Catholic Priest Raised Red Flag a Half-century Ago

The Virginian-Pilot
April 6, 2009

It is amazing the lengths that one Roman Catholic priest journeyed, as early as the 1950s, to try to prevent clergy from abusing young boys and girls. And it is troubling that some Catholic leaders have for decades acted as if they were unaware that the shuffling of problem priests among dioceses was not a real solution.

The scandal of priestly sexual abuse erupted in the 1980s and more recently in 2002, in Boston and elsewhere. In 2007 alone, the scandal and associated costs totaled $615 million, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The amount was $436 million last year.

But an account last week in the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper, detailed that top Catholic leaders would have known about the problems if they had paid attention to the work of the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald. He founded the Servants of the Paraclete in 1947 (

Fitzgerald's order began assisting priests who suffered from alcoholism and were suspected molesters. Relatively quickly, Fitzgerald became convinced that pedophile priests were unlikely to change and should not be allowed to return to the ministry.

His thinking comes through in a series of letters and other correspondence unsealed by a judge in 2007 at the request of a Los Angeles law firm, Kiesel, Boucher & Larson. That firm, which has sued California dioceses on behalf of alleged sex abuse victims, made the documents available to the National Catholic Reporter in February.

Fitzgerald was so concerned about separating pedophiles that he even considered purchasing a Caribbean island to isolate them. In one letter, he noted: "We are amazed to find how often a man who would be behind bars if he were not a priest is entrusted with the cura animarum [cure of souls]."

Fitzgerald met with Pope Paul VI in 1963 to discuss the issue. In a follow-up letter to the pope, he said: "Personally I am not sanguine of the return of priests to active duty who have been addicted to abnormal practices, especially sins with the young."

There are lessons here, for clergy of all stripes and anybody who oversees children: Heed the warnings. Make sure suspected abusers have no contact with kids.

A half-century ago, one priest clearly documented his concerns. Had the Catholic hierarchy acted more forcefully on those warnings, untold young people might have been protected.


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