Examine the Clergy Culture

National Catholic Reporter
April 28, 2006

The Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, much as it involved the individual acts of errant priests, was also a product of a culture, the hierarchical clergy culture, heavily shrouded in secrecy and wrapped in layers of protection from accountability of any sort.

From the first news of this crisis in 1983, through the years of grudging admission by bishops that something was amiss, through the explosion of news in 2002 when the courts forced the release of secret documents in the Boston archdiocese, through the anguish of the meeting in Dallas in June of that same year, the formation of a National Review Board and ongoing court cases, the tenacity of the clergy culture's grip on Catholic leadership has been the most evident characteristic of that group's response.

That's why this week's story on the sex abuse cover-up in the Philadelphia archdiocese is significant. It provides a glimpse, brief as it is, into the world of that hierarchical culture and the way it approached the sex abuse crisis. It is a significant piece of history because we have maintained, in more than 20 years of reporting on this crisis in all of its phases, that the church would not get beyond the scandal until its leaders deal with the culture that allowed abusers to float among the community, preying on its youngest and most vulnerable.

By all accounts, Msgr. James Molloy was a deeply dedicated priest, a thoughtful man, an unquestioning servant of the church and its leaders and, in his final years, a welcoming pastor loved by his people.

But he was also obviously troubled by what he saw in the files that were housed in a locked secret archives on the 12th floor of the Philadelphia archdiocese's downtown office building. He wanted out of the job. Loyalty, he said, would not allow him to ask for a transfer. But a deeper regard for the truth, perhaps, and an instinct for self-preservation inspired him to document everything he saw and heard, and it is that documentation -- and his willingness to cooperate with prosecutors -- that allowed the Philadelphia District Attorney's office to compile such a detailed and compelling report (NCR, Oct. 7).

Before he died last month, Molloy told NCR that he believed it was the mild suggestion that a "forensic psychiatrist" examine a priest who was one of the most prolific abusers named in the Sept. 21 grand jury report that finally got him removed from his duties dealing with victims and documentation of victims' stories for the archdiocese.

It is fascinating, of course, to read of this man's deep qualms of conscience, of his declaration that at one point he came to believe he could not trust "my superiors to do the right thing," yet to realize that after all that he revealed about what he had seen and heard, he remained a man torn between loyalty to his cardinal, at the time Anthony Bevilacqua, and what he knew to his core was simply wrong.

In the end, he said, "My job now is the same as it was then. To do the assignments I get from my bishop to the best of my ability."

The intent here is not to delve too deeply into the motivations of a man who can no longer speak for himself, or to suggest that he should have become a hero and blown the whistle long before the investigators showed up at his door. He was a good priest and he obviously went to the limits of his strength in dealing with deeply disturbing evidence. Who knows what any one of us might do under similar circumstances.

Still, it is clear that his answer -- his very being -- became the answer and the persona of a culture that worried first about saving itself and its priests, about never crossing the cardinal, a prince of the church, even if children were being savaged, as Molloy's accounts and the extensive testimony gathered by the grand jury made clear.

Last month, we made a request of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago after severe lapses in that archdiocese's child protection program allowed credibly accused abusers to return to ministry, one of whom was arrested in January for molesting three boys. We asked George to use his influential station to convince Rome and his fellow bishops to, first, assemble competent panels of independent expert Catholics to compile reports fully disclosing what happened in each diocese, an act that we think could begin to restore trust in a shaken community.

Most important, however, we asked George to "lead his brother bishops in an unprecedented and deep search into the culture of the hierarchy. What about it allowed men entrusted with the souls of a community to routinely betray that trust? What needs to change to bring transparency and to restore confidence in authority?"

It is an essential question. And the Philadelphia episode, not unlike those in Boston and Los Angeles and in varying degrees, countless other dioceses, demonstrates the need for that kind of examination.

Molloy deferred to the decisions of Bevilacqua because his cardinal was both a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer, a fact that the cardinal never shied from expressing in public. Indeed, Bevilacqua knew what he was doing, he knew it so well that he was able to protect serial rapists of children until they were safe from the law.

The cardinal now resides in retirement in Philadelphia. His successor, Justin Rigali, has distinguished himself in responding to the report by suggesting it was an act of anti-Catholics. He has said nothing about the scandalous conduct of his predecessors. He has refused to answer questions from the press.

Cardinal Bernard Law, who seeded the most recent storm of scandal in Boston, is comfortably taken care of in Rome, where he continues membership on influential Vatican congregations and is probably influencing life in the church in the United States in ways we will never know.

Cardinal Roger Mahony in Los Angeles has finally lost his legal battle to keep secret documents that will shed light on the cases of two defrocked priests facing criminal trial, and he still sits on documents that would shed similar light on some hundreds of cases set for civil court.

How did it come to this?


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