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Abuse scandals strain an already crumbling institution


One must visit the 19th century to understand the problems that have been visited on Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law at the beginning of this one. The great god Brahmin ruled complacently: “No Irish Need Apply” signs hung everywhere, and Henry James, so enamored of the Italians in Florence and Rome, was appalled that they were moving into Boston.

Catholic priests mediated everything for their immigrant flocks, from paying the rent to organizing unions and filling out their citizenship papers. The people paid them back in the small but true coins of trust, admiration and a protectiveness that gave exempt status to priests in everything from parking tickets to personal foibles. These immigrants, whose women waited on the tables of the wealthy as their husbands patrolled their streets, took great pride in their archbishop’s living in a mansion as big as any in Back Bay.

The cold shadow side of that old respect for priests has fallen now on Law, who is being pilloried for allegedly shifting a known pedophile priest, John Geoghan, from parish to parish with no warning label attached, making new and trusting victims available to him in a succession of communities. The Boston Globe broke this story and, describing the cardinal on Jan. 29 as, “stripped of moral authority,” called for his resignation.

Thou art a priest forever

Law was ordained a priest in 1961, a year before John Geoghan. The general culture, and that of the clergy within it, seemed intact. Hindsight allows us to see that both were actually in extremis. Vatican Council II convened in October 1962, to embark on reforms whose transformation of the “changeless” Catholic culture was symbolized by the end of worship in Latin, the departure of many priests to marry, and a rapid decline in the number of seminarians. A year later the assassination of a president in the streets of Dallas set violence and protest loose in assaults on every symbol and institution of authority. The flag flaked into ashes in the flames of protest against the Vietnam War, and America’s vision blurred at the rise of a ragged counterculture ethic, a sexual revolution, generational estrangement, police called “pigs” and a president forced out of office.

John Geoghan was a marginal candidatefor the priesthood whose intellectual ability was doubted by one rector who also noted his “very pronounced immaturity.” His seminary record is moth-eaten with leaves of absence, illnesses and a two-year interval at Holy Cross College. Described by a priest uncle at one point as “nervous” and “depressed,” he is remembered by classmates as slight, soft and immature. As with many similar candidates, he needed the support and control of a stable general culture, and the Catholic culture within it, to maintain his adjustment. When these pillars crumbled, his ability to cope vanished in the debris cloud of the collapsing temple.

The archbishop of Boston in 1962 was the plainspoken populist Cardinal Richard Cushing who gave up attending Vatican Council II, claiming that he could not understand the Latin. He may have sensed a threat to the clerical world in which he had risen to power as he gradually withdrew from his once dominant role, retiring in 1970, bewildered by the changes symbolized by a strike of his own seminarians. He was perhaps the last of a generation of public figures inside and outside the church whose personal problems -- in his case, a serious, sometimes public, drinking difficulty -- were covered up by a benign media conspiracy.

Cushing was Geoghan’s superior during Geoghan’s first eight years in the priesthood. In America at large, the Titanic of professional privilege was on course for the iceberg but, at that time, as with Cushing, its first-class passengers were treated with a long-since-vanished respect and courtesy. The prevailing general cultural practice was to allow the alcoholic or sexually compromised congressman, judge, surgeon or even movie star to get help, often at a discreet private institution, and be returned to work without publicity about their failings.

Beneath the wreckage

A counterpoint tragedy of that lost and gone time involved the victims -- who were left largely voiceless and invisible -- of the sins, failures or indiscretions of the professional classes. Victims were at times intimidated, as female rape victims were routinely, by suggestions that they played a role in the incident in question, and, with the worldly wise complicity of the culture, they were often urged to keep quiet and go on with their lives. In a variant of the hoary philosophical question, does the felled tree make a sound if there is nobody in the forest to hear it, did the victims exist if nobody listened for their cries? Victims were found huddled where they had been hidden, in the catacombs beneath the wreckage of the institutional culture.

Bishops and religious superiors had subscribed to that culture’s ethic of reflexively supporting its privileged and professional members. They accepted this baptized version of the caste system as in the nature of things. Church leaders at every level were conditioned to believe that, by virtue of their office, their own words and actions incarnated the will of God. Their subjects were trained to hear God’s voice in that of the bishop or the abbot and to forsake their own feelings and judgment if they conflicted with those of the superior class. To this day, many bishops firmly believe that their ordination grants them a share of the infallibility attributed to the pope.

These conditions meant, in effect, that superiors became, by their appointment, agents of the divine will who could never make a mistake, and no layperson or member of the lower clergy could contest their decisions. Seminarians, in turn, were prepared to serve in this culture by accepting the seminary rule, a book of regulations, as God’s will for them. The psychological bonds thus formed strongly reinforced the general Catholic culture in whose waning days both Bernard Law and John Geoghan were ordained priests.

This was the Lacordaire era of the priesthood, exalted on thousands of holy cards in that celebrated 19th-century French preacher’s romanticized description of its singular and sacred nature. The calling to the priesthood separated a young man from his peers and invested him with automatic respect and honor. Those who left the seminary were considered, along with those who later left the priesthood, to be failures, “deserters,” as the prince of melancholy, Pope Paul VI once put it, “spoiled priests,” as women said shaking their heads as they chatted after morning Mass. Because they wanted to marry, these men were judged to have given in to the flesh and to be incapable of the self-discipline and virtue of those who persevered until ordination.

The latter were endowed with a presumed but at times illusory virtue. All priests were considered chaste, they were celibate, they were “pure” and had a “higher” calling than their departed brothers who were left with rue in their hearts for leaving the seminary for a lesser life. Or, as the late Cardinal John Krol, in a phrase that captures the vulgar triumphalism of the day, described resigned priests when the study of the priesthood commissioned by the bishops was released in 1971, “They want to change their power over the Body of Christ for power over the body of a woman.”

Beneath this enormous cover and support, many candidates for the priesthood were quite ordinary persons as they entered time-locked seminaries or novitiates that froze their immaturity in place. This faux innocence was curiously rewarded rather than challenged during their years of highly controlled training. Innocent of knowledge of themselves, none of them consciously chose the priesthood in order to find trustworthy positions from which to prey sexually on the young. Significant numbers of them, however, passed through the seminary in a state of psychological suspended animation that was sustained by the external supports of the overlapping clerical and general cultures that invested them with the idealized masculinity of actors, such as Spencer Tracy and Gregory Peck, who played them in the movies.

Many of the candidates, destined to become and to cause problems of sexual abuse later, chose celibacy without conflict or hesitation because their own sexual identities remained undeveloped and whispered inaudibly, if at all, inside them. They were good boys, the more charming for their untested innocence, who only began to grow internally after leaving the isolated seminary for the world of people. Only then did many of them, to their bewilderment and bedevilment, experience the rushes and longings of long-stalled erotic needs.

Psychological mirror

Celibacy was not a problem, for neither before or after ordination were they attracted to an adult relationship with a woman in marriage. Only gradually did they find themselves seeking unnamed sexual release in relationships with children. This choice of children reflected their own lack of maturity, their own groping for something they did not understand, found difficult to control, and whose significance they could not comprehend. They found their psychological selves mirrored in these children, so innocent, so trusting, so unaware of what was happening to them.

Here, in a tragic shadow world of gospel and priesthood, were found the fields ripe for the harvest by men honored and protected because they were numbered among the laborers who were said to be few. The victims and their families, following the prevailing cultural practice, were to put this out of their minds, never talk of it to anyone. After all, you don’t want to hurt Father, do you? Keep this to yourself, in the mantra of that culture’s ultimate undoing, for the good of the church.

Bishops believed that the good of the church justified denial, delay and evasion in managing the problems of priests. Bishops are chosen, as generals are, to maintain the institution against the assaults of history. In the turmoil of adjustment that followed Vatican II, thousands of priests and religious nuns and brothers sought dispensations in order to marry. The number of candidates to replace them dropped sharply, and soon bishops were faced with managing a church that was growing rapidly with a clergy declining at what seemed an even faster rate. In the last third of the 20th century, bishops inherited a greatly changed Catholic and clerical culture. The glory days were long gone. Keeping even marginally adjusted priests functioning became an unexpected imperative for them.

America’s bishops, therefore, decided not to follow up on the multidisciplinary study of the priesthood that they commissioned and whose reports, in 1971, identified significant weaknesses and emotional problems in certain groups of priests. Like their counterparts in business and government, many bishops doubted the usefulness of psychological assessment. To this they added their own belief, common in the Catholic subculture, that the call to be a priest was so sacred as to be beyond any measurement or evaluation. Many of them expected that the old days of plentiful candidates for seminaries would return, that everything would eventually “come back.”

Bishops, like other institutional leaders, kept on doing what they had always done, the best they could with fewer priests and seminarians, and, confident of divine guidance, were not inclined, despite evidence about Catholics breaking out of their own culture to become part of the general culture, to examine subtle questions about the transformations of Catholics or the priesthood. Make do with the troops at hand was the order of the day and recruit priests from places as familiar as Ireland and as far away as India. Keep faltering clergy on life-support, get them help to carry on, and send the more serious cases for treatment to private, campus-like hospitals such as Baltimore’s Seton Psychiatric Institute.

The unquestioned goal was to rehabilitate the priest so that he could be returned to parish work. The idea that a man should be forced out of the priesthood was, at that time, even in a changing Catholic culture, virtually unthinkable. All the difficulties had arisen, some traditionalists urged, because these priests had not prayed enough. Put aside the psychology, trust God, and prayer would make all things right again. An ailing culture was treating itself and inadvertently nursing its worst problem at the same time.

Going Geoghan’s way

In this shifting universe, John Geoghan served as other problem priests had before him, with timeouts for periods of treatment and rehabilitation when necessary and with kindly support so that they could get back to their identifying work. Professionals still got a pass in the general culture and priests certainly got one in the Catholic subculture. Very scanty records were kept about impaired professionals, and none was kept for the first 18 years of his priesthood. John Geoghan’s history -- and his official treatment -- do not seem as singular or unusual when viewed in the context of this problematic cultural background.

His first dozen years as a priest resemble those of that substantial minority of priests whose immaturity was not removed by the imposition of the bishop’s hands at ordination. His work history sounds like a railroad timetable out of “Our Town” as he was moved from Saugus to Concord to Hingham, Mass., always trailing a cloud of gossip about “boys in his room” or “fooling around” with them in questionable ways.

As regularly as a whiskey priest being signed periodically into the sanitarium, Geoghan was sent for treatment, including time at the Seton Psychiatric Institute. Then, and always with his doctors’ approval, he was permitted to go back to work. The doctors, of course, were part of the general culture of privilege and often part of the Catholic give-Father-a-break subculture as well.

Cushing’s successor, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, followed the traditional game plan in managing Geoghan and other problem priests, getting him help and getting him back to work. The timetable adds stops at Jamaica Plain and Dorchester, Mass. Geoghan’s story is that of scores of other priests who were furtively preying on children, almost exclusively boys, but who, unlike their confreres resigning to marry, were regarded as assets because these priests were at least staying in the priesthood. There are fewer scenes sadder than that of men as tortured and inadequate as Geoghan, in and out of treatment, propped up by medical OKs, the reluctance of people to testify, the uncertain recollections of brother priests, and their own manipulative pleading, disappearing and resurfacing, their eyes ever out for available boys, come to my room, I’ve got something I want to show you. ...

By the early 1980s the fault lines in the hierarchical culture of privilege were clear in every sphere of activity: The country had elected the fifth president in a baker’s dozen of years, the ROTC had been banned from many campuses, the CIA had been gutted of much of its power, General Motors was about to invest millions in trying to revamp its tottering hierarchical structures, and the professional class, led by physicians, was being charged with malpractice. Victims had found their voices and their attorneys and, in Louisiana, investigative reporter Jason Berry had begun to look into what he would soon write -- the first public exposé of the costs, emotional and financial, of covering up accusations of child sexual abuse against a priest in the diocese of Lafayette.

‘Excellent care’

After his 1980 removal from St. Andrew’s in Jamaica Plain, Geoghan wrote to Medeiros that he had been receiving “excellent care” from “two wonderful Catholic physicians.” Medeiros, again following accepted practice, approved his return, and urged a woman, Margaret Gallant, who had written a letter of complaint, to “keep silent to protect the boys,” a response that did not satisfy the relatives of the victims.

Two years later, relatives of victims met with Boston Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Daily to demand that Geoghan be removed from the ministry for abusing boys where he was then assigned. Geoghan was relieved of his duties again, remanded for treatment and, in a practice that seems far more extraordinary now than it was a generation ago, was also sent on a two-month, expense paid sabbatical to Rome before being returned to work. A bittersweet bit of clerical philosophy at the time observed that good hardworking priests were at a disadvantage because the healthy were never rewarded. If, however, a priest had a serious problem, he was likely to be treated like a top draft choice, with a trip around the world thrown in for sticking with the team.

Later, Geoghan, tracing the same path as other priests with sexual conflicts, was treated at the distinguished Institute for the Living in Hartford, Conn. When a written diagnosis seemed to clash with oral reassurances that had been given to a Boston archdiocesan official, the evaluation was altered by a staff member at the institute to argue in favor of Geoghan’s return to work as a priest. By then the Willy Loman of problematic clergy, Geoghan argued his own case with the skills of a beggar on a good street corner: It’s all been bad luck, I’m a priest put upon by others, but I’m feeling great now, ready to get back to work, why won’t you make me a pastor?

Geoghan symbolizes the cohort of priests who, in Boston alone, and to heartbreak all around, survived for a long time in forgiving ecclesiastical surroundings. On the cusp of old age, he remains the confused boy, the underdeveloped human being who has little idea of the level at which he functioned as he repeatedly corrupted the innocent and walked away, corruptly innocent himself, and still unable to admit or understand it, you’ve got me all wrong.

It appears that a clear trail must have been left in crisp snow but, in the last days of the culture and the first years of Bernard Law’s presence in Boston, the marks would not have been easy to trace had anyone been determined to do so. In the reconstruction reported in The Boston Globe, these events are described less in the language of proven fact than in that of clerical gossip and generalized rumor.

Police found, in some circumstances, that when they investigated reports of sexual misbehavior, people withdrew their complaints or refused to testify. Even the pastors under whom these men worked sometimes offer vague or varied recollections about how much they knew about the history of priests like Geoghan when they dropped their suitcases in the front hall of their rectories.

So Msgr. Francis S. Rossiter, Geoghan’s new pastor at St. Julia’s in Weston in 1984, assigned “him to oversee the altar boys and two other youth groups,” claiming that he was not informed of his new curate’s history. Asked under oath, however, if he knew of Geoghan’s problems, he replied, “I really can’t say,” according to the Jan. 24 Boston Globe. Regarding cases investigated by the Boston police, police spokesperson Mariellen Burns told the paper that “there was no physical evidence in either case, and in both cases, the victims and their families refused to cooperate in any prosecution,” according to the Globe. The paper concludes that with “just one exception, the Geoghan records and the transcripts of church officials contain no hint that anyone around the cardinal urged him to remove children from Geoghan’s reach until 1993.”

Unsettled questions

Even today, the general American culture is by no means finally settled or fully sophisticated about sexual behavior. Divided on even defining the nature of abortion, politicized over “reproductive rights,” still reeling from the rationalized hairsplitting of a president’s denying that oral sex constituted sexual relations, it is stymied about questions of sexual freedom and responsibility as it struggles to respond to grave problems of sexually transmitted diseases, impotence and an epidemic of heartbreak in unhappy marriages and relationships.

While The Boston Globe has demanded Law’s resignation, it did not act so boldly when President Bill Clinton admitted, in a way as slyly self-serving as the confessions of Geoghan, that he had taken sexual favors from an intern in the Oval Office. For several intoxicated months, the media accepted a public relations “war” declared by political consultant James Carville on Special Counsel Kenneth Starr for trying to find the facts and on presidential victims, like Kathleen Willey, who dared to tell their stories in public. Pundits and columnists then discounted sexual failings, saying that everybody failed, everybody lied, too, what’s the big deal?

The case may be made, against the grain of current revelations, that it was Law who finally recognized Geoghan’s pathology and removed him from parish work and from the priesthood. In context, Law initially acted in harmony with both the general and the specialized ecclesiastical culture in which he had so remarkably succeeded and Geoghan had so conspicuously failed.

Arriving in Boston in 1984 and, in the “one exception” noted by the Globe, Law was alerted by a letter from Bishop John D’Arcy pointing to Geoghan’s questionable fitness for parish work. Within the week, Law received reassuring comments from two doctors who had treated the priest, and then approved his new assignment. Only later was it learned that these doctors were themselves part of the enabling subculture and that one of them was a general practitioner with no psychiatric training and the other a psychiatrist with no experience in dealing with pedophiles.

Law acted as dozens of other bishops and religious superiors have in responding to a cultural crisis whose true dimensions and meaning they did not understand, acknowledge or attempt to investigate. Feeling responsible for maintaining the Catholic church as an institution, they drew on reflexes from the high era of clerical culture, strongly seconded by lawyers and insurance advisers, by trying to protect their assets and manage their parishes and schools with declining numbers of available priests.

America’s Catholic bishops have yet to adopt a national policy on dealing with pedophile priests. They are still trying to manage clergy who have largely abandoned the clerical culture once filled with wood paneled rectories, mother substitute housekeepers, hats tipped to Roman collars, and the blissful dream of a chaste and isolated existence in a protected universe.

The hardest working American priests, symbolized by those who rose to the pastoral challenges that erupted when the World Trade Center towers collapsed, no longer live the way their predecessors did half a century ago and a world away. They live rather alone, cooking for themselves and cleaning their own apartments or small houses, and they oversee parishes in which laypersons carry out most of the ministries of the church. Their closest relationships are no longer with their brother priests but with the people they serve.

These active priests now question the privileged and vacuum-sealed worlds in which priests were once prepared and in which they served. That culture is now comparable to that of the Confederacy in its never-questioned assumptions about the nature of the universe and the structure of human personality. A still little-understood aura of sexual mystique surrounded slaves and priests. Both groups were defined by their being institutionally subservient to other men, to an indentured impotence that was accepted and strongly reinforced as God’s will. It is almost cruelly ironic that the word bishop comes from the Greek for overseer.

Such comparisons are, of course, unacceptable in the controlled dialogue of the church where investigations of the impact of ecclesiastical culture on the psychosexual maturity of seminarians and priests are neither contemplated nor encouraged, despite widespread sexual conflicts among church personnel. As servitude was rationalized as a happy dependent state in the Confederacy, so were illusions of problem-free celibacy among apple-cheeked volunteers in the collapsed universe of clerical life. Unexamined, both kept, and to some degree, still keep, men from experiencing the full truth about themselves and the freedom and hazards of living outside an institution’s domination.

The epidemic of sexual abuse by priests and other religious personnel reveals the long-denied structural faults of that environment. That leaves bishops resembling Confederate generals who seem not to understand that the war is over, that further loss of life is sheer folly, and that the way of life they have been defending has come to an end.

But bishops, too, are men subject to authority and, although many would wish to, they have been forbidden by the present pope from discussing or experimenting with new ways to recruit proven and mature Catholics to serve as priests. No man may be appointed a bishop if he has ever spoken a sympathetic sentence about ordaining women to the priesthood.

The Beau Geste tactic

Rome expects them to operate as if there were no unmanageable problems with the clergy, neither a shortage nor a plague of criminal behavior, and, like corporation heads all around them, they feel compelled to defend their institution with the organizational solutions provided by lawyers and insurance advisers: Admit nothing, settle and seal cases, protect assets and make do with the personnel you have to keep the organization functioning.

Such a strategy means that they must use Beau Geste tactics. In that story, the beleaguered Foreign Legionnaires prop dead men up on the battlements of their desert fort to preserve an illusion of strength. Sworn to obedience themselves, bishops must prop up the dead men walking of their problem priests while wearing out their best priests. It wears out bishops, too. Holding out this way, overriding their own opinions, is what they are expected to do “for the good of the church.”

A few years ago, Rome made confidential inquiries in every American diocese about the scope of priest pedophilia but has kept the findings secret and, despite news from virtually all corners of the globe about the reality of this problem, has issued no enlightening documents beyond one that places these cases under the Congregation of The Doctrine of the Faith, once the Holy Office, where they will be handled sub secreto. The financial losses to the institutional church, in settlements reached on cases throughout the world, now reaches into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Geoghan stands for the dozens of priests whose pathetic, furtive and impoverished searches for intimacy leave them and their families now as ruined and desolated as the children and families whose trust they abused. These broken men have been valued for what service could be squeezed out of them in a priest-poor time. Unfortunately, little attention was paid to the fact that they were unfit to serve because of their unresolved psychosexual conflicts.

Many observers feel that these ill-conceived and ill-fated compromises have been made to maintain what the pope insists on -- despite its lack of theological or scriptural support -- an exclusively celibate male clergy. Leaders like Law must often go against their own consciences and pastoral intuitions in order to carry out what Rome expects of them.

This long-accumulating tragedy cannot be laid solely at Law’s door. It is rather the terrible collapse in our day of a great ecclesiastical structure whose foundations began to erode generations ago. This is the sad death of the respect and trust for the clergy that was earned in immigrant days by predecessor priests. It is a time of grief for the best of priests whose burdens are increased by the revelations of how widespread, ill-understood, and impossibly managed have been the numerous priests suffering with problems that passed suffering on to unnumbered innocents.

Law has for many years been without rival as the most powerful American bishop, deciding individual careers and diocesan boundary lines, who shall become a bishop and where they shall serve. When he learned, for example, in 1995 that Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was suffering from pancreatic cancer, he quickly had the little-known bishop of Yakima, Wash., Francis George, named to head the Portland archdiocese. Thus, George became an archbishop eligible to be moved to Chicago when Bernardin died.

Handsome, white-haired and now 70, Law has been the kingmaker and keeper of the Catholic church in America for at least 15 years. Now, having acted by his lights and according to the expectations of the culture to whose peak he has climbed, he is in danger of becoming the foremost but not the first victim of its final collapse.

Eugene Cullen Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago, and author of The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality, published by St. Martin’s Press.

National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002