How to bury a link to the Catholic scandal of this age

Anyone who has followed the mainstream media’s coverage of the Catholic Church over the past decade or so knows that the biggest story out there — for perfectly valid reasons, let me stress — has been the latest wave of evidence that some members of the church hierarchy have hidden the sins and crimes of many clergy who have abused thousands of teens and children. These scandals have been drawing waves of coverage since the 1980s, although there are reporters out there who seem to think that this hellish pot of sin, sacrilege and clericism didn’t boil over until the revelations in Boston about a decade ago.

Let me stress, as your GetReligionistas have noted on numerous occasions, that this has been a scandal that has touched both the Catholic left and the right. To be perfectly blunt, quite a few Catholics on both sides of the theological spectrum have been hiding skeletons in their closets. If you have the stomach for it, the most intense, searing take on the scandal can be found in the book “Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church” by the conservative scholar Leon J. Podles.

With that in mind, it is interesting to take a careful look at the recent Associated Press feature marking the death of former Bishop Walter F. Sullivan of Richmond, Va.

What he have here is best described with the term “hagiography,” which one online dictionary defines as:

1: biography of saints or venerated persons

2: idealizing or idolizing biography

How did such a feature make it into global print, in an age in which Catholic leaders have faced — often with justification — withering scrutiny from the mainstream press? Let’s look at one or two chunks of this:

As the 11th bishop to head the Richmond diocese, Sullivan was known as one of the more progressive leaders in the Catholic church. He caused controversy by opening his churches to gays and lesbians, condemning wars in Vietnam and the Middle East and speaking out against the death penalty.

Under Sullivan, women found a greater role in the church as lectors and Eucharistic ministers, and seven of the diocese’s 145 parishes were run by women.

Sullivan also was instrumental in reaching out to minorities and other groups. Before he retired in 2003, the diocese had 24 advisory committees representing youth, women, homosexuals, blacks and senior citizens — all of which he consulted regularly.

The Commission on Sexual Minorities was the first official attempt by a Catholic diocese to reach out to homosexual parishioners when it was established in 1977. While it was not instantly accepted by many in the church, there were more than 40 commissions like it 20 years later. The commission was disbanded shortly after Bishop Francis DiLorenzo took over for Sullivan in 2004.

And further down in the piece, there is this bit of sacramental innovation:

He also helped found the Church of the Holy Apostles in Virginia Beach in 1977, a joint parish of the Catholic and Episcopal dioceses. Co-pastors conducted services at side-by-side altars — one for Catholics, the other for Episcopalians. … Last month, the Richmond diocese said the church could continue to longtime practice of allowing the blended church to remain under one roof, but it ordered clergy to devise a plan to meet in separate rooms for Holy Communion.

Finally, near the end, in the 16th paragraph, there is this nod to the elephant in the sacristy. The placement of this information is interesting, to say the least:

In the wake of the national sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church, Sullivan was chastised by many for not admitting that the Richmond diocese had had priests accused of molesting children in the 1970s and ’80s until after victims came forward. Three priests were ousted from the diocese in the wake of the national Catholic organization adopting new rules for dealing with allegations in 2002.

The “national Catholic organization”? Might that have something to do with the U.S. Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas and the resulting charter that, finally, offered some realistic strategies to force some of the shepherds to stop hiding the wolves who were abusing their spiritual sheep?

Why did the accusations against Sullivan, in this crucial matter, get pushed all the way down to the bottom of this rather long wire-service report?

Just asking. Meanwhile, in the very next paragraph, AP goes right back to the business of its fawning salute to Sullivan, a salute unmarred by the voices of any critics of his work, either here in America or in Rome.

“As a bishop, he took risks to try to create an atmosphere in the church where all literally all could find their place in the Church,” the Rev. Michael Renninger, now a priest at St. Mary Catholic Church in Richmond, told The Virginian-Pilot.

By the way, Catholic readers: Might anyone care to wager a guess where Sullivan went to seminary?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    This is of little surprise. Sullivan was a hero to the world because he made the Church look more like the world. When Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, former auxiliary of Detroit, dies, he will get similar treatment from the Detroit Free Press. And when Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany finally retires next year (YEAH!) I’m pretty sure that the Albany Times-Union story will be similar in outlook. If Arius had lived in our times, his obit would have been as hagiographic.

  • Thinkling

    Without looking up where +Sullivan went to seminary, let me simply say I am not sure that layout, with scandal tie-ins NOT in the first paragraph (or line) is all bad. In one hundred years, most high ranking churchmen of all stripes will be known mostly for things other than the scandal, as the scandal itself is coming more and more to be seen as foremost a failure to maintain seminary standards.

    Is that the connection implied to his seminary? I really should go read and look it up.

    That aside, I guess this raises the question of why the scandal references are so often at the top of such pieces. Inquiring minds want to know.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Thinkling, the answer to the seminary question is St. Mary’s in Baltimore, which used to be known as the Pink Seminary (or something like that).

      • Thinkling

        Ah, I do recall that one, thanks. I think the moniker you are looking for is “Pink Palace”.

  • Jeff in Ohio

    Given that the Good Bishop represented all the causes that secularists cherish most, I’m surprised they mentioned it at all.
    BTW, Mr. Szyszkiewicz, I cheated and you’re right.

  • Will

    “What he have here is best described with the term “hagiography,” ”

    He quote Father Brown:
    “Do you think criminology is a science?”
    “I don’t know. Do you think hagiology is a science?”

  • adele young

    Bishop Sullivan did not *innovate* anything by allowing women to be lay lecturors or Extroadinary Ministers of the Eucharist. That happened in all dioceses following Vatican II. This makes me wonder about the
    rest of this *hagiography*. Anyway, he has gone to God to be dealt with…the rest of us should be
    doing penance.


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