Given the limited attention span of our national media and its strong disinclination to offend religion, you might think that the scandal of Catholic priests abusing children has faded away, now that we’ve all seen “Spotlight” and read the grand jury reports, while the dioceses in the U.S. are rearranging their financial empires to deal with the costs of settling liability. Four billion and counting fast, by the way.
But the priest scandals have not faded away. Consider: Allegations of Catholic clergy sex abuse of minors more than quadrupled in 2019, compared to the average in the previous five years.
Last week (June 25, 2020), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released its current report on “The Protection of Children and Young People,” which it has been issuing annually since 2002. In the most recent audit year (ending June 30, 2019), child-abuse allegations against U.S. Catholic clergy tripled to 4,434 over the same period in 2018. That’s a 400 percent growth over five years.
The report says that 2,982 Catholic clergy – overwhelmingly ordained priests but including some seminarians and deacons – were accused last year of sexual abuse of minor children in the 4,434 allegations (some of which involved priests with multiple accusations against them).
The bishops conference said that the sharp recent increase in reports of abuse is in part a result of more lawsuits, and the greater availability of “compensation programs” that dioceses have set aside to settle cases and try to avoid financial ruin. Still, more than two dozen Catholic dioceses have declared bankruptcy as a result of child-abuse cases involving priests. Total settlement costs exceed $4 billion and are likely to double that amount as dioceses and religious orders in the United States are increasingly held to account by victims’ lawyers.
The annual report was issued by the Catholic bishops conference’s Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection. Its findings are based on detailed audits of about 200 American dioceses and other Church entities by StoneBridge Business Partners, a forensics audit firm. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a noted Catholic social science and research organization at Georgetown University, also participated.
This striking new information comes to me as I am working on a non-fiction book titled Wreckage: An Altar Boy Turned Avenging Angel, a Predator Priest, a Collapse of Faith.
It’s an ambitious book, two years in the making, now in its final stage. It’s a rigorously reported, hardnosed work centered in great part on the pitiful life of one of the most tragic victims of priest sexual abuse, a Boston homeless boy who was molested at age 11 in 1984 by one of the most infamous of the priest-predators in that archdiocese. But it is also a book into which I braid my own perspectives as a “cradle Catholic” who abandoned the Church a long time ago. Like scores of millions of other Catholics from the urban stew of post mid-century America, I fled Catholicism but never lost fascination with its existential plight, and never really shook off its cultural hold. As Jimmy Breslin said, “Nobody leaves the Catholic Church.”
Here is a précis for Wreckage:
Battered throughout childhood by a drunken father, banished by a coldhearted mother into the streets of Boston when he was 11, then sexually molested by a priest he trusted, a baby-faced former altar boy tumbles into decades of addiction, depravity, robbery, and vengeful murder, despite years-long efforts of an elderly nun to rescue him. Written by an acclaimed true-crime author – himself an ex-Catholic who was once an altar boy — Wreckage unflinchingly peels away the layers of a lost child’s pitiful life to answer a catechetical question: Who made John?
The book fits into both the history and current-events niches, within the literary true-crime genre that I have specialized in. My main subject, with whom I have been in close contact for two years, is 47 years old now, and serving life without parole following a life of crime. After an antic cross-country road trip vengefully robbing Catholic church rectories, he went to prison in 2000 in California for the stabbing and attempted murder of a smalltime movie producer who asked him to procure underage boys for porn films. While in prison, he got a death sentence, later reduced to life without any chance of parole, for murdering two cellmates, on separate occasions, because they were convicted child molesters.
Over and above the sad personal saga, the book digs into the reservoir of rage about the Catholic Church and addresses the question many of us who grew up in the Church during its years of triumph finally had to ask ourselves: How could we not have seen the clues?
Why did those of us who were not assaulted by priests fail to see what was happening in the shadows? After all, my own high school in Philadelphia (4,000 students when I was there, all boys) was run by an order of priests called the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, who paid $25 million in 2011 to settle claims of sexually abusing high school boys.
Not long ago, I read about the disgrace of one Joseph Cistone, a boy who had been three years behind me at Father Judge High School in Philadelphia, and who went on to become a priest and later a bishop. In later years, Cistone became the bishop of the diocese in Saginaw, Michigan, where he was described, before his death in 2018, as having been a “kingpin” in high-level coverups to protect predator priests in both Michigan and Philadelphia.
Then last year, Rev. Armand Garcia, the pastor since 2017 of my old neighborhood church in Philadelphia, St. Martin of Tours, was arrested for rape and sexual abuse of a minor.
In all, when assessing the future of the Church,. consider the priest scandals, the financial scandals and declining revenues, the empty pews, and the titanic doctrinal battles ongoing in the Vatican, where there is noe one reining pope and another who in 2013 was the first to quit the papacy since the year 1415, who still lives in effectively a separate court on Vatican grounds, still dresses in white papal garments, still insists on being called “Your Holiness.”
Consider the ongoing rebellion in the Vatican curia by furious right-wing cardinals who consider Pope Francis to be a heretic, and yearn for the old days when the Mass was in Latin, homosexuals remained quietly in the closet, sex of any kind outside of marriage between a man and a woman was a grave sin, as was artificial contraception.
The Church today is confronting its most dire crisis since the Protestant Reformation. But te Church survived the Reformation.
The troubles keep rolling along. A section of the 2018-2019 audit listed some of the highlights of disgrace just in the year that the report covered:
–In July 2018, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington D.C., was thrown out of the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis as allegations mounted about McCarrick’s history of sexual misbehavior with seminarians and sexual abuse of boys.
— In August 2018, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation was released, detailing shocking and systematic sexual crimes against minors by priests, and coverups by bishops, in dioceses throughout the state. That grand jury report sharply criticized Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who had succeeded the former Cardinal McCarrick as archbishop of Washington D.C. for mishandling sexual assault allegations against priests when he, Wuerl, was archbishop of Pittsburgh.
–The same month, following the Pennsylvania lead, federal grand jury investigations into sexual abuse in Catholic dioceses are announced in a dozen states and Washington D.C. Several state attorneys general launched criminal probes.
— In September 2018, the luxury-loving, free-spending Bishop Michael Bransfield resigned as head of the impoverished diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, and Pope Francis ordered a Vatican investigation into sexual and financial abuse allegations against Bransfield.
–That same month, the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis reached a bankruptcy agreement that was the largest settlement to date in the abuse scandals.
–In October 2018, Bishop Bransfield, the Good-Time Charlie of West Virginia, resigned as the Vatican investigation into his spending and questionable sexual behavior continues.
— In December 2018, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the St. Paul and Minneapolis diocese, publicly forbade his predecessor, Archbishop John Nienstedt, from celebrating Mass or engaging in any priestly ministries in the archdiocese. Nienstedt, once referred to by a Michigan newspaper as “the poster boy for the Catholic abuse scandal,” was under investigation for allegations that he covered up sexual abuse by priests, and that he had himself a long pattern of activities grooming seminarians.
— The same month, the archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez, ousted an auxiliary bishop, Alexander Salazar, during a new civil investigation of “misconduct with a minor” when Salazar was a priest in Pasadena, where the police in 2002 had charged him with a “lewd act against a child,” in a case that was never prosecuted by the district attorney
— In February, 2019, former Cardinal McCarrick was “laicized,” the Vatican euphemism for defrocked from the priesthood.
–In March, 2019, Cardinal George Pell of Australia, formerly head of Vatican finances and the highest-ranking prelate ever to be criminally charged with sexual abuse of minors, was sentenced to six years in prison. An Australian court subsequently overturned the conviction and released Pell after more than a year of incarceration.
— In May 2019, Dallas police raided Catholic diocese property and churches in a widening investigation into Church coverup of sexual abuse against minors.
–In June 2019, Bishop Bransfield, former head of the diocese in Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, was prohibited by his successor from even residing in the diocese or celebrating sacraments there.
The audits for the 2019-2020 year just ending are underway, and there is no indication that the upward trend in accusations has waned.
Meanwhile, tragedy for this institution melds into elements of farce.
In late 2019 and into 2020, the Pope Francis was being denounced by his enemies among ultraorthodox factions in the clergy for having allowed two small wooden statues depicting a deep Amazon-region fertility goddess – known as a Pachamama — to be presented in the Vatican gardens after the Church had concluded its outreach Amazon synod in October 2019. The statues were displayed during a Vatican tree-planting ceremony to mark the conclusion of the Church evangelical outreach toward the isolated Amazon basin, where indigenous religions prevail, and where Catholic and Pentacostal missionaries are competing for converts.
The statues – which some dubbed “Our Lady of the Amazon” — were then displayed among other Andean spiritual artifacts in a church near the Vatican. The right-wing fury intensified over hot-button “syncretic” involving incorporations of alien spiritual symbols into the traditional Church. The word “paganism” was invoked.
In the dead of night, a activist snatched the statues from the church and tossed them into the Tiber River.
The burglary was hailed as a blow against paganism by leading prelates. German Cardinal Gerhard Muller, an arch-conservative who has criticized Francis for “doctrinal errors,” proclaimed that honoring the Amazonian figures had been a form of idolatr, “a grave sin, a crime against divine law.”
Not to be outdone, the flamboyant Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American prelate in the Vatican who has clashed with Pope Francis, and who is sometimes considered to be a candidate for election to the papacy when Francis dies or quits, said that by honoring the Pachamama, the pope had introduced “diabolical forces” into the Church. Burke said he had “respect” for the pious activist who tossed the statues into the Tiber.
Environentally speaking, by the way, dumping objects into the Tiber River is not a good idea. But there is certainly historical precedent, as the Tiber has been a kind of East River for disposing of inconvenient things from antiquity onward.
Even an inconvenient dead pope was thrown into the Tiber. In the year 897, the corpse of the recently died Pope Formosus was ordered dragged out of its tomb by a successor, Pope Steven VI, who had it clad in papal vestments and seated on a throne to face trial in what became known to history as the Cadaver Synod. The corpse of the ex-pope was found guilty of various charges. The three fingers used in papal blessings were chopped off; all of Formosus’s proclamations and acts were declared void — and the poor fellow (or at least his corpse) — was unceremoniously tossed into the Tiber, in what would seem to be an early example of modern-day Mafia protocol.
The accusations against Formosus are mired in the Roman political machinations of the age, of scant interest today except to historians.
I’ll refrain from trying to explain the issues in the Cadaver Synod. In this hesitation, I am guided by the famous last line of the 1974 movie Chinatown, in which a colleague tells the overcome private eye Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, to just let it go.
To paraphrase: “Forget it, Jake, it’s the Vatican.”