What Do the Church’s Victims Deserve?
By Paul Elie
April 8, 2019
Some time before Brooklyn was incorporated into New York City, in 1898, it was dubbed the City of Churches. Houses of worship remain thick on the ground in the borough. In the part of Brooklyn where I live, churches outnumber grocery stores, pet shops, and nail salons together. There’s the Institutional Church of God in Christ (red brick, stained glass) and the Revelation Church of God in Christ (a converted movie theatre); the French-Speaking Baptist Church, founded by Haitian immigrants; the Zion Shiloh Baptist Church, whose members come from all over the metropolitan area, parking their cars in a long row; and the Ileri Oluwa Parish, where congregants of Nigerian descent worship shoeless and in long white robes. And there are the Catholic places. Queen of All Saints Church and Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School face each other across Lafayette Avenue. Up the hill is the walled-in motherhouse of the Sisters of Mercy; down the hill is the old church of St. Boniface, now the home of a community called the Brooklyn Oratory, where I go to Mass on Sundays.
A few blocks away is St. Lucy–St. Patrick Church, on Willoughby Avenue. Over six years, beginning in 2003, Angelo Serrano, a religious educator at the church, sexually abused four boys. He raped or molested them in the church’s offices and at his apartment, in a brick schoolhouse converted to low-cost housing by Catholic Charities. Eventually, one of the boys told his mother, who told the police. In 2011, Serrano was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The victims then sued the Diocese of Brooklyn; in a settlement reached last September, they were awarded $27.5 million.
My wife and I have been raising three sons in this part of Brooklyn, and the morning that the news about the settlement broke I cycled up Willoughby Avenue toward the church. St. Lucy–St. Patrick’s is one of the oldest Catholic churches in the borough, dating from 1843, and it has a haunted, left-behind aspect. On the edge of a row of restored brownstones, it is notably unkempt: pink paint is peeling from the doors, and the iron fence along the sidewalk is broken in places.
When I arrived, a correspondent from “Noticias Univision 41,” a Spanish-language news program, was standing nearby. A white car rolled up, the flag of Puerto Rico dangling from the rearview mirror, and a large middle-aged man stepped out, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. “If I had my way,” the man hollered, “he would get raped every night at that prison where he is, for what he done.”
I cycled on, unsure how to respond. The situation was straight out of a college course on justice. A legal settlement had expressed an idea of justice as financial restitution; my neighbor had expressed an idea of justice as physical retribution. Neither felt like a way forward.
Back at home, scrolling through BishopAccountability.org, which aggregates material about priestly abuse, I counted more than a dozen churches within easy cycling distance of our Brooklyn apartment that had been served at some point by priests accused of sexual misconduct. In Bushwick, Father Augusto Cortez touched a twelve-year-old girl’s breasts at St. John the Baptist Parish School. Father George Zatarga, long the chaplain at Bishop Loughlin, the high school on Lafayette Avenue, later admitted to “inappropriate behavior” with boys on trips to a cabin north of Albany (behavior he recorded lyrically in a “travel log”: skinny-dipping and the like). Father Anthony J. Failla, who served at St. Michael–St. Edward Church, near Fort Greene Park, was accused of sexually abusing a young orphan who slept in the rectory bedroom next to Failla’s quarters. Father Francis X. Nelson, while serving at St. Mary Star of the Sea, in Carroll Gardens, visited the home of a teen-age altar girl on the pretext of paying a pastoral call to her sick grandmother, and molested the girl. Father Romano Ferraro was posted to St. Francis Xavier, in Park Slope, after committing acts at other churches that later led to allegations of abuse; during his time at Xavier, Ferraro, on yearly Christmas visits to a friend in Massachusetts, raped the friend’s son (a crime for which he is serving a term of life in prison). A more recent incident caught my eye: in 2011, when my sons were in elementary school, the Brooklyn diocese removed Father Christopher Lee Coleman from the ministry for alleged sexual misconduct with a minor, though the diocese waited seven years to disclose its reason. Coleman had once been in residence at Queen of All Saints, down Vanderbilt Avenue from our apartment.
Like many Catholics, I wonder whether this story will ever be over and whether things will ever be set right. Often called a crisis, the problem is more enduring and more comprehensive than that. Social scientists report that the gravest period of priestly sexual abuse was the sixties and seventies, and the problem has been in public view for the past three and a half decades. For most American Catholics, then, the fact of sexual abuse by priests and its coverup by bishops has long been an everyday reality. Priestly sexual abuse has directly harmed thousands of Catholics, spoiling their sense of sexuality, of intimacy, of trust, of faith. Indirectly, the pattern of abuse and coverup has made Catholics leery of priests and disdainful of the idea that the bishops are our “shepherds.” It has muddled questions about Church doctrine concerning sexual orientation, the nature of the priesthood, and the role of women; it has hastened the decline of Catholic schooling and the shuttering of churches. Attorneys general in more than a dozen states are investigating the Church and its handling of sexual-abuse allegations. In February, New York State loosened its statute of limitations for sex crimes, long the Church’s bulwark against abuse claims. And that is just in the United States. Priestly sexual abuse has had grave effects around the world, including in Rome, where the three most recent Popes have been implicated in the institutional habits of concealment or inaction, and where Pope Francis has yet to find his voice on the problem.
It’s not that the bishops in this country haven’t responded. They’ve cycled through one crisis-resolution strategy after another. They’ve consulted experts, set up review boards and hotlines, issued charters and reports, trained parish staff in “best practices” for avoiding and reporting sexual abuse. They have met with survivors and led Masses of penitence and healing; they have apologized and begged for forgiveness. And they’ve made payments, through settlements and court-ordered damages, amounting to three billion dollars.
All that crisis response has worked, and it hasn’t. As questions about restitution arise, the bishops’ responses feel inadequate, insincere, or off point. The Vatican, meanwhile, now regards American bishops as masters at handling abuse allegations. At a meeting in Rome in February, Pope Francis and his deputies, addressing a “global crisis” of “the protection of minors,” suggested that the rest of the world could learn from the American Church. “Church moving from ‘American problem’ to American solutions on clergy abuse,” a recent headline from a Catholic news service declared.
In all of this, a distinctly American solution to the problem has emerged—the commissioning of an independent, secular authority to arrange settlements between the Church and survivors of abuse. This strategy has been taken up by an unlikely advocate: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, and a traditionalist who generally relishes defending the Church against its adversaries.
Nearly three years ago, Cardinal Dolan decided to hire Kenneth Feinberg, an arbitration and mediation expert who has led programs to compensate victims and relatives of victims from the 9/11 attacks, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Boston Marathon bombing, and other disasters. Under Feinberg, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund distributed more than seven billion dollars to fifty-five hundred claimants. After the Deepwater Horizon spill, in the Gulf of Mexico, Feinberg and his longtime associate Camille Biros distributed more than six billion dollars to two hundred and twenty-five thousand claimants. After the shootings at the Pulse night club, in Orlando, Florida, they worked, pro bono, to help distribute charitable donations to those affected.
An Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, run by Feinberg and Biros, began hearing and processing claims of priestly sexual abuse for the Archdiocese of New York in the fall of 2016. Feinberg and Biros subsequently established compensation programs in the Dioceses of Brooklyn (which includes Queens) and Rockville Centre (Long Island), and upstate, in the Dioceses of Syracuse and Ogdensburg. Their portfolio is expanding dramatically: five dioceses in Pennsylvania and all five dioceses in New Jersey have signed on, and multiple dioceses in Colorado and California are expected to do so later this year. Other I.R.C.P.s, which are similar to Feinberg and Biros’s template but are not under their supervision, have been established elsewhere, including the Dioceses of Buffalo, in New York, and Harrisburg, in Pennsylvania. Soon there will be Feinberg-branded I.R.C.P.s in the dioceses of two-fifths of American Catholics. His and Biros’s model for reconciliation and compensation is becoming the standard approach to priestly sexual abuse just as bishops worldwide are looking here for standard approaches.
The Church has paid survivors for decades. What makes this strategy different? Part of the answer is that Feinberg and Biros do. Over many years, they have maintained a reputation for probity and independence while disbursing some twenty billion dollars in funds. And the Church’s use of external, worldly arbiters is meant to assuage suspicions of self-protection. Much rides on Feinberg and Biros’s independence, and yet this independence may define the limits of the I.R.C.P.s’ success. Critics of Catholicism from Martin Luther onward have faulted the Church for dealing with matters of sin and repentance through mechanical means: the system of indulgences, the confessional booth. Is the Church today essentially outsourcing a reckoning with its past?
“Ken and Camille,” as Feinberg calls the duo, have worked together since 1979, when Feinberg was serving as Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s chief of staff and hired Biros as an assistant. I met with them several times in recent months, at the Willard Office Building, in Washington, D.C., where their six-person law firm is based. Feinberg, who is seventy-three, grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, and he speaks in a chowdery accent unsoftened by fifty years among the power brokers of New York and Washington. He is bald, wears tortoise-shell eyeglasses, and leaves his shirts open at the neck. Biros, three years younger, has long, dark hair and favors loose blouses, slacks, and weapons-grade heels. Both are opera enthusiasts, and they (with their spouses) have followed many long days at their desks with long nights at the opera. The walls of their offices display framed newspaper articles in which Feinberg is referred to as the “Master of Disaster” and the “Compensation Czar.” Mediation runs deep for Feinberg; to spend time with him is to see him mediate continually between different aspects of his character—between a wish for humility and a taste for publicity, a commitment to produce agreeable outcomes and an instinct to tell the whole truth.
“The Cardinal called, and he wanted to brainstorm,” Feinberg told me. Pope Francis had spoken of a Year of Mercy, urging Catholics to undertake acts of reconciliation and forgiveness, and Cardinal Dolan saw this as an opportunity to address priestly sexual abuse, at a time when the Church was under great pressure concerning the issue. The 2015 film “Spotlight,” about a team of Boston Globe reporters who uncovered priestly sexual abuse in the Boston area, stirred public anger against the Church, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The watchdog group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) characterized Cardinal Dolan as “among the most secretive” of the roughly three hundred U.S. bishops on matters of priestly abuse. New York state legislators nearly passed a bill loosening the strict statute of limitations on sex-abuse lawsuits. When he was the archbishop of Milwaukee, from 2002 to 2009, Dolan had instituted a settlement program of sorts, but it had gone awry. Engaging Kenneth Feinberg gave the Cardinal a chance at a dramatic, high-profile do-over.
Feinberg and Biros met with Cardinal Dolan at the archbishop’s residence, joined by the chief counsel for the archdiocese. “The Cardinal discussed with us his desire to create a program to promote reconciliation and healing between the victims and the Church, as well as his hopes that this will help bring back to the Church those who have been alienated due to the Church’s past conduct,” Biros recalled, choosing her words carefully. “Of course, not lost on us was the secular issue of the ongoing possibility of a change in the statute of limitations opening a window which would allow time-barred cases to move forward in the courts.”
The new program would offer compensation to survivors and would require them to sign releases forfeiting the right to sue the Church if the law changed later. It would take care of cases, Biros told me, “that were ‘in the drawer,’ as Ken likes to say, and were known to the archdiocese—going back, in some cases, as far as thirty-plus years.”
The New York archdiocese, with 2.8 million Catholics, is the second largest in the United States, after the one in Los Angeles, and its fifteen hundred or so clergymen and the value of its real estate would make its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program one of precedent-setting scale. To fund it, the archdiocese took out a short-term loan against the mortgage on some property it owns: the block of Madison Avenue between Fiftieth and Fifty-first Streets, occupied by the Lotte New York Palace hotel. “We’ll have to do like any other family at a critical time,” Cardinal Dolan said, when he announced the program. “We’ll borrow the money.”
Feinberg’s approach to mediation, outlined in a 2005 book about his 9/11 work, “What Is Life Worth?,” is rooted in the belief “that a third-party magician can help us bridge our differences.” That magic often involves math. As the special master of the 9/11 fund, Feinberg typically employed a formula that estimated the deceased’s lost future lifetime earnings, accounted for other sources of household income, and gave weight to the number of dependents. Then he would use his discretion in order to “narrow the gap between high-end and low-end awards”—between, say, awards made to the families of highly compensated investment bankers and those made to the families of restaurant workers who had been paid by the hour. In the end, the median award was a little under $1.7 million.
The compensation programs for priestly sexual abuse are comparatively inexact: they involve weighing intangibles to determine, first, what happened, and then what sum of money represents appropriate compensation. When a diocese agrees to work with Feinberg and Biros, it sets aside a sum of money for compensation to survivors or indicates that it will pay claims as assessed. Biros evaluates each claim of abuse, taking into account the priest’s history and the quality of the claimant’s evidence that the abuse took place. A diocesan review board (usually made up of faithful Catholics in public life: judges, psychologists, law-enforcement officers) may also provide an assessment. If Biros approves the claim, she decides how much compensation to offer, weighing the nature of the abuse, how long it went on, how it affected the life of the claimant, and other factors. If the claimant accepts the offer, he or she relinquishes the right to sue the diocese but is not bound to confidentiality. “The program is not adjudicatory,” the archdiocese’s spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, told me. It doesn’t make any recommendations about measures against accused priests still in active ministry; it passes those claims to the diocese, which then conducts its own assessment and decides whether or not the priests should be disciplined or removed.
The Archdiocese of New York’s program proceeded in two phases: one for people who had already accused priests of abuse, and another for people who were making accusations for the first time. “The Cardinal was delighted with the program,” Biros told me—Feinberg nodded his assent—and set out the numbers in support. Three hundred and ninety-four people applied. Biros accepted all but forty-eight claims. More than half the claimants were represented by counsel, such as Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer who was featured in “Spotlight,” and a bitter foe of the Church. Only one declined the I.R.C.P.’s offer of compensation. Individual payments ranged from twenty-five thousand to five hundred thousand dollars. In total, the program awarded more than sixty-three million dollars to claimants, with little controversy.
One reason for the high level of participation that Feinberg and Biros saw was a lack of alternatives: most claimants could no longer sue, because the alleged acts of abuse lay outside the statute of limitations, which, at the time, required a person to make a claim of abuse by the age of twenty-three. Another reason was what Feinberg calls “our lenient standards of evidence.” In “What Is Life Worth?,” he described his ideal stance toward victims as “compassionate and generous but not profligate.” He maintains that compensation programs must pay on “weak claims” as well as strong ones, in order to lead to a collective sense of resolution. This strategy costs more, but it keeps dissension to a minimum. It’s part compassion, part public relations.
Drawing the line is tricky. In the 9/11 program, there was seldom any dispute that a claimant’s relative had been killed in a terrorist attack. In a claim of priestly sexual abuse, however, it is often hard to determine exactly what happened. Typically, the person who applies for compensation reports that he was sexually abused decades ago, without witnesses, by a priest who is dead, and offers corroborating material that wouldn’t stand up in court. This is where “lenient standards” come in.
“What are we looking for?” Biros said. “Some form of documentation from before the program was announced: correspondence, a medical record. You told your therapist and the therapist made notes. You told your best friend: not as good, but we’ll take it if the priest in question is a recidivist.” She has reviewed claims for two decades, and she makes her assessments with confidence that a pretender or a scam artist won’t slip through. When she and her staff meet claimants in person, she told me, “we can tell in thirty seconds whether you are telling the truth.”
A claim is rejected, Biros said, mainly if there are no other claims against the priest and if there is no evidence for the claim other than the accuser’s recollections.
In theory, by reviewing claims and setting compensation, I.R.C.P.s have freed the Church to take up reconciliation. In practice, Biros has done plenty of reconciling. Six decades after her own Catholic girlhood, in Brooklyn (“We were not particularly devout,” she says of her family), she has engaged personally with about two hundred claimants, either face to face, on the phone, or via Skype, doing the work of listening and reflecting that the bishops have struggled to perform credibly.
“We hear it said that ‘all the cases are old cases,’ ” Feinberg said. “But there are sixty-five-year-old men sobbing in Camille’s office. These are people in damaged emotional states.”
“Abuse at the hands of a priest was the defining experience of the Church in their lives,” Biros said. “Their families didn’t believe them. They find themselves questioning their sexuality, their self-worth. We see P.T.S.D. We see people who have attempted suicide.” In her view, this aspect of the I.R.C.P. model, in which claimants recount their experiences, is no small part of what it delivers. “The program is limited but beneficial,” she said. For the victims, “the benefit is the ability to tell two individuals what happened and for us to believe that they’re telling the truth. It says to the victims, ‘No more hiding. This happened. We believe you.’ ”
Last year, a claimant told the New York I.R.C.P. that, in the early nineteen-seventies, he had been abused as an altar boy by Theodore McCarrick. The abuse took place in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on two successive Christmases. McCarrick, who was born and raised in upper Manhattan, served as secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke, the archbishop of New York, and then rose in the hierarchy under four Popes: he was made a bishop by Paul VI; hosted John Paul II’s visit to Newark, in 1995; helped elect Benedict XVI, in 2005; and became a trusted emissary of Francis, representing the Church in informal negotiations with China and taking a hand in the selection of American archbishops. Since 2001, he had been a cardinal and the leader of the Washington, D.C., archdiocese. Throughout his episcopal career, he was trailed by talk that he routinely made seminarians under his supervision sleep in the same bed with him. That history was kept semi-suppressed until the former altar boy came forward to the New York I.R.C.P. Feinberg and Biros notified the archdiocese’s chief counsel, who went to Cardinal Dolan and notified the Manhattan district attorney. Dolan notified the Vatican and then initiated an internal investigation. The archdiocese’s review board for sexual abuse produced a report, which Dolan sent to Rome.
“It was the first claim we had involving a cardinal,” Biros told me. “And clearly the processes had to go beyond an internal, in-house investigation. It came to us, and it was a big deal, and it went up the chain, all the way to the Vatican.”
In June, when Cardinal Dolan announced the “credible and substantiated” claim against McCarrick, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, disclosed that the Archdiocese of Newark and the smaller Diocese of Metuchen had negotiated cash settlements in 2005 and 2007 with two former seminarians claiming abuse by McCarrick, and that the archdiocese was aware of a third. Meanwhile, a lawyer for the former altar boy in New York told the accuser’s story to the Times; soon afterward, a second accuser came forward and told the Times another appalling account. McCarrick, a family friend who had baptized him as an infant, began sexually abusing him in his teens. The abuse went on for many years, taking place in summer houses, a beach parking lot, hotels, cathedral rectories, and an apartment over Mount Sinai Hospital. A photograph accompanying the article showed McCarrick, who was about forty years old, and his teen-age victim in swimsuits, the man’s arm around the boy’s waist. McCarrick was beaming.
Once the story was out, Pope Francis and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded decisively. Last summer, McCarrick was removed from the College of Cardinals and exiled to a friary in Kansas; earlier this year, he was laicized—defrocked. A painful episode for the Church, it was a big win for the I.R.C.P. At a moment when it had become axiomatic that the Church was incapable of policing itself, a Church-sponsored program had pushed the archdiocese to acknowledge a truth that it might otherwise have continued to ignore. The result also had an unexpected benefit for the archdiocese, firming up Cardinal Dolan’s bona fides: he had established himself as a churchman willing to turn in a fellow-churchman for the greater good.
Theodore McCarrick is now just another Catholic. His full history isn’t out, however.
“We have a few more against McCarrick,” Biros told me offhandedly.
I asked how many.
“I think I have four or five.”
“Including the two we know about?”
“Are you asking about those specific cases? That I can’t answer. But there are three more. I think we have a total of five.” (Biros said later that the program had a total of seven claims against McCarrick. Barry Coburn, McCarrick’s lawyer, declined to comment.)
The archdiocese’s files are subject to examination by the New York attorney general and by Barbara Jones, a retired judge and prosecutor whom Cardinal Dolan engaged, in September, to review the archdiocese’s practices on sexual abuse. No matter what their scrutiny turns up about McCarrick, it is clear that Feinberg and Biros compelled the Church to take action against a powerful prelate whom it had protected for decades.
The Church’s response to abuse scandals has had false starts before, however. “For thirty years, the Church has been doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” James Marsh, an attorney who has represented many victims of clerical sexual abuse, told me. Skeptics wonder whether the I.R.C.P.s will prove to be just one more way for the Church to control information about abuse while admitting as little culpability as possible.
Priestly sexual abuse first got widespread attention in 1985, when Jason Berry, a journalist and a Jesuit-educated Catholic from New Orleans, reported in depth on the issue in Louisiana. In Abbeville—Creole country—Berry sat in on the trial of Father Gilbert Gauthe, a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette who had sexually abused dozens of boys over a decade, while a bishop who knew of his behavior simply transferred him from parish to parish.
In Washington, Father Thomas Doyle, an aide to the papal nuncio, followed the case against Gauthe, and concluded that priestly sexual abuse was more prevalent than the U.S. bishops realized. A few months later, with another priest and an attorney, Doyle produced a report called “The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy.” Doyle has since turned against the bishops and had a vibrant second career as an activist and an expert witness against the Church, but at the time he was a canon lawyer advising the bishops on how to deal with an imminent crisis. The report described priestly abuse as “probably the single most serious and far reaching problem facing our Church today.” Yet the real “problem” it identified was not that of priests sexually abusing children; it was “the possible cost to the Catholic Church of many millions of dollars and the potential devastating injury to its image.” The solution, then, was to devise a legal strategy to avoid discovery and testimony, and a public-relations strategy to cast the Church “as a sensitive, caring and responsible entity which gives unquestioned attention and concern for the victims.” Although the report was never officially sanctioned, the bishops adopted its approach, managing accusations of priestly abuse in secret.
In the next decade and a half, the scope of the problem became impossible to minimize. Early in 2002, the Boston Globe published its “Spotlight” investigation, revealing patterns of abuse that implicated at least seventy priests, and establishing that Cardinal Bernard F. Law and his subordinates in the Boston archdiocese had disregarded warnings and repeatedly placed abusive priests in range of children. Cardinal Law sought to turn the controversy into a demonstration of his crisis-management prowess. He promised “zero tolerance” for such priests, visited parishes to apologize, and vowed that the archdiocese would commence “reviewing the past in as systematic and comprehensive a way as possible.” He said that he hoped his approach would “become a model for how this issue should be handled.”
In April, 2002, Law and the other American cardinal archbishops went to Rome for an “extraordinary summit” on priestly sexual abuse, hosted by the Pope. ABC’s “Nightline” devoted a program to the summit, featuring Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, as the guest. Ted Koppel asked him if he was pleased with how things had gone.
“My—my hope is that we’ve turned the corner,” McCarrick said. “The Holy Father’s talk yesterday, I think, made it very clear, as his language was, no one who is harming children or young people will—will ever be able to serve as a priest in the Church. And I think that’s a—that’s a—a clear statement.”
What McCarrick offered was not a clear statement. It was a squirrelly evasion. He referred only to the example of a cleric who “is harming” young people in the present (not to one who did so in the past), and he referred only to priests (not to bishops or archbishops). That is, he phrased his answer to exclude the great majority of clerical abusers, himself first of all.
Asked when an offender might be removed from the priesthood, McCarrick offered something like an inadvertent mea culpa for crimes not yet revealed: “If thirty years ago, a—a young priest fell in love with a seventeen-year-old and—and—and had improper conduct, and it was the last time this ever happened and everything worked out well after that, and the people get to know that he had done that and the people say, ‘We love him. Give him another chance. He’s been fine for thirty years,’ then, I think, you’d take a look at it.”
At a meeting in Dallas that June, the bishops adopted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” affirming “a commitment to transparency and openness” and pledging that priests would be removed “for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor—past, present, or future.” They also engaged John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct a study of priestly sexual abuse. Its report, released in February, 2004, presented a trove of data about abuse allegations across four decades. More than a third involved penetration or oral sex. Nearly a quarter involved abuse of children ten years old or younger. Bishops allowed most accused priests to continue in the ministry without treatment or discipline. The head of the bishops’ conference at the time, Wilton D. Gregory, the bishop of Belleville, Illinois—named the archbishop of Washington last week—presented the report in reductive, Church-protecting terms. “The terrible history recorded here is history,” he said.
Nationally, Catholics’ attention to priestly abuse flagged. Pope John Paul II, eighty-three and afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, was failing physically, and the urgency of change within the Church in the United States was displaced by the imminence of change within the Church in Rome. When the Pope died, in 2005, traditionalist Catholics called for him to be canonized, and he was, within eight years. His indulgence of Father Marcial Maciel—Legion of Christ founder, serial child abuser, the subject of formal complaints submitted to and buried by the Vatican in 1998—was seen as a peccadillo.
Today, two Popes later, bishops ritually invoke both the Dallas Charter and the John Jay report as transformative moments in the Church’s handling of abuse. But the bishops haven’t reckoned with the question of restitution systematically or as a group; instead, they have operated in patchwork fashion, through their various compensation programs and other efforts. And they have declined to address the problem of priestly sexual abuse in frank human terms. Instead, they have fallen back on the very practice that enabled abusive priests to thrive: dealing with sexual conflict through a blend of prudery, euphemism, and evasion. The Dallas Charter did not name a single act of abuse, relegating the crime itself to a footnote about “delicts” (a Latin term used by canon law for any sort of violation). The John Jay report, full of tables and totals, addressed no specific incidents, stressing the need to preserve the anonymity of priests and their “alleged victims.” Again and again, the bishops vowed to solve a grave problem that they wouldn’t describe.
This habit of evasion has carried over into the bishops’ posture toward their own reconciliation-and-compensation programs. The programs are expressly designed to elicit claimants’ accounts of particular acts of abuse. They place no restriction on the freedom of claimants to speak about what priests did to them. Camille Biros pointed out to me that this means claimants can tell people—including members of the media—that their accounts of abuse “have been validated by an independent entity and by the Church itself.” Cardinal Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, told me that the programs are a means “for the voices of victims to be heard by the whole Church.” With the I.R.C.P.s, then, the Church—which, in the Dallas Charter, sixteen years ago, generally swore off gag clauses—is taking credit for allowing survivors to exercise their right to speak and is touting that right as a benefit of the programs. Meanwhile, Feinberg, Biros, and the bishops categorically decline to address particular claims that come in through the programs—except when the accusations are made against active priests.
Last October, a claim of sexual abuse made through the New York I.R.C.P. led to the departure of John Jenik, a Bronx pastor who had been made an auxiliary bishop in 2014. Although the archdiocese’s review board judged the claim “credible and substantiated,” Cardinal Dolan, in a pastoral letter announcing the departure, essentially came to Jenik’s defense. He noted that “the alleged incidents occurred decades ago,” and that “this was the first time any such allegation” had been made against Jenik, who insisted on his innocence and, Dolan suggested, was not being removed but was stepping down voluntarily, “loyal priest that he is.” Of the abuse itself, Dolan said nothing. That fell to the survivor, Michael Meenan, who, in a press conference outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, described Jenik’s taking him, as a teen-ager, to X-rated movies, getting him drunk, and sleeping in the same bed with him at the priest’s cottage upstate.
The John Jay report found that many victims of priestly sexual abuse had come to know their future abuser outside of church, often because he was a friend of the family. This is a truth well known to American Catholics. For us, priestly sexual abuse and its concealment is not an episode from “history” or a sociological phenomenon. It is part of our personal story.
My father’s father was a monument dealer, working with cemeteries in upstate New York, and my father’s maternal uncle, Robert F. Joyce, was the bishop of Burlington, Vermont. My father went to a Catholic seminary and then entered the civil service. In 1963, Bishop Joyce, fresh from Rome and the Second Vatican Council, officiated at my parents’ wedding, at St. Peter’s Church, in Saratoga Springs. “The happiest day of your grandfather’s life, that was, with the bishop up on the altar,” my uncle Bill told me. My uncle Eddie, an altar boy that day, was less happy in the Church. Years later, he told his sister that Father Joseph DiMaggio, who taught in the parish school, had nuzzled his face. When Eddie went home and told his father about it, his father told him never to speak that way about a priest again.
The church of my childhood, in a suburb of Albany, was oblong, carpeted, and brightly lit. Unknown to most of us in the parish, a priest who served there, Gary Mercure, was a sexual abuser: in 2011, he was convicted of raping two boys in the nineteen-eighties, during trips to rural Massachusetts.
When I enrolled at Fordham University, in 1983, there were nearly a hundred Jesuits in residence, and I came to know a dozen of them, ranging in age from a septuagenarian English professor who was saving “Finnegans Wake” for Heaven to the “baby Jebbies,” in their twenties. As a sophomore, I volunteered at a Catholic community center run by Father Joseph Towle, S.J., in the South Bronx. Father Towle was a street priest, trim and no-nonsense in his clerical blacks. He was later accused of abusing a boy back in 1971.
During my junior year, I had a more direct encounter with priestly abuse. I had fallen under the spell of Thomas Merton, the author of “The Seven Storey Mountain” and other books of Catholic spirituality, grounded in the discipline of silent self-emptying called contemplation. When I spotted a flyer for a Saturday retreat dedicated to Merton, led by Father Edward Zogby, S.J., I signed up. Shortly after the retreat, Zogby offered to guide me in spiritual direction—a centuries-old Jesuit tradition. I accepted, and after that we met weekly, in the evenings. He was fifty, large, and bald, and he dressed in an oxford shirt and tie rather than a black suit and Roman collar. He would close the office door, hug me, and pour two Scotches while we talked. He spoke of his wish to combine contemplation with the “body work” of Werner Erhard. He said that many of “us Catholics” had trouble integrating spirit and body, and that it took years to work these things out. We closed our eyes and prayed side by side in the small office. “Wasn’t that good?” he would ask before I left. It was clear to me where things were going, but Father Zogby liked to say that the first step in the contemplative life was letting go of preconceptions and expectations—so I pushed my suspicions aside.
On a Monday in March—St. Patrick’s Day, 1986—I met again with Father Zogby, and he invited me to a dinner party that evening at the West Side Jesuit Community, on Ninety-eighth Street. For once, other people would be around. I said I would go. A Scotch, a prayer, another Scotch. When I arrived at the party, a little drunk, I sat down in an easy chair away from the other guests and dozed. I woke up with Father Zogby bent over me, breath Scotchy and near, hands advancing—neck, arms, chest, penis. I sprang up and speed-walked to the subway. I never met with him again.
I was married at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, on Mott Street, in 1999. The celebrant, Keith Fennessy, was a friend of a friend; he had served at St. Gabriel’s parish in the North Bronx, where my fiancée had grown up. Father Fennessy was smart, funny, distinctly Catholic, but not self-righteous or condescending toward women. It was a surprise when, sixteen years later, the archdiocese removed him from public ministry, saying that he had downloaded pornography onto a parish computer.
In Rome, in 2005, reporting on the Vatican, I had a caffè granita in Trastevere with Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney (recently convicted of sexually abusing two minors at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne); had lunch with a Jesuit priest accused of inappropriate conduct toward a teen-age student before joining the order; and had a long interview with Cardinal McCarrick at the Pontifical North American College, the finishing school for ambitious American clerics in the making. It was a holiday in Italy, and the seminarians had no classes. “Let’s sit here, by the window, so we can watch the boys play baseball while we talk,” McCarrick said.
That’s eight clerics accused of sexual misconduct in my personal experience—eight out of the couple of hundred priests that I have known. Eight out of two hundred is four per cent, which matches the percentage of priests who have been accused, according to the John Jay report. That my experience is typical doesn’t make it any less disturbing.