Sick of hearing about scandals in the Church? You should be. (Part I)

By Phil Lawler
July 24, 2019

I quit.

For more than 25 years now, I have been reporting and writing about scandal within the Catholic Church. Yesterday, as I wearily wrote one more article about episcopal corruption, I realized how much the topic has come to nauseate me. I can’t do it anymore.

Since the 1990s I have been digging in the muck, uncovering more and more of what Pope Benedict XVI aptly termed the “filth” in the Church—the filth that obscures the image of Christ. It hasn’t been pleasant work. It isn’t the work I would have chosen. It isn’t edifying. The daily dealing with appalling ugliness—week after week, month after month—has taken a heavy toll: on my health, on my family, on my spiritual life. In warfare, good commanders know that even the toughest troops need a break after weeks in battle. And believe me, this is—always has been—a spiritual battle.

I’m not going to walk away from that battle. Far from it. I’ve devoted my life to the cause of reform in the Catholic Church, and I fully intend to continue speaking and writing on that topic. But I need to step back, to take a new approach, to fight this war on a different front. I can’t continue plowing through the documents, chasing down the leads, dredging up the facts. Fortunately, in the past few years many other reporters have joined the hunt for the truth. I’ll comment on the facts they unearth; I’ll provide my perspective. But in order to have a healthy perspective, I have to escape the miasma, to raise my sights.

How long have I been on the front lines? In November 1993, nearly a decade before the Boston Globe arrived on the scene, as editor of Catholic World Report I ran a cover story on the sex-abuse scandal. (Seven years later I published an even more provocative cover story: “The Gay Priest Problem.”) I was slapped with a libel suit (later summarily dismissed) for publishing a story that questioned the work of clinics that “treated” predator priests and cleared them for return to ministry. In 2002 I broke the story that Pope John Paul II had summoned the leadership of the US bishops’ conference to Rome to discuss the scandal. I was the first person in Boston to call for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, and when he finally did resign, I broke that story, too.

Over the years I have spoken with victims of sexual abuse, with priests who have been accused (some probably innocent, some certainly guilty), with lawyers and law-enforcement officials, with auditors and accountants, with chancery officials, with seminary instructors, and even with exorcists, trying to gain a better understanding of the burgeoning scandal. I have learned an enormous amount, and I’m sorry to say that more often than not, what I have learned has been discouraging.

Through it all I have done my utmost to maintain, and to convey, my love for the Church—my determination not to allow the filth of human perfidy to sully the spotless bride of Christ. I have tried not to divulge things that would only be damaging—to shine the light on unpleasant facts only when it seemed necessary to advance the cause of reform. No doubt there are times when I have gone too far, and for these I am sorry. But there are also plenty of times when I have held back. I have always known more than I have revealed. Many dark secrets will die with me.

Yet I have found enough material to produce literally thousands of short news stories, hundreds of opinion pieces, and three books on the scandals. Oddly enough, it was a friend’s suggestion that I should write a fourth book that caused me to reassess my work. Somewhat to my own surprise—and to my poor friend’s consternation—I reacted to the suggestion angrily. I was repulsed by the prospect of writing another book on the same topic. I realized then that I need to take a different approach.

The books are in print, for the benefit of anyone who wants to know what I have found in my years of research. The columns and news stories are in the archives. That work is done. But at this point I doubt that anyone who does not understand the problem will be brought around by one more example, one more revelation, one more outrage. The facts are available—have been available for quite a while. The challenge is to offer perspective.

When I first began reporting on the scandal, I assumed that it involved a few grossly immoral priests and a few negligent bishops. As I pried up one clue after another I discovered a pattern of corruption much broader and deeper than I could have imagined. Was the abuse widespread? Yes. Were many bishops complicit? Yes. Was there an organized effort to protect the malefactors? Yes. Did it extend to the Vatican? Yes. Was the Pope involved? Yes. Were Church leaders being blackmailed? Yes. Were they sacrificing the interests of the Church to avoid detection and prosecution? Yes. And gradually I realized that the sex-abuse scandal was not the only evidence of corruption: that there was widespread financial misconduct as well, with its own attendant cover-ups. All these revelations I explained and demonstrated in my books.

Alert readers probably noticed that I mentioned above my conversations with exorcists about the scandals. From time to time in my researches I have detected a very definite odor of sulfur, but I have never found hard evidence to support a news story about active Satanic involvement. Still can there be any doubt that the Enemy rejoices in the humiliation of the Church and the corruption of her leaders? In an era when the Western world is beset by perverse sexuality and contempt for human dignity, Satan must surely be reveling in the righteous indignation that drowns out the voice of the Church.

In The Faithful Departed I argued that “the scandal” in the Church is actually three related scandals: the scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests; the scandal of widespread homosexual influence in the clergy; and the scandal of bishops who are more interested in protecting their positions than in defending the faith. The first of these scandals has been addressed. The second and third have not. On the contrary, the influence of the “lavender mafia” has been consolidated in many if not most American dioceses. Moreover, the steadily growing stream of revelations about questionable financial transactions at the Vatican and the “envelope culture” in the American hierarchy threatens to become a torrent, giving cynics new opportunities for assaults on the integrity of our Church.

One new press release, one new program, one new pledge will not be enough to reverse the damage. As I put it yesterday, “The solutions are being offered by the same people who created the problems; the would-be reformers are selected by the very people who should be reformed.” Both in Rome and in the US there is an obvious reluctance to recognize the scope of the problem, a preference for the vain belief that some incremental steps will allow a return to ecclesiastical business-as-usual.

Back in the 1990s, I told a radio interviewer (Al Kresta) that the sex-abuse scandal would bring the Church the greatest crisis since the Reformation. At the time that was a shocking prediction—I was even taken aback a bit to hear the words coming out of my own mouth. Today I submit that it is indisputably accurate.

Your eminences, your excellencies: Wake up! Rome is burning; stop fiddling. You are not facing a simple problem but a full-blown crisis; not a temporary setback but a thorough rout. You are facing unprecedented losses for the Church: loss of believers, loss of institutions, loss of our Catholic patrimony, loss of souls. You can no longer proceed on the assumption that what you do this year will be pretty much like what you did last year. If you do, you will fail in your sacred duty.

To restore the Church, you must first restore your own credibility. Drop the damage-control approach. Stop fearing the truth, start telling it, and demand that others do the same. Face the fact that right now, the credibility of Catholic bishops ranks somewhere between that of used-car salesmen and telemarketers—and with reason! And you are charged with the duty of proclaiming the Gospel, carrying on the mission of the Apostles, introducing the world to the Word. You must make the elimination of corruption, the restoration of credibility, your top priority. If you don’t nothing else that you do will matter.

The restoration of the credibility of the Catholic Church: that will be my own top priority, too, in my future work. Tomorrow, in another column, I’ll explain how I plan to go about it.


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