Investigating Catholic Sexual Abuse Scandals

By Tom Heinen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
November 11, 2004

Jason Berry, a freelance journalist and author from New Orleans, pried the lid off the Roman Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandal in the United States with newspaper stories in the 1980s and a landmark 1992 book, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children." His latest book, "Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II," co-authored with now-retired Hartford Courant reporter Gerald Renner, takes the investigation to higher levels. It tells of Father Tom Doyle, a Dominican canon lawyer, who said he was pushed out of a post at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., and marginalized for trying to call attention to the abuse. It tells how Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who founded the Legion of Christ - a growing order of priests known for orthodoxy and papal loyalty - has remained its leader despite allegations of sexual abuse by nine former legionaries. He has denied the allegations. The book also delves into a clerical culture at the Vatican that Berry contends still uses power plays and appeals to obedience to hide abuse. Berry was in Milwaukee last week to speak at the Call to Action Catholic reform group's national conference. Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Heinen took five with him.

Q. What did you stress in your presentation at the Call to Action conference?

A. I stressed that the Vatican's system of justice under the code of canon law has not been well applied, and that, in the case of Father Maciel, the head of the Legion of Christ, the evidence is quite abundant that he abused a number of seminarians over many years. And although they filed a grievance at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, seeking action, Cardinal Ratzinger (a powerful Vatican official) essentially tabled it.

Q. What else?

A. I draw the analogy between the red states and the blue states, coming off the (U.S. presidential) election. That, in a sense, what we have in the Catholic Church is a very divided religious landscape, and that ultra-orthodox Catholics who support Rome often don't realize that Rome is not following its own rules. Obviously, when one speaks to Call to Action, a progressive group, it's a little bit like singing to the choir. But I think it's very important for the Vatican and Pope John Paul II, God bless him, nevertheless to be held accountable for the failures of the rituals of justice within the church. And I think Father Maciel's presence as the head of that order is a striking sign of the Vatican's own double standard when it comes to safeguarding the rights of young people.

Q. You have argued in favor of giving lay people a major share of power in removing bishops who mishandled sexually abusive priests and otherwise betrayed trust. Other conclusions you have drawn?

A. I think this demonstrates that the Vatican today is where the American bishops were 15 or 20 years ago in their response to this crisis - a mentality of blaming the messengers of information and trying to cast the victims as enemies of the church. And that was certainly the way that ex-legionaries were treated as we followed them through their experiences in Rome.

Q. The U.S. bishops adopted a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in Dallas in 2002. You have criticized the Vatican since then for, in your opinion, not moving quickly enough to repair the damage caused by the scandal.

A. Having been quite a critic of the bishops, I felt then and do now that the charter was a very important step forward. The Vatican has no such charter.

Q. What is your view of the pope's role in all of this?

A. It is a sad reflection, I think, on what is clearly one of the great papacies of church history, that this man, who has been so brilliant on the geopolitical stage and such a gifted evangelist, nevertheless has been utterly unable to confront the deeper conflict within the clerical culture itself. I think that is going to be one of the major problems that the next pope will face.


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