I thought I had heard everything about the deep, deep roots of the sexual abuse scandals — plural — in the Roman Catholic Church. I say “plural” because they really go back to the early 1980s and the waves of acid have been rolling in ever since.
For most news consumers, the big story today is in the New York Times, written by veteran scribe Laurie Goodstein, who has a solid reputation for getting her facts straight. However, in this case we really need to note that the key documents that are making news right now were first brought to light by the National Catholic Reporter. So click here for that report and NCR gets a big tip of the hat.
But here is the top of the story that most people are reading today:
The founder of a Roman Catholic religious order that ran retreat centers for troubled priests warned American bishops in forceful letters dating back to 1952 that pedophiles should be removed from the priesthood because they could not be cured.
The Rev. Gerald M. C. Fitzgerald, founder of the order, Servants of the Paraclete, delivered the same advice in person to Vatican officials in Rome in 1962 and to Pope Paul VI a year later, according to the letters, which were unsealed by a judge in the course of litigation against the church.
The documents contradict the most consistent defense given by bishops about the sexual abuse scandal: that they were unaware until recently that offenders could not be rehabilitated and returned to the ministry. Father Fitzgerald, who died in 1969, even made a $5,000 down payment on a Caribbean island where he planned to build an isolated retreat to sequester priests who were sexual predators. His letters show he was driven by a desire to save the church from scandal, and to save laypeople from being victimized. He wrote to dozens of bishops, saying that he had learned through experience that most of the abusers were unrepentant, manipulative and dangerous. He called them “vipers.”
There is so much that this story gets right.
For starters, it is clear that this scandal has been around a long, long time. It’s clear that there are issues linked to the spiritual and psychological treatment of these priests and that some people have been tempted to see the problem strictly in one way or the other. It’s clear that many Catholic leaders — for a variety of reasons — have been highly resistant to removing men from a sacred ministry.
At the same time, it’s clear that Fitzgerald was not a conventional messenger for this blunt, painful message. Some bishops rejected the messenger and, thus, it was easier to ignore the message. Thus, we read:
Asked why Father Fitzgerald’s advice went largely unheeded for 50 years, Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., chairman of the United States Bishops Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, said in a telephone interview that in the first case, cases of sexually abusive priests were considered to be rare.
Second, Bishop Cupich said of Father Fitzgerald, “His views, by and large, were considered bizarre with regard to not treating people medically, but only spiritually, and also segregating a whole population with sexual problems on a deserted island.”
By all means, wade into the lengthy quotes from the documents in the NCR piece, as well as read the rest of the Times report.
But here is my one concern. For 25 years or so, I have heard Catholic sources stress that this scandal really centers on two different problems and that bishops have — again, for many different reasons — often chosen to blur the lines between the two.
You see, “clergy sexual abuse” is a phrase that covers several different sins. When the terms are defined quite strictly, the experts draw a bright line between two different kinds of abuse. Here is how I described that several years ago in a column for Scripps Howard:
The Chicago news was full of sex, children and Roman collars.
This wasn’t part of the first national “Sins of the Fathers” furor in the mid-1980s. This was the early 1990s and the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago eventually opened its files on all 2,252 priests who had served in the previous four decades. The powers that be hunted for pedophiles and they found one.
The key word is “one.” One priest had been accused of assaulting a prepubescent child. The other allegations involved priests and sexually mature, but under-age, adolescents — mostly boys.
Here is how one expert on the left side of the Catholic spectrum — Father Donald B. Cozzens, former vicar for clergy in Cleveland and rector of a graduate seminary in Ohio — described the situation:
By definition, pedophiles are sexually attracted to boys and girls who have not reached puberty. But Cozzens said reports he has studied, and his own experience as a counselor, indicate the more common problem among Catholic clergy is “ephebophilia.” This is recurrent, intense sexual interest in post-pubescent young people — teen-agers.
The term “ephebophilia” is rarely used in church debates and the press. Yet, Cozzens said that whenever clergy vicars held conferences 90 percent of the sex-abuse cases they discussed fell into this category.
If this is the case, then I think that these news reports needed to tell us if these early warnings were truly about pedophiles — a small number of the offenders. I have heard counselors stress that they truly do not believe that pedophiles can be treated. Ever. They can only be removed from any contact with children — forever.
But what about those struggling with “ephebophilia,” the more common condition? Have some bishops assumed that ephebophiles can always be returned to ministry after “treatment,” spiritual or otherwise? Who long did it take for bishops to grasp that they were dealing with two different issues? And if newspapers do not draw any lines between these different kinds of crimes, how do readers make sense out of these stories?