction to The Dallas Morning News' recent series detailing how prominent international churchmen are helping runaway priests escape justice in child molestation cases.

In addition to the voices published below, The News invited church officials at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men in Maryland to contribute commentary. Officials with both organizations declined.

William Donohue, Head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights

The Dallas Morning News deserves credit for exposing the transfer of molesting priests overseas. Molesters, be they priests or plumbers, deserve to be punished, and not put on a plane.

But the series is not something most Catholics are prepared to hyperventilate about, and for good reason: The stories are mostly anecdotal and the timeline is mostly pre-scandal.

Social scientists distinguish between the episodic and the systemic. The former is unexceptional; the latter is problematic. In this regard, the series disclosed specific cases of moral delinquency, but it did not uncover a systemic pattern of delinquency.

To be specific, what made the story in Boston so dramatic was the extent and depth of the cover-up, the overwhelming evidence tying senior church officials to it, and the fact that it occurred over decades. On this score, The Dallas Morning News series pales by comparison.

If some molesting priests (almost all of whom are homosexuals, not pedophiles) were moved around locally, it is not surprising to learn that some were also moved around globally. In every case, those who authorized the transfer should be subjected to the full force of the law.

But policing a religious order priest, like the Salesians, is not the same as policing a diocesan priest: The former is not under the direct supervision of a bishop; the latter is.

The series touches on the question of why molesting priests were kept in ministry after their superiors learned of their offense. Readers should know that the advice to subject such priests to treatment ? instead of kicking them out ? is exactly what the Vatican was told earlier this year by a panel of sex abuse experts drawn from around the world, not one of whom was Catholic. In short, the role of the psychological community must be addressed if this issue is to be resolved.

Finally, if the transfer of miscreant priests were commonplace after the scandal broke in January 2002, then that would be cause for alarm. But since this is not the case, it is not likely the series will create the same furor.

William Donohue may be contacted through

Amy Welborn, Catholic author and blogger

For almost three years now, I've run what's called a weblog, or blog, on the Internet. It's an interactive spot where I post links to articles, my own thoughts, and readers post responses.

The thousands who visit my blog daily are writers, lawyers, managers, homemakers, priests and who knows what else. Most of them are ordinary Catholics from all around the country, interested in and committed to their faith.

When these Catholics began discussing the clergy sexual abuse scandals, as the Boston situation first emerged back in 2002, a single question ? expressed in a single word ? emerged over and over. Two years later, with the latest revelations from The Dallas Morning News, and with countless bishops' statements and apologies behind us, the exact same question persists.

That question is: "Why?"

Why, in particular, have church authorities protected clerical sexual abusers from legal consequences? Why the determination, it seems, to keep clearly damaged and damaging men in ministry? Why doesn't the presence of a sexual abuser in the priestly ranks set off immediate and loud alarms, rather than prompt the indifference and defensiveness and outright obstruction of the truth so often expressed by church authorities ? even up to the level of cardinal in The News series?

Forget the Trinity, the Incarnation and the omnipotence of God. This is probably the greatest Mystery of the Faith bedeviling American Catholics today. It simply makes no sense on any level, especially on the level that a disciple of Jesus should be living on, a level that should ? if you've read a Gospel lately ? be oriented toward protecting "little ones," not clerical privilege.

I'll tell you what Catholics want, in case you're wondering. They want that question of "why" answered honestly and humbly. If that means being brutally honest about the role and consequences of clericalism in the Catholic Church, which has evidently engendered an environment in which accountability to mutual clerical bonds is valued far more highly than accountability to, well ? God ? then, so be it.

American bishops have, of late, taken steps to publicly correct pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Good for them. But until these same bishops start publicly correcting their own ? priests, leaders of religious orders and even bishops ? who are guilty of grave sin and public scandal as well, don't blame us if we continue to be unimpressed.

Amy Welborn's e-mail address is

Kevin E. Miller, Assistant Professor of Theology, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio

In April 2002, John Paul II said of the scandal then making headlines: "I too have been deeply grieved." He called sex abuse by priests "by every standard wrong," "a crime" and "an appalling sin," and told the victims, "I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern. ... [T]here is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."

That July, he repeated that the abuse "fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame."

In addressing The Dallas Morning News' latest revelations, I must echo the pope's words of sorrow and admonition. Bishops and religious superiors must care for all, public officials must act vigorously against abusers, and victims must be encouraged to pursue justice. Honest reporting about failings in these matters may help bring about reform.

Above all, we want to prevent abuse. And in the Catholic view, it is only through openness to sharing fully in God's holiness that we can find freedom from sin. This is why a basic message of John Paul's 1995 The Gospel of Life is that, as obviously evil as abortion is, it must be countered by an effort to build a comprehensive "culture of life and love." I think the same message applies to the evil of sex abuse (and protection of its perpetrators).

In turn, in the Catholic view, this requires Christ's church. And while the church is more than the bishops ? "We are the church" ? still, because it cannot exist without Christ, so it needs the bishops sacramentally ordained to speak and act in his name.

A culture of holiness and respect for human dignity must, then, be pursued in a way that begins and ends with love for the church, including due respect for the bishops as our fathers, even when it is necessary to expose their failings or even prosecute them or their priests.

Each of us must resist the understandable temptation to think that the problems The News reports can be solved by going around, rather than through, the church as Christ has constituted it.

Kevin Miller's e-mail address is

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, Dominican priest and leading advocate for victims of clerical sexual abuse

There is no greater corruption or betrayal in a religious entity than when it sacrifices its corporate integrity for power and image at the unfathomable cost of the spiritual rape and pillage of its own members.

The abominable scandal of sexual abuse of the young and vulnerable adults by Catholic clergy has been pushed to the limits of the imagination of decent people by the apparently never-ending revelations of organized cover-up and total disrespect by church leaders for the victims' souls.

The Dallas Morning News' brave determination to expose this nauseating nightmare has proven what so many suspected and others knew: The bottom of the pit is not in the United States, but throughout the world.

The results of The News' investigation are every bit as scandalous as any past revelations ? and more so. In some ways, the conspiratorial efforts of the U.S. hierarchy to cover for sexually abusing clerics and manipulate the truth pale by comparison to the antics of their brothers in other countries, especially Latin America.

This series proves once again that the "problem" is not with a few thousand dysfunctional clerics prone to evil and destructive sexual abuse. The "problem" falls squarely in the laps of the leaders: the cardinals, archbishops and bishops.

When these judgmental and myopic prelates clumsily try to deflect reality by comparing the secular press' persistence to Nazi or Stalinist persecution, they reveal their own callousness and their inability or unwillingness to properly understand the meaning of the offices they hold. They are supposed to be pastors, not a caricature of medieval princes.

The secular media and the civil justice system ? so easily criticized and condemned as "anti-Catholic" when they expose corruption ? are actually doing the church and our society an invaluable service. They are forcing the church to re-focus on what it is supposed to be and not what it has degenerated into.

The News exposed the sad reality of a church that has forgotten that true orthodoxy is not self-serving or brain-dead conformity to an anachronistic kingdom, but the ever-challenging risk of conforming to the mission laid out by its founder.

Thomas Doyle's e-mail is

Donna Steichen, Catholic activist in California and author of Ungodly Rage

As The Dallas Morning News reveals sexual crime and collusion in the church, the anger of some Catholics is misdirected: The messenger is not the message.

The message itself reminds us that:

? Human beings are prone to sin, even those vowed to lives of virtue.

? Membership in religious orders ? as in teaching, the arts or the military police ? provides no warranty against perversion or irresponsibility.

? Despite Christ's warning that those who scandalize the innocent will wish they had never been born, religious superiors are as reluctant as bishops to remember whose shepherds they are supposed to be.

In the pews, this new report stirs varied reactions. Focused on personal concerns, some remain oblivious. Declining to examine the evidence, others deny its truth or dissociate it from their own parishes. Among a hardheaded minority, the shock of 2002 has become cynicism about spiritual shepherds.

For nearly 2,000 years, church policies called for swift, stern punishment of sexual abusers. But in the mid-20th century, ecclesial authorities eliminated such measures, na?vely assuming psychologists knew more than the church about the human soul. Sexual offenders were sent to treatment centers for therapy and returned to ministry. Like some other "reforms" of the past four decades, this proved a grievous mistake.

Now many voices call for "transparency" in church investigations, insisting that ecclesial authorities sacrifice all confidentiality in cooperating with civil authorities to prosecute sexual crimes.

Real reform happens in the heart. But immediately, practical justice requires that both the victims' suffering and their shepherds' dereliction be addressed. That means reinstating just laws and punishments, from defrocking and imprisonment to removing incompetent superiors. (Flogging too? It seems to work in Singapore.)

Some believers may leave the church, but most will not. We are not Catholics because we venerate bishops or abbots, but because our lives are rooted in Jesus Christ. Nothing essential to our faith caused these outrages. It is not because they are Catholics that abusers and feckless shepherds sin, but because they are bad Catholics.

Donna Steichen's e-mail address is

Richard Sipe, Catholic sociologist and author of Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis

Sexual abuse by Catholic clergy is not a problem limited to any one diocese or isolated religious orders. Sexual abuse by priests and bishops is not just an American problem. And certainly sexual abuse by clergy is not "history."

In 1992, Catholic bishops in the United States were insisting that any problem of sexual abuse by priests was restricted to a few bad apples. They pleaded ignorance to the allegation that there might be a widespread problem. They were indignant at the suggestion that they might be involved in any wrongdoing.

Beyond that, they claimed that the press was actually "causing" the problem, and the media were motivated by anti-clerical and anti-Catholic sentiments.

Those protestations have long since been debunked by bishops' own grudging concessions, but it continues to be a hard fight to bring church officials to face the real dimensions of sexual abuse within their ranks.

Thousands of civil and criminal lawsuits, judgments and expenditures ? to the tune of a billion dollars against abusers and dioceses ? have now wrenched a modest concession to the notion that the problem of abuse by clergy is bigger than bishops were willing to admit in 1992.

But during the same year, at the first national meeting of victims of abuse by Catholic priests, an assertion was made that sexual abuse of minors by clergy in America was the "tip of an iceberg. If an investigation follows abuse to its source it will lead to the highest corridors of the Vatican."

The investigation of Catholic priest abusers by The Dallas Morning News has propelled the awareness about clergy abuse and church complicity to a whole new level. And the extent of their findings has worldwide implications.

This investigation has already established that sexual abuse by Catholic clergy exists on five continents. The church and religious orders keep the abusers moving and in ministry. The efforts to conceal abusers are not being led by low-level church functionaries. Prestigious, high-level ecclesiastics are navigating the operation.

The Dallas Morning News is leading the way to show that sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, even in 2004, is larger and more ominous than most of us wanted to believe or can comprehend

The direction is clear ? toward the Vatican.

Mr. Sipe may be contacted through

Philip Lawler, Editor-in-chief of Catholic World Report

For a faithful Catholic, battered by years of scandal, the latest revelations by The Dallas Morning News are depressing, appalling ? but regrettably not surprising. The pattern is all too familiar.

First we learned that a small minority of American priests molested children. But a substantial majority of American bishops chose to participate in a cover-up, to protect the sexual predators rather than the innocent children.

In an ideal world, church leaders in other countries would have rebuked the American bishops and demanded that they take responsibility for their own failures. But we heard no such rebukes. All too often bishops in other countries, and at the Vatican, preferred to downplay the misbehavior of the American bishops ? just as the American bishops downplayed the misbehavior of the abusive priests. So we had fair warning that the corruption of episcopal leadership was not limited to the United States.

Confronted with The News investigation, bishops in other countries have followed precisely the failed game plan of the American bishops: refusing to answer questions, denying the facts and finally arguing that the entire scandal has been concocted by anti-Catholic forces in the media. Only rarely have bishops confronted the facts directly ? and then only when public documentation left them no other options.

Instead they have hoped to provoke public outrage against the bearers of bad news. That strategy has failed, and will fail again, because the outrage is now directed against the bishops themselves.

To be sure, enemies of the Catholic faith (both inside and outside the church) have used the current scandal as an opportunity to tout their own proposals for radical change in Catholic doctrine and discipline. But the problem we confront today is not a crisis of doctrine or discipline; it is a crisis of personnel, of corrupt leadership.

The real enemies of Catholicism are those who abuse their authority to protect the guilty at the expense of the innocent, and who see the ultimate purpose of the church as the protection of clerical privilege rather than the salvation of souls.

Philip Lawler's e-mail address is

Jason Berry, Author of Lead Us Not Into Temptation and co-author of Vows of Silence

The recent Dallas Morning News series carried the words of Flory Salazar, a victim's mother in Costa Rica: "The church is destroying the lives of so many children, and the pope won't say anything. And he won't do anything."

Hers is a voice for the ages.

The scandal has trailed Pope John Paul II since 1989, when the Vatican thwarted U.S. bishops' request for a streamlined process to defrock pedophiles. In 1993, after cardinals from America and Australia briefed the pope extensively, John Paul made his first statement of regret; he also blamed the media for sensationalism. That approach ? apology and counterattack ? is the standard. Ms. Salazar speaks truth: the problem is the power structure.

Church laws punishing pederasts date to 4th century Spain. The enforcement of those laws is a sham. The pope and hierarchy are defending a system of structural mendacity: institutionalized lying. The celibate power structure, honeycombed with sexual secrecy, rewards the secret-keepers.

John Paul was passive as the global crisis grew. In April 2002, when the Boston scandal erupted, he summoned U.S. cardinals to Rome. "There is no place in the priesthood for those who harm the young," he said. "We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion," he added, "to turn away from sin and back to God."

Well, which is it? Root out the predators ? or send them to treatment centers, new parishes, new countries "and back to God"?

Two months after those contradictory remarks, scandal-battered U.S. bishops met in Dallas and adopted a youth-protection charter. The Vatican has no such charter. The pope does not discipline bishops who disgrace the church.

Consider Marcial Maciel Degollado, who founded a religious order, the Legion of Christ, in Mexico. In 1998 nine ex-Legion members filed a canon law case at the Vatican detailing how he abused them as seminarians. Were Mr. Maciel an American, he would be defrocked. He dodges the Mexican media. The Vatican won't say he is innocent. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told a Mexican bishop the situation was "delicate," and aborted the case at the urging of Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano.

Colin Powell would be sacked if he tried to halt a Supreme Court case.

The pope, however, can halt any canonical proceeding. The church desperately needs a separation of powers and to remove bishops and superiors who shelter pedophiles.

When a Salesian superior sends an Australian predator to Samoa, or a Honduran cardinal shelters a Costa Rican, those men obey the unwritten law: Sexual secrecy and political secrecy walk hand in hand.

The problem is the power structure.

As a champion of human rights, John Paul II is one of our great popes. Yet his legacy is stained by tolerating the atrocity of clergy child sexual abuse. "And he won't do anything," proclaims Flory Salazar of Costa Rica.

His failure will haunt the next pope, and the next, until one of them heeds the words of St. Augustine: "Justice is that virtue which gives everyone his due."

Jason Berry's e-mail address is


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