Really Early Warning on Abusers: "Even an Island Is Too Good for These Vipers"

By David Gibson
March 30, 2009

That is just one of the remarkable and poignant quotations from Tom Roberts' new story at NCR on a old topic--clerical sexual abuse--and an even older warning, from back in the 1950s. In correspondence Roberts dug up between Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paracletes, an order established in 1947 to deal with problem priests, and the U.S. bishops of the time, as well as the Vatican and even the pope. Fitzgerald was convinced that most of these abusers were incurable and should be laicized, and made his views known loud and clear:

In a 1957 letter to an unnamed archbishop, Fitzgerald said, "These men, Your Excellency, are devils and the wrath of God is upon them and if I were a bishop I would tremble when I failed to report them to Rome for involuntary layization [sic]." The letter, addressed to "Most dear Cofounder," was apparently to Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne of Santa Fe, N.M., who was considered a cofounder of the Paraclete facility at Jemez Springs and a good friend of Fitzgerald.

Later in the same letter, in language that revealed deep passion, he wrote: "It is for this class of rattlesnake I have always wished the island retreat -- but even an island is too good for these vipers of whom the Gentle Master said it were better they had not been born -- this is an indirect way of saying damned, is it not?"

But as we know, no one listened. And the toll has been extraordinary, which is graphically--if of course inadequately--shown by the NCR graphic at right of payouts from U.S. dioceses since 2004.

When the bishops finally came to terms with Fitzgerald's advice in Dallas in 2002, there was some talk of a "Devil's Island" solution for these pedophiles--isolating them somehow, perhaps in a monastery. The bishops meant it figuratively, but Fitzgerald meant it literally. It is one of the great takeaways of Roberts' piece, which cites this from an affidavit from fr. McNamara, who succeeded Fitzgerald as head of the order in 1965:

McNamara said Fitzgerald was eventually forced from leadership by a combination of factors, not least of which was a growing disagreement with the bishop and other members of the order over the direction of the Paracletes. After 1965, said McNamara, Fitzgerald "never again resided at Via Coeli Monastery, nor did he ever regain the power he had once had."

Nor did he get his island. In 1965 Fitzgerald had put a $5,000 deposit on an island in Barbados, near Carriacou, in the Caribbean that had a total purchase price of $50,000. But the new bishop apparently wanted nothing to do with owning an island, and Fitzgerald, who died in 1969, was forced to sell his long-sought means for isolating priest sex offenders.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.