|Catholics in Crisis: Sex and Deception in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia
By Robert Huber
June 17, 2011
"Is this true?"
In February, at a hastily convened meeting of Catholic Church lawyers and administrators in Center City, that was the first question Cardinal Justin Rigali asked. And he needed an answer quickly.
The district attorney’s office had just released a grand jury report about local Catholic priests sexually abusing minors. It was not, of course, the first such grand jury report—that one, released in 2005, laid out in great detail not only how priests in the city’s archdiocese had abused children, but also how that abuse had been covered up under the direction of tough-minded Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. Instead of being reported to the DA’s office, pedophile priests were moved—sometimes repeatedly, from parish to parish to parish. Abusive priests kept right on abusing children.
And now this second grand jury report, six years later, was much shorter than the first, yet in some ways it was more devastating, because the central charge was the same: The Archdiocese of Philadelphia still allowed alleged pedophile priests—37 of them, the report said—to continue ministering to children. What’s more, the DA’s office was charging a monsignor, William Lynn, along with three priests and a parish teacher, with crimes related to sexual abuse. (All five have pleaded not guilty.) The monsignor’s indictment was especially telling. For much of the ’90s, Lynn reported directly to Cardinal Bevilacqua, and he was the first member of Church hierarchy in this country to be indicted as part of the sexual-abuse scandal. The point was inescapable: Something was very wrong with the way the archdiocese had been run. And with how it is still being run.
Which is why Cardinal Rigali, who succeeded Bevilacqua in overseeing the archdiocese in 2003, asked, at the meeting of Church lawyers and administrators in February, “Is this true? Is this true that we have 37 priests that have these credible allegations?”
The cardinal is careful, quiet, polite and, especially, dutiful, so the hideous possibility of this scandal opening up all over again was almost too much. “You could have knocked him over with a feather at that moment,” says one person who was at the meeting.
But the cardinal was immediately assured by several people there: It was most certainly not true about those 37 priests. So he issued a statement. There are, Rigali decreed, “no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them.”
But then, a month later, after the archdiocese conducted an internal investigation of accused priests, Rigali suspended 21 of them.
When the cardinal made the announcement about those 21, he declined to name them, but he did add something that no one had cause to dispute: “I know that for many people, their trust in the Church has been shaken.”
SEXUAL ABUSE OF A child by a trusted adult—in the case of a priest, a revered adult—is horrible enough. But piled on top of that are two layers of egregious behavior that are also mind-boggling. How is it that the Catholic Church in Philadelphia—part of the most important Christian institution in the world—would cover up sexual abuse by priests? And then, when that was exposed, go right on covering it up?
At this point, a raft of books has been written searching for answers, because the way the Church handles sex generally—and sex abuse in particular—is not a new problem, and it’s not unique to Philadelphia.
Those answers turn out to be both strange and ugly. The Church’s protection of priests who sexually abuse children is a testament to its completely insular control and power apart from civil society. The Church takes care of its own, in other words, and that fact leads to a cruel bottom line: Maintaining the institution’s standing in the world is more important than taking care of victims of sexual abuse.
That’s why the Philadelphia archdiocese is now facing the greatest crisis in its history. It’s a lot to ask of parishioners—to continue kneeling before a classic top-down power structure controlled by men who wear medieval robes and sit on thrones and rule with unquestioned authority. Especially when that authority so pointedly fails their children.
And the crisis has spread beyond parishioners, because many priests in the archdiocese are just as enraged at how Church leadership has mishandled the scandal, and the awkward position it has put all of them in. It’s a very sad day when walking down the street wearing your collar has become a questionable decision.
So how did it come to that? The crisis can best be understood not just through the victims, but through the two men who have led the archdiocese through the past quarter century. Anthony Bevilacqua, arrogant and cocksure, and Justin Rigali, timid and duty-bound, reflect quite different sides of the institution and how it operates. Through them, the story of the local Church’s crisis unfolds, and it raises yet another question: Will the Catholic Church as we know it survive in Philadelphia?
JOE IS NOW 59 years old; his health is fragile—he’s had two heart attacks. He’s a small man, with straight brown hair combed to the side, like a boy’s. For the past few months, Joe’s been in therapy—ever since he came out with his story, at his church’s men’s group in Manayunk, of being abused. Putting words to his thoughts is not easy for him. His voice seems to escape, barely, from the side of his mouth as he tells his story again in a back booth at Michael’s Ridge Diner in Roxborough.
He was small and quiet and dumb—or at least the nuns at Roman Catholic High School said he was dumb. He was in ninth grade in 1968, barely getting by. Father Schmeer was a guidance counselor. He would call boys down to his office for supposedly skipping English class. One day, it was Joe’s turn. He knew what was about to happen, because other boys had been there. Or he didn’t know exactly, but he was about to find out.
When Joe got to Father Schmeer’s office, the priest told Father Durante, who was in the next office, to watch the door. Father Schmeer brought Joe into his office and stood behind him. His fingers dug into Joe’s shoulders. He pressed against Joe. Then he reached into the front of Joe’s pants and tried to masturbate him.
A month later, Joe was called down to Father Schmeer’s office again. This time, standing behind him, the priest pulled Joe’s pants down, and his underwear, and pushed his penis into Joe’s anus, and kept at it until he was satisfied.
The next day, in English class, Joe’s teacher—a lay teacher—asked him if he was all right. He said he was. The teacher knew what had happened. So did his classmates. One of them said, “You got it, didn’t you?” From Schmeer the Queer. That’s what students called him. Joe was singled out, teased. He was called a faggot by the tough kids, the football players. One day, Joe lost it. He took on the quarterback right in front of his English teacher, who did nothing to stop the fight. Joe pounded the quarterback into the floor right there in front of other students.
The football players never bothered Joe again. But his grades got even worse, and he barely made it out of ninth grade. Somehow, he graduated from Roman, then joined the Air Force. For a long time, he couldn’t have relationships with women. Eventually, he would marry—and in a cruel, bizarre twist, it was Father Schmeer who would marry him, because Joe’s parents, unaware of the abuse, requested that he officiate. Joe felt that something was wrong with Father Schmeer, and he didn’t want to be married by him, but he wasn’t sure what he was feeling—the abuse was deeply buried.
Joe would father five children. He worked various blue-collar jobs. As he tells his story in the Ridge Diner, two things are apparent: Joe is speaking from a place of deep honesty, and he is a broken man. In therapy, he’s been recalling exactly what happened to him in Father Schmeer’s office. It’s been deep inside him for more than 40 years. Joe says he is looking for his soul, and holds his hands cupped next to him, as if that soul—the size of a small child—might be waiting beside him in the booth.
Joe was not the only boy Father Schmeer raped. According to the 2005 grand jury report, another man came forward in March 2002 and told how Father Schmeer had abused him sexually, also in the late 1960s. When the man came forward, he spoke to Monsignor William Lynn, whose job it was, under Cardinal Bevilacqua, to question victims. The man, named “Kevin” in the grand jury report, said that he knew 15 or 16 other boys who had been abused by Schmeer.
Monsignor Lynn questioned Father Schmeer about the allegations the following month—April 2002.
Schmeer said he never abused Kevin. He did not even recall his name. Still, he agreed to undergo an evaluation at Saint John Vianney Center in Downingtown, where priests with various problems, especially alcohol abuse, have been treated since 1946; for just as long, priests who sexually abuse children have been treated there, too. The Church prefers that we think sexually abusive priests are a relatively new phenomenon, that Rome and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia first learned of it when the general public did, in the past decade or so. In various ways, however, the Church has known about, avoided, and sometimes tried to actually deal with sexual abuse by clergy for centuries.
Therapists at Vianney concluded that the allegations against Father Schmeer could not be substantiated “based on all available data.” But some “data” were missing—including Kevin’s claim that 15 or 16 others had been abused and that Father Schmeer had been accused previously of sexual misconduct with a parish cook. The therapists did read Father Schmeer’s denials and Monsignor Lynn’s contention that there had “never been any other reports of Father Schmeer being involved with any adolescents or, for that matter, with anyone else sexually.” An “ex-priest friend”—Father Durante, who had watched the door back at Roman while Joe was raped—also vouched for Father Schmeer.
Still, the therapists suggested that the archdiocese might want to look into the matter further. So Church officials conducted an investigation—of Kevin. They probed into his background, including his tax records, two divorces and bank records.
As for Father Schmeer, Cardinal Bevilacqua permitted him to continue as pastor at Saint Martin of Tours in New Hope.
The grand jury report released in 2005 is full of stories like this, and accounts of how the archdiocese, under Cardinal Bevilacqua’s directives, moved priests who sexually abused children, sometimes several times, without ever informing a new set of parishioners of the danger.
WHEN ANTHONY BEVILACQUA came to this city from Pittsburgh in 1988, he offered something that Cardinal Krol, the iron fist who preceded him, could not: charisma. Bevilacqua believed in getting out among parishioners, in going to one of his parishes for a weekend of services, in bathing as much of his flock as possible in his presence. He would inspire boys to enter the priesthood. He could relate to working-class families—Tony Bevilacqua himself had come from nothing. His parents were Italian immigrants; he was one of 11 children. His father, a mason, worked a patchwork of jobs in Brooklyn and Queens. He knew humble beginnings, and he could give hope. He would be the shining light of the Holy Spirit.
And he was a very clever man—both a canon and civil lawyer—and very ambitious.
Tom Doyle first met Tony Bevilacqua decades ago. Today, Doyle is probably the world’s best-known activist in the Church’s sexual-abuse scandal. He was once a Dominican priest who worked in the Vatican’s Washington embassy, on a fast track toward becoming a cardinal himself. (He still lives outside D.C.) Doyle is a canon lawyer, too, and he and Bevilacqua bonded over legal discussions, which surprised Doyle—a bishop taking time to pick his brain. But expertise in canon law was prized by the Vatican, and Bevilacqua was determined to become the U.S. authority on it. Doyle started talking at length to Bevilacqua about how the Church was handling sexual abuse, all the way back in the ’80s, when Bevilacqua was bishop of Pittsburgh.
As Doyle started working on a manual for the Church on dealing with the issue, Bevilacqua cheered him on. News of clerical sexual abuse wouldn’t become a household topic until the Boston Globe exposed that city’s archdiocese in 2002, so in helping take on the problem in the mid-’80s, Bevilacqua was way ahead of the curve.
Doyle came up with practical guidelines, ones that paid particular attention to getting abusive priests away from children and focused on counseling for victims. Bevilacqua read Doyle’s drafts, made suggestions, and championed a perspective that balanced sensitivity to victims with the legal and PR dilemmas of the Church.
Doyle planned to present the report to a conference of bishops in 1985, but no one was willing to listen. One bishop told Doyle that a committee had been formed, instead, “to look into the issue.” Doyle, devastated, called Bevilacqua and fumed; Bevilacqua invited his friend to come and talk it out.
In Pittsburgh, Bevilacqua told Doyle he had been lied to: “Tom, there is no committee.” Not only was Doyle’s report dead, but the bishops had decided not to look further into the problem of clerical sexual abuse.
“Bevilacqua was angry,” Doyle remembers. “He was really angry.” As for Doyle, he was beside himself: “At that point, I was still under the impression that bishops told the truth.”
Bevilacqua’s support for Doyle’s initiative—again, one with sensitivity toward victims—might now seem disingenuous or worse, given how Bevilacqua would later handle the problem of pedophile priests. But there was a divide in Bevilacqua. When he was auxiliary archbishop in Brooklyn in the early ’80s, Bevilacqua had a priest named Romano Ferraro transferred to a church in St. Louis, because Ferraro preyed on children. In St. Louis, Ferraro allegedly abused three boys, then tried to come back to Brooklyn. Bevilacqua ordered his underlings “to seek an assignment outside the diocese” for Ferraro, according to a memo. Ferraro is now serving a life sentence in Massachusetts for raping a child there.
Shuffling Ferraro around was unconscionable, yet Bevilacqua was operating exactly as Church authorities do all over the world: Protect a priest’s job; protect the Church from scandal; move the priest to another unsuspecting parish. But how could Bevilacqua operate that way while championing Tom Doyle’s reforms?
“The only virtue is obedience,” says Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and an ex-priest who has spent the past few decades trying to understand the collision of sex and power in his church. “As long as you’re obedient to the Church, as long as you protect and embrace it, you are justified.” Obedience is drilled into young seminarians from day one. “You are not beholden to charity or truth or anything else. Everything can be sacrificed to obedience.”
Doyle believes Bevilacqua did want the Church to deal with sexual abuse in a more responsible way; meanwhile, though, Bevilacqua would move sex perps to some other parish. Because he was being obedient to, and protecting, his Church.
That moral dissonance must be tough to live with—unless, that is, a cleric develops a certain idea of himself and his position. Tom Doyle, the intellectual equal of Bevilacqua, found him to be caring, and saw him be very loving toward his myriad nieces and nephews. Those working under Bevilacqua in Philadelphia, however, say he was a royal prick as a boss. He would scream at his chauffeur over what route they took; he would demand that no mortals smudge the polished brass rails leading from the front door of his City Avenue mansion. Bevilacqua created an atmosphere in the archdiocesan offices in which underlings tiptoed about on tenterhooks as they did the cardinal’s bidding.
In the early ’90s, Bevilacqua closed many churches in North Philadelphia and other poor areas of the city because, he said, the archdiocese was financially strapped—though he spent $1.5 million on archdiocesan office renovations and a half-million more on a vacation home for priests in Ventnor. He refused to meet with parishioners who held demonstrations over the closed churches. According to an account in the National Catholic Reporter, a woman slipped into the church during one protest and found the cardinal in a vestibule. He refused to talk to her. She told him people needed to speak to him because they were hurting. He said to her, “When you have a problem, you don’t call the president. You call the people who work for the president.” He told her, “Nothing is going to be changed.”
Yet at the same time, Bevilacqua seemed to feel deeply for his priests. One May night in the mid-’90s, he hosted a group called Legatus, made up of well-off Catholic businesspeople, at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. About 100 people attended. After dinner, remember two people who were there, the cardinal rose and spoke in this vein:
“I want to talk to you about something I have to deal with and need your input on. It’s not public information, and I’m going to speak to you confidentially.
“This is a strange situation,” Bevilacqua went on. “In every part of society there are bad people—even in the Boy Scouts. I’m talking about sexual abuse. This is something that’s been developing over time, and we’re investigating ourselves. There are allegations of bad cases within the priesthood. We have come across a few priests who have admitted they have done bad things. Of course, they have confessed.”
The 100 rich Catholics sat, stunned, silent. They had never heard a member of the clergy—a cardinal, no less—speak in this way.
“After all, they have given their lives to the priesthood,” Bevilacqua continued. “They have dedicated their whole existence to the Catholic Church, and we owe them something. And what are we going to do with them?”
The cardinal threw his arms up, as if he were saying, Of course I can’t abandon them, and then he repeated his lament: “What are we going to do with them?”
Suddenly a woman’s voice, from behind the cardinal, offered an answer: “You could castrate them.”
Bevilacqua doubled over as if he’d been hit in the stomach with a baseball bat, then whipped around, his face quickly reddening, and snapped, “What did you say?”
The woman repeated her solution: “You could castrate them.”
“You cannot do that!”
“Yes, you can,” the woman said.
The cardinal, beet-red now, his famous praying-mantis eyebrows twitching with rage, told her, very slowly, “I am the cardinal. And I say you cannot do that.”
“I am a doctor,” the woman replied, her anger controlled, “and I say that you can.”
Cardinal Bevilacqua turned away from the woman, thanked everyone for their attention, and left the room.
ONCE HE CAME TO Philadelphia, Anthony Bevilacqua was no longer answering Tom Doyle’s e-mails asking for advice on the sexual-abuse issue. Perhaps, as Doyle assumed, because he was too busy. Or perhaps because he had gone too far down the other road.
Consider what victims of sexual abuse went through as they gathered the courage to complain to the archdiocese when Bevilacqua was running it in the early ’90s.
They would meet each other quietly at the Philadelphia Airport. Or at a guy’s house in the Northeast—he would shoo his family away. To an overwhelming extent, victims of priestly sexual abuse felt ashamed and adrift, unable to share their pain with anyone, including their families—and especially their church.
It was beginning to change, though.
Barbara Blaine, a victim of sexual abuse by a priest as a young girl in Ohio in the ’70s, had formed Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests—SNAP—a national organization. Father John Bambrick, now a pastor in Toms River, had also been abused by a priest as a teenager, and he started reaching out to Philadelphia-area victims, putting tiny ads in newspapers to signal that there was a way out of their silence.
Bambrick is a small, dark-haired man who speaks quickly and moves fast. He and SNAP volunteers began escorting Philadelphia victims to the archdiocese offices off Logan Square, so that they could tell their stories and confront their abusers.
This is how Bambrick says the Church—under Bevilacqua’s direction—set it up: A couple floors below the cardinal’s office, the victim and Bambrick would wait in a small, dimly lit antechamber until Monsignor Lynn emerged from a conference room, greeted Bambrick and the victim—for Lynn was always kind to victims—and then escorted them into the conference room.
In the case of one important alleged abuser, Bishop John Graham, the monsignor told Father Bambrick that the victim had to come into the conference room alone. “This is the way the cardinal wants it,” Lynn said, meaning Bevilacqua. “Graham’s a bishop of the diocese, and he’s to be treated with the utmost respect.”
Bambrick told Lynn that if the victim wasn’t allowed to go in accompanied, they would walk to the Inquirer and ask to speak to the city editor—they had a story to tell.
“Just a minute,” Lynn said.
He left to confer with the bishop. In a few minutes, he returned and led the victim, Bambrick and a SNAP volunteer into the conference room. As usual, the alleged perpetrator and those present to support him were sitting along one side of a conference table, their backs to the door, so that the victim had to walk around them and then sit, his back to a wall, facing them. The dome of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul loomed outside a window. In this case, Bishop Graham was accompanied by at least six priests and other church officials. (Graham was never indicted or named in a grand jury report.)
It was all about intimidation, of course: In bringing his story to his church, a victim was forced to sit face-to-face with the man who had, in many cases, raped him.
Given the setup, the victim would struggle to tell his story as best he could. Then the accused priest would deny that the abuse had ever taken place. Father Bambrick was not allowed to say a word.
Monsignor Lynn, when he escorted the victim and Father Bambrick back out to the antechamber, would never express any leaning—he would never give the victim any sense that he believed him. This was a legal nicety; victims, after all, could sue.
Except one time, Bambrick recalls, Lynn slipped. It happened in the early ’90s with a woman Father Bambrick brought in. She was from a local church and said she had been abused as a girl by Father John Reardon. He began by fingering her vagina when she was nine years old. After she told her story—and Reardon denied it—Lynn told the woman, in front of Bambrick, that he believed her, and that Reardon would never work in any capacity around children again. He made that promise.
Earlier this year, Father Bambrick received an e-mail from the woman, to whom he hadn’t spoken for many years. Her e-mail was very disturbing: Father Reardon, the woman had just learned, was one of the 21 priests the archdiocese suspended in March. Despite what he had done to the woman when she was a little girl, despite Monsignor Lynn’s promises to her, Reardon was still part of the ministry.
AS THE YEARS PASSED, Cardinal Bevilacqua seemed to behave more like a CEO who began as a shop boy but forgot where he came from. Or perhaps more like a king.
Father Bambrick went to Dallas in 2002 to a convention of bishops addressing the Church’s handling of clerical sexual abuse. Bambrick remembers a meeting of victims and their families telling their stories to the bishops, with everyone sitting in a big circle. Midway through Bambrick’s story, Bevilacqua interrupted him and began talking about how the bishops were making great progress in dealing with this terrible problem blown out of proportion by a media circus that—
“Excuse me, Your Eminence,” Father Bambrick stopped him. “With all due deference, Your Eminence, I’m speaking. We were invited here for you to listen, not for you to talk. The Church has talked enough. The victims now have to be listened to.”
Bevilacqua appeared stunned, but he allowed Bambrick to finish his story.
The next day at the conference, Bambrick tried to go to Mass in the hotel ballroom, but a guard wouldn’t let him in because he’d forgotten his pass. At that moment, Cardinal Bevilacqua himself appeared, about to enter the room, so Bambrick told the guard that His Eminence would vouch for him.
“I most certainly will not vouch for you,” Cardinal Bevilacqua said.
“Your Eminence,” Bambrick said, “you know I’m a priest. I was in a meeting with you yesterday.”
“You don’t have a pass,” His Eminence said. “Be on your way. Go. Go on.”
Another time, an archdiocesan employee who had close contact with Bevilacqua was fired after suffering a heart attack. He filed a workers’ compensation claim against the archdiocese; his lawyer hired a psychiatrist to examine him and submit a report in support of the claim. As described by journalist Ralph Cipriano in Courtroom Cowboy, a biography of Philadelphia lawyer Jim Beasley, the psychiatrist’s report portrayed the cardinal in an even more disturbing light.
In the report, the employee—who declined to be interviewed for this article—was described as a “devout Catholic” distressed by the cardinal’s “rude and abusive treatment,” as well as by conduct the employee said was habitual: Bevilacqua inviting women whom he met on planes to spend time at his mansion on City Avenue, and Bevilacqua often riding with women in the back of his car.
One woman in particular, according to the employee, followed the cardinal to “every” function, even if it was, say, in Downingtown or Brooklyn. She would have closed-door meetings with him after these functions, and the employee frequently saw Bevilacqua massaging the woman’s back, hugging her and showing “undue affection” for her. A relative of the employee told him he’d seen Bevilacqua meeting with the woman on the grounds of the cardinal’s mansion at night and on the campus of St. Joseph’s University, which was next door.
The psychiatrist claimed that the employee was so bothered by the cardinal’s frequent meetings with the woman that he spoke to various bishops, monsignors and priests about it. Some of them jokingly referred to the woman as “Fatal Attraction,” and they would kid with the employee over whether she had appeared at the cardinal’s latest function.
Cipriano eventually met “Fatal Attraction” herself, a middle-aged widow who seemed shocked by the allegations of the psychiatrist’s report. She told Cipriano that she and the cardinal were “just the best of friends” and nothing else—and also that her children and late husband “were along at all times, and I have the pictures to prove it.”
Cipriano never determined whether the claims in the psychiatrist’s report were true. The archdiocese eventually settled with the fired employee for $87,500.
Another employee with access to the cardinal’s car says he once noted the mileage on the odometer before and after Bevilacqua had mysteriously driven off alone late at night. It was exactly the distance, says the employee, from City Avenue to the house of “Fatal Attraction” and back again.
(When asked to clarify the cardinal’s relationship with the woman, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese said she’d never heard any of this before, adding, “We would not dignify [it] with a response.”)
When District Attorney Lynne Abraham first convened the grand jury in 2003, Tom Doyle—by this time a widely sought expert on sexual-abuse issues—was summoned here. He had long since fallen out of touch with Bevilacqua. But now Doyle was shocked by what he learned, about how victims were treated, about how priests were moved around under Bevilacqua. By how the trappings of power had changed his old friend.
“That’s not the Tony Bevilacqua that I knew,” he says. Doyle now believes that Cardinal Bevilacqua—who’s 88 years old and said to be infirm—should be in prison.
THERE WAS A general feeling among Philadelphia’s Catholic parishioners that, as bad as the 2005 grand jury report was, the Church would get past it. The Church would clean up the mess and move on.
But Justin Rigali, it turns out, is particularly unsuited to deal with a problem so scandalous and unseemly. He grew up in Los Angeles, was ordained a priest in 1961, and then spent the next three decades at the Vatican in a variety of capacities. Living in a timeless walled city-state, Rigali’s sense of the world emanated through the texts of church documents; other priests were his constant companions. The stuff of ordinary life—poverty and friction and desperation—did not get inside those walls. Rigali embraced duty; the light in his Vatican office burned late.
Then, for nine years, before coming to Philadelphia to replace Bevilacqua in 2003, Rigali was archbishop of St. Louis, and he once described the sexual-abuse scandal there as the worst problem of his tenure. For a period, he would meet with victims, but his solution to their rage and pain and wrecked lives was prayer; he soon stopped meeting with victims altogether, according to SNAP. Mostly, he seemed to avoid the whole thing. SNAP pressured Rigali and tried to meet with him right up until his last weekend in St. Louis—but he never agreed to.
“When you spend that much time in the Vatican,” a St. Louis priest said of Rigali a decade ago, “you’re like one of the Bernini columns, just one of many holding up the place. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself.” Rigali is gentle and caring, quick to show up at the bedside of an ailing priest. But he is not dynamic. “Justin Rigali wouldn’t have enough inner authority to say in a homily, ‘Love your neighbor,’” said the priest. “He would say, ‘As the Pope said when he was in Toronto: Love your neighbor.’”
Bishop Danny Thomas was presented to me by the archdiocese to speak for Rigali, high up in the archdiocese office building.
The bishop is a pleasant and very healthy-looking man; he is 53 years old, with short, swept-back stark-white hair and stunningly white teeth. Thomas grew up in Manayunk and worked under Rigali during part of the almost two decades he himself spent at the Vatican. I first ask what his reaction was to the 2005 grand jury report.
Bishop Thomas asks that his answer not be quoted directly, but he allows me to capture his thinking:
Thomas first notes that molesting children is a horrible sin and then spends some time making another, broader point: The Church and society in general were on a learning curve on this issue, he says. Psychologists themselves didn’t know what pedophilia was, precisely, or how to deal with it. He says that psychologists would treat an accused priest and sometimes conclude that he could go back into ministry. It was a learning curve, the bishop concludes, that all of society was on.
Certainly, Thomas is right: We know more now. But I remember a SNAP meeting at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Philadelphia back in February. Eight or 10 victims stood and told their stories. Their suffering began when they were molested, often when they were quite young, by a priest. But there was another problem just as devastating: Their church turned away from them, denied their claims, offered no help; in fact, the Church often took down their statements to use against them in case they would sue, which made victims feel violated all over again. Meanwhile, the priests went right on ministering to children. All that is in the 2005 grand jury report, with this year’s report detailing more of the same.
At this point, victims, their families and parishioners are beside themselves with confusion and rage over how their church could be so morally bereft, could turn away from this crisis and let it continue. To say that the Church was on a learning curve, as Bishop Thomas does in speaking for Cardinal Rigali, simply doesn’t cut it.
I ask Bishop Thomas about anger among diocesan priests toward the hierarchy for its handling of this crisis—toward, that is, people in his position.
He brags about the large turnout of diocesan priests on Holy Thursday, preceding Easter, at the Mass traditionally held for priests to renew their vows. Three hundred fifty priests, Thomas says, turned out—a good showing.
Was it more than last year?
No, he says, but it was significant.
A Catholic friend of mine, active in his parish and close to his priest, later told me how local clerics are enraged by how they’ve been hung out to dry by the archdiocese. They’ve been given few guidelines for dealing with confused parishioners, or for protecting themselves. They’re vulnerable and angry, and they’ve been meeting, discussing their rights. Bishop Thomas, my friend’s priest told him, got wind of this. He called some priests in, and he was not too happy with their efforts to organize. But the priests didn’t back down, not even to a bishop—a highly unusual lack of obedience.
When I ask Thomas about his reaction to organizing priests, he portrays it differently. Once he heard priests were getting together, he says, he immediately reached out to the brotherhood, ready to assist.
As for Cardinal Rigali, he has inflamed the crisis by not stepping up, by not radically changing the way abusive priests are handled. But radical change is diametrically opposed to Rigali’s nature. A St. Louis priest was asked, many years ago, if there were one thing he could change about Justin Rigali, what would that be?
“I’d want him not to be afraid,” he said.
Yet there are whispers that even timid Justin Rigali may have gotten into a bit of hot water in Rome. He was working as secretary of the Congregation for Bishops, which is the number two position in the second-most important congregation in the Vatican; that congregation recommends candidates for bishop.
The secretary almost always serves at least five years. But Rigali was moved out after four years and one month—that’s when he was sent to St. Louis, to oversee the archdiocese there. One theory has it that Rigali may have gotten too aggressive in pushing his choices for bishops—that he might have, in other words, crossed someone in the Vatican with enough power to undermine his career.
There are also repeated, though unsubstantiated, rumors—ones cited by several Vatican or Rigali observers I spoke to—that there might have been another reason he left Rome. While at the Vatican, Rigali became chaplain for the Swiss Guards, the ex-military guys, young and unmarried, who provide security there. Uncharacteristic of a man dedicated to carefully building a Vatican career, Rigali befriended them, drank with them, and was involved with them to an extent that appeared unseemly to many. “Princes of the Church do not drink with the hired help,” one longtime Vatican observer says. (The archdiocese also said it will not dignify questions about Rigali and the Swiss Guards with a response.)
In 1999, in frail health and on his way home from Mexico, Pope John Paul II would make an unprecedented stop in St. Louis to see his long-time Vatican worker bee. It seemed to be a clear message: You are still one of us.
The cardinal, now 76, appears to want to get back to Rome—where his gray presence is suited for behind-the-scenes work. “He runs off to Rome every two weeks,” says a local priest who worked in the archdiocese’s office and got to know Rigali when both of them were at the Vatican two decades ago. “His work there is more important to him than here—it’s a terrible thing for the parishioners and clergy.” Many observers believe that the Vatican will soon find someone new to run the Philadelphia archdiocese.
RICHARD SIPE, THE psychotherapist and ex-priest, as well as Tom Doyle, notes that most of the serious trouble the Church has gotten into for 2,000 years somehow involves sex, and that the strictures of celibacy and utter control a cleric is supposed to exhibit over both mind and body lead to problems—not sexual abuse, per se, but almost inevitably a certain degree of hypocrisy. It is time, they believe, for the Church to fully emerge from the fourth century, when the idea of celibacy as an organizing principle gave Catholic clergy distinction and energy. Our understanding of human needs and behavior has changed since then.
Yet the problem isn’t simply that the Church is stuck in the Dark Ages. It’s more fundamentally an orientation. On how protecting the Church trumps all.
“The organization is corrupt,” Sipe says, “if you think of hypocrisy and double-dealing as corrupt. I’ve been in on depositions of cardinals in sex-abuse cases, and they lie with tremendous abandon, because God’s law is above man’s law and they represent God’s law. They see all of this as sin, and they are arbiters of sin.”
And so, in this line of thinking, the worst behavior imaginable, even priests raping children, is a grievous sin, yes, but as sin, it will be addressed within the Church.
The one necessary ingredient—the thing that keeps those in power morally afloat—is total fealty to the Church. Bevilacqua, in arrogance, and Rigali, in fear, came at their churchly duty through diametrically opposed prisms. But it amounts to the same thing: obedience. And it bears repeating:
“The only virtue is obedience,” Sipe says. “You are not beholden to charity or truth or anything else. Everything can be sacrificed to obedience.”
Including children put in harm’s way. And including, not incidentally, the monitoring of clerical behavior. Sipe once asked an American bishop why other bishops had such a tough time dealing with sexually abusive clerics. “Undoubtedly, part of the problem is that some of the bishops themselves are abusers,” the bishop answered.
No one’s suggesting that Anthony Bevilacqua or Justin Rigali abused children. But if they deal with sexual abuse exclusively within the Church and treat it as merely sin, don’t their own human failings become permissible transgressions? That is, sins that can be absolved.
Bevilacqua and Rigali are protected within their church, and they are protectors themselves.
THERE IS SERIOUS anger now among Catholic parishioners in Philadelphia. They are talking and organizing. The top-down hierarchy they’ve been beholden to no longer holds sway. Yet that, ironically, may be the Church’s hope for long-term survival: voices on a grassroots level forcing the powers that be to at least listen.
In fact, it’s a wonder it has taken so long for an uprising. It’s not like sexual abuse is a surprise among the faithful. One Saturday a few months ago, my carpenter was at my house installing a dishwasher; he’s a neighborhood guy, and I asked him if he’s a Catholic. He is. I told him about this article and asked him whether he had been aware of any sexual abuse growing up.
“I went to school at Roman,” he tells me. “We had priests—there was Schmeer the Queer. Everybody knew about him.”
Hiding in plain sight.
Joe, raped by Father Schmeer in ninth grade, continues to search for his soul. He wants nothing from his church—just an apology, directly from Father Schmeer. That’s all. In fact, Cardinal Rigali recently granted Joe a few minutes of his time, asked what he could do for him, and that’s what Joe asked for: an apology from Father Schmeer, who is now ensconced in a church-run Prayer and Penance program for troubled priests.
“That’s not going to happen,” the cardinal told him.
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