Sunday, September 22, 2013

Reckonings by Mchael D'Antonio

In Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes (2006) Richard Sipe, Thomas Doyle & Patrick Wall traced the Roman Catholic struggle to control sex back to the year 309 and document more than ten centuries of crimes committed by priests against children. In conducting research for this book, and for later projects, the three men targeted the Servants of the Paraclete, who had established the first treatment program for priest sex offenders.  Founded by a priest named Gerald Fitzgerald, the center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, first admitted priests who molested and raped minors in the early 1950s. Fitzgerald, who originally intended to treat alcoholism, reluctantly agreed to deal with these men but from the start he held out little hope that they could change.  In fact, he became the first whistleblower of the modern crisis when he began warning bishops, and even the Pope, about the men guilty of “tampering with the virtue of the young.”

The line about tampering was in a letter sent to the bishop of Reno, Robert Dwyer, in 1952. In it he urged that priests who abused be defrocked and cast out because “leaving them on duty or wandering from diocese to diocese is contributing to scandal or at least to the approximate of scandal. Of course “scandal” was, and continued to be, the preferred euphemism for sexual abuse and despite Fitzgerald’s many warnings to his superiors, they did let hundreds of these men wander about as priests.

Fitzgerald’s letter to Dwyer was found in a box of documents that the Paracletes had sent to an attorney in Santa Fe named Stephen Tinkler, who had sued them on behalf of people abused as children by men the order had sent into local communities while they were in treatment. It was discovered when Doyle, Wall and Sipe went to New Mexico to conduct research for their book. As they read Fitzgerald’s papers the three men found a kindred spirit who doubted that priests who abused children could ever be allowed to return to ministry. Among the more compelling finds were letters noting that Fitzgerald intended to discuss the issue of clergy abuse with Pope Pius XII in 1957 and his plan to house offender priests, whom he called “vipers,” on an isolated island.  Fitzgerald actually paid a &5,000 deposit on an island that was for sale in the Caribbean, but he never completed the purchase. As his papers showed, Fitzgerald became more alarmed the longer he served. After discussing the problem with Pope Paul VI he followed up with a letter that said, in part:

“Personally I an not sanguine of the return of priests to active duty who have been addicted to abnormal practices, especially sins with the young. However, the needs of the church must be taken into consideration and activation of priests who have seemingly recovered in this field may be considered but is only recommended where careful guidance and supervision is possible. Where there is an indication of incorrigibility, because of the tremendous scandal given, I would most earnestly recommend total laicization.”

Along with his correspondence, Sipe, Wall and Doyle found photos of Fitzgerald with the Pope and documentation showing that high-ranking officials from many dioceses, including the archdiocese of Los Angeles, had sent abusive priests to New Mexico for treatments long before the current crisis erupted. Altogether, the Fitzgerald documents contradicted Catholic leaders who said the Church was ill-informed on the problem and only came to understand it in the 1980s or 1990s. Fitzgerald’s repeated warnings were delivered to responsible men at every level, including the Vatican, in the 1950s and 1960s. When Los Angeles attorney Anthony DeMarco persuaded a judge to release them, they became key documents in future lawsuits.

In every major case where lawyers forced the Church to divulge documents, they showed that bishops followed roughly the same practices to avoid scandal. Priest offenders were sent to new postings, laypeople were discouraged from speaking publically about their offenses, and settlement payments came with demands for confidentiality agreements. Sometimes bishops sent problem priests to different states and foreign countries, without informing locals of their history. Similar practices had been seen in Ireland and would emerge around the world. The global nature of the scandal was apparent to anyone who cared to look.

1 comment:

  1. At the first meeting of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) founder Barbara Blaine noted “ We’re a self-help group. You don’t get to tell others what to do. You are not allowed to give advice. We don’t make judgments. There are no right or wrong statements. We are making a sacred commitment to each other.” Which sounds a lot like how the new pope characterizes ‘discernment’ in Christian practice.