|Leader of Catholic Order That Once Treated Priests like Dallas" Rudolph Kos Spoke out in the 1950s
By Reese Dunklin
March 31, 2009
The leader of a Catholic order that operated one of the biggest U.S. treatment centers for sexually abusive priests told bishops and the Vatican in the 1950s that the predators were "devils" and "vipers" who should be confined to an island and kicked out of the clergy.
The leader's views were expressed in letters previously placed under seal by a New Mexico court as part of litigation involving a notorious Dallas priest. They undercut the bishops' longstanding claim that they didn't understand the scope and seriousness of the abuse problem until recent years. "If I were a bishop, I would tremble when I failed to report them to Rome" for removal from the priesthood, wrote the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald of the Servants of the Paraclete order in 1957. "It is blasphemous to let them offer the Holy Sacrifice."
Fitzgerald's correspondence, first reported Monday by the independent weekly National Catholic Reporter, represents a historic benchmark in the U.S. church's embarrassing scandal, which has led to the removal of hundreds of priests who had been kept in the ministry despite credible evidence, criminal prosecution and billions in legal settlements to victims.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, who in 1985 helped write the first detailed abuse report to bishops while working at the Vatican's Washington embassy, said Monday that Fitzgerald's letters were especially powerful because he was a confidante to church administrators. At one point, the records show, Fitzgerald in 1964 recounted meeting personally with Pope Paul VI to discuss the problem.
"For Father Gerald to say these men should be laicized [removed from ministry] against their will was beyond revolutionary," said Doyle, who has been marginalized by church leaders because of his outspoken support for abuse victims. "It was astounding he made those recommendations, because the papacy and bishops were extremely protective."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, stood by bishops' past statements that they had received bad advice on how to handle the troubled priests and didn't understand until the mid-1980s that pedophilia was incurable.
"The documentation reinforces current church policy," she added, referring to reforms passed since 2002, when the scandal exploded again. "It certainly proves that what we are doing today, there is a reason for it."
The present head of the Servants of the Paraclete, the Rev. Peter Lechner, was out of the country and unavailable for comment.
Fitzgerald's letters, only now receiving public attention, were unsealed in 2007 as part of a massive court case waged by hundreds of sex-abuse victims against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.The case ended in an out-of-court settlement exceeding $600 million.
More than a decade earlier, the church had asked a judge in New Mexico – home to the Paracletes' primary treatment center – to keep the documents out of public view as part of litigation that involved a now-imprisoned Dallas priest, Rudolph Kos. That center, where Kos had been sent for treatment, has since been shut down.
Kos put the Dallas diocese into the national spotlight in 1997, after a judge ordered it to pay nearly $120 million in damages for molestation cases involving him – one of the largest in the nation at the time. The award was later negotiated to a $31 million settlement.
One of the lawyers representing Kos' victims, Sylvia Demarest, said she did not have prior access to the letters by Fitzgerald, who died in 1969.
But in reading them now, she believes Fitzgerald provided Catholic leaders with extensive, sophisticated analyses of abusive priests.
"The fact that bishops had this insight and had this responsibility and power, and covered it up rather than act, is shocking," Demarest said.
One of Fitzgerald's strategies for dealing with the priests, upon whom "the wrath of God is," was isolating them on an island in Barbados.He had made a down payment on the property but was later forced to sell it when a new bishop wanted out of the ownership.
"It is for this class of rattlesnake I have always wished for the island retreat," Fitzgerald wrote to an unidentified archbishop in 1957. . "But even an island is too good for these vipers of whom the Gentle Master said – it were better they had not been born."
Fitzgerald's correspondence frequently was flavored with tough language for the men he was treating.
Also in 1957, he wrote the bishop of Manchester, N.H., and said that "we are amazed to find how often a man who would be behind bars if he were not a priest."
He also expressed skepticism that the priests could ever change their ways.
"Their repentance and amendment is superficial," he wrote to the Manchester bishop, "and, if not formally at least subconsciously is motivated by a desire to be again in a position where they can continue their wonted activity. A new diocese means only green pastures."
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