A new kind of scandal

by Mark Fischer

I am reluctant to open the newspaper these days. Today’s headline in the Washington Post announced a “Crisis of Trust,” culminating another week where every day seemed to bring new charges of sex abuse in the Church. In the diocese where I work, the bishop announced the suspension of three priests due to sex offenses. The Church has endured similar scandals in the past, but unlike in the past, the scandals of 2002 have triggered a media frenzy that shows no sign of going away any time soon.

The secular media and anti-Catholics are not the only ones publicizing the scandals and demanding major reform. National Review Online has carried an outstanding series of articles by Rod Dreher. In one, titled “Faith in Our Fathers,” posted January 25, Dreher excoriated Cardinal Law and others in the Boston archdiocese for their failure of leadership. According to Dreher, records made public as a result of the Fr. Geoghan litigation exhibit a persistent willingness on the part of the Boston hierarchy to forgive and comfort the offender priest and an almost total absence of expressed compassion for the numerous victims.

Dreher quotes a 1989 letter from Cardinal Law to Fr. Geoghan, who had already been removed from several parishes because of allegations of sex abuse: “It is most heartening to know that things have gone well for you and that you are ready to resume your efforts with a renewed zeal and enthusiasm.” Fr. Geoghan was returned to the ministry, and unbelievably assigned to work with youth groups and altar boys by a subsequent pastor. Later, when authorities were preparing to arrest Fr. Geoghan, the Cardinal again wrote to him, saying, “Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness…God bless you, Jack.” We are left to wonder how serial molesting comports with effective ministry.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel, a trustee of both FUS and AMU, responded to Dreher’s writings in an NRO guest column. Calling one of Dreher’s articles “cleverly written,” Fr. Groeschel nonetheless believes Dreher to be mistaken in his ire. Dreher, apparently, has been fooled with the rest of the media regarding the alleged gross negligence of the bishops. Fr. Groeschel then sets forth the usual defenses: the Church did not know enough about the nature of pedophilia in the past; Church leaders followed bad advice; those leading the attack on the clergy have an agenda that includes changing the Church’s position on celibacy, the role of women, abortion, contraception, etc. Fr. Groeschel ends by stating that “I pray that the rest of the country will show a real interest in how its youth are corrupted every day by pornography on television and on the Internet and, in fact, in the whole media, which pours sexual seduction into the home incessantly.”

In the past, I have given similar defenses. One that Fr. Groeschel neglected to mention, and that I have used before myself, is that incidents of molestation are no greater among the clergy of other denominations and religions—the media are simply not as fascinated by non-Catholic sexual abuse. All of a sudden, however, these defenses are not enough. They may or may not be true. But even if true, they are not enough.

With all due respect to Fr. Groeschel, I firmly believe that it is he, not Dreher, who is mistaken. I have read Dreher for some time now. He is an orthodox and committed Catholic. He writes out of love for the Church, not out of a desire to undermine its authority. And he believes that the time for excuses is past.

Dreher’s articles raise two specific points of great importance—points upon which the laity must challenge their leaders to act. First, and most obviously, the Church must treat acts of sexual molestation as the hideous crimes that they are. As Dreher wryly states, “Why does it require a colloquium of Ph.D.‘s to determine that the way you deal with these monsters is to remove them from the active priesthood immediately? Why do I suspect this is patently obvious to, say, the night manager at a 7-11 in Dorchester, but not to the cardinal archibishop?” Keep in mind, in most of the cases currently in the press, the accused’s guilt was not seriously in question. But instead of defrocking the priest or going to the authorities, the Church used “therapy” and eventual reassignment. If the allegations are substantiated, or the priest admits wrongdoing, there is no good reason not to subject the priest to prosecution. And there is absolutely no justification for returning such a priest to the ministry. It is a scandal of the worst order to be protecting criminal priests at the expense of the Church’s children.

Dreher’s second point is an interesting one that deserves careful consideration. In most of the media coverage of this issue, the term “pedophile” is used to describe the offending priests. But is the term rightly used? Pedophilia is usually associated with heterosexual men, and involves the molestation of pre-pubescent children. Dreher notes that the large majority of victims in the reported cases involving priests are teenage boys. As Dreher states: “what we’re seeing with priests is not pedophilia, which is a deep-seated psychological illness. What we’re seeing is gay men who cannot or will not keep their pants up around teenage boys. Not teenage girls. Teenage boys.”

Dreher then wonders if the Church has a gay problem, not a pedophile problem. He notes a forthcoming book by Michael S. Rose, entitled Goodbye! Good Men, which explores this very issue. Dreher calls the book a “bombshell” which “reveals a seminary underworld in which homosexual promiscuity and sexual harassment is rampant, in which straight men are marginalized and demoralized, and seminarians who support the Church’s teaching on sexuality and the priesthood are persecuted, even to the point of being sent off, Soviet-style for psychological evaluations.”

The media hardly ever focuses on homosexuality in these scandal stories.1 Celibacy yes, but homosexuality no. And this makes sense. Many in the media believe that homosexuality is a valid form of sexual expression and are invested in reinforcing this point to the general public. Linking the abuse problem to homosexuality would undermine their position and would risk the anger of a gay lobby quick to impart the homophobe label. Also, such a story angle takes the sting out of the usual ideological points the media likes to make, as noted by Fr. Groeschel.

This is all serious stuff. I have heard second-hand stories from American seminaries regarding the homosexual subculture and regarding the abuse suffered by orthodox seminarians. I remember some years ago, after hearing some of these stories, lying awake at night praying in desperation for our Church and for acquaintances of mine in seminary. In recent years, my own busy life has pulled me away from these reflections. But if Dreher is right, this issue might be the issue for the Church in America. None of us, then, can afford to assume that someone else will take care of the problem. Our vigilant prayer and our efforts to spur the Church into action will be required.

Yesterday I read a column by Maggie Gallagher, who is both a Catholic and a mother of two sons. She wrote with sadness about a thought that occurred to her as she prayed in church for an increase in vocations: “If one of my sons wanted to dedicate himself to a life of chastity, poverty and obedience, forsaking marriage (and my grandchildren!) for God’s sake, would I trust my child to the care of people now running American Catholic seminaries? Should I? Should any mother?”

It should be clear to the Church. A crisis in confidence has been brewing and is reaching a crescendo. It is time to examine root causes. It is time for internal investigations. The Church must ensure the laity that its seminaries are not a breeding ground for aberrant sexual behavior and ideologies. If the American hierarchy will not take the lead on this, the Vatican must. With trepidation, I recall Christ’s words to those who cause our youth to sin: “better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” If we cannot act now to confront this crisis, then when?

Mark Fischer, who graduated from FUS in 1989, practices law in Pittsburgh and is a contributing editor of the Concourse. He and his wife, Susan (DeFord, FUS ‘89) live in Steubenville with their three children.

  1. As I write this article, the Boston Globe has published a lengthy article which for the first time addresses this issue. See “Priest abuse cases focus on adolescents,” March 17, 2002. ↑