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Special Report

Failed lives, lost faith and aching hearts


We priests are in some ways a sad group of men. Born into the world to render service to mankind, there is no one more wretchedly alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task.

The voice of Father X sitting alone in his Boston rectory before his TV with his good night glass of scotch? Not quite.

It is Jesuit Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues, tragic hero of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence, on the edge of martyrdom in 17th-century Japan. Rodrigues will fail -- deny his faith, publicly trample on a picture of Christ and live on in shame. Yet, somehow he retains our respect: He had set out to give his whole life for God. Martyrdom was something else.

During World War II and the Cold War, vocations to the priesthood soared. The New York Jesuits built a multimillion-dollar seminary at Shrub Oak with a sanctuary spacious enough for dozens of young theologians to lie prostrate during a high point of the ordination liturgy. The Catholic priest was a cultural icon. Go to the movies and there were Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck in Roman collars.

Today vocations are down to a trickle, and half of those who join will drop out within a few years. Shrub Oak is a drug rehab center for New York youths. At the moment the best-known clergyman in America is a 66-year-old recently defrocked Boston priest accused of feeling up over 130 children.

The statistics, now too familiar, are staggering. In Boston about 80 priests have been accused within the last 40 years. Nationally perhaps 1,000 cases have been settled out of court. A New Jersey lawyer who has handled 300 cases in 50 dioceses has recently received 100 more calls. The Boston metropolitan area is one of the most Catholic in America and therefore demographically the training ground for a high percentage of the nation’s bishops. Five of those appointed in recent years to dioceses around the country were part of the Boston cover-up culture that allowed Fr. John Geoghan to shuttle from parish to parish, from victim to victim.

Who is responsible?

Who is responsible for this mess? The right-wing Wanderer blames the church’s acquiescence to the sexual revolution; the National Review blames a gay network in ecclesiastical promotions. Andrew Sullivan, a sexually active gay Catholic conservative, asks in the March 4 issue of Time: “How can the church that preaches the impermissibility of so many forms of consensual adult sex, simultaneously tolerate, ignore or cover up the sexual abuse of children by its own priests?” Liberals say they would reform the structures that breed this virus.

Over the last two weeks I selectively read through the 10,000 pages of legal documents that are before the Boston courts -- depositions, letters, interrogatories and pictures of the perpetually grinning Geoghan with children on his lap. Then I read The Boston Globe series and a summary of scientific data (Nathaniel McConaghy, “Paedophilia: a review of the evidence,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 1998), and interviewed two clergymen, one a Catholic priest, the other a Protestant, who are in pedophilia recovery programs. And listened to others, young and old, who have either witnessed or experienced the phenomenon.

As a future priest, John Geoghan seems to have been a mistake from the beginning. As a seminarian he failed to show up for a summer camp, but he had a monsignor uncle to intervene and make excuses for him -- John “was in a nervous and depressed state” -- and the uncle deeply resented the suggestion that he was favoring his nephew.

The rector of the seminary wrote that John evidenced “very pronounced immaturity,” was “a little feminine in speech and approach,” and was scholastically not very swift. Though passing “most” courses, the future didn’t look bright. His “good” traits were his “obedience and docility.”

As late as March 29, 1997, Geoghan wrote to a diocesan official: “I have never engaged in intercourse and/or oral sex with anyone. I have never been touched sexually by anyone. I would take a lie detector test.”

The next year he was defrocked.

Read a series of the interrogatories and depositions and Geoghan’s modus operandi becomes disgustingly clear. Find a vulnerable family. A father has died. A divorced woman is taking care of four or seven young children, including the children of an aunt. Members of families are divorced or on drugs or in jail. In one family the children are accusing the father of having murdered the mother. In another both the father and a son are suicidal.

Failed lives

Typically, perhaps because suing for damages requires a cause-effect relationship between the offense and today’s pain, all those accusing Geoghan trace their failed lives -- sexual dysfunction, low self-image, homophobia, failed marriages, loss of their Catholic faith -- to Father G.’s fondling 30 years before. It was not that their memories were “repressed,” they say. They had just put it out of their minds until newspaper stories and lawsuits triggered their recollections.

Lisa Scott, a single mother who never married, reports that in 1975, when she was 5 and in a hospital, she awoke to find Father G. by her bedside, smiling and exposing himself. It was the first time she had seen a man’s penis. As a result, she “grew up too fast” and lost her religious faith.

John Greene says that because Father G. bought him ice cream and later asked him to lick his penis. Green says he developed an insatiable appetite for sex: He molested his sister and had sex play with his brother. He cut classes at school, drank booze and did drugs, committed adultery and lost his property. Among the financial losses caused by G., Greene listed the enormous phone bill totaled from his indulgences in phone sex.

It does not minimize the horror of G.’s crimes to report that, according to McConaghy’s research, the origins and effects of these sexual experiences remain obscure. Some victims are devastated; some are not.

But Catholic Boston, like every city in the country, had its share of big families with dead or absent fathers, and children dying for attention. In a situation like this a kind priest might be welcomed.

This kind priest has a routine: drive the children out for ice cream, hold them in his lap, get erections, masturbate them, have oral sex, visit them as they go to bed to “bless them,” play with their “weenies,” tell them to keep this a secret.

Blessing abuse

In the most insidious aspect of his strategy, if testimony is true, he blesses his abuse -- has them recite Hail Marys during his fellatio and tells them that this is the way “God treated special kids.”

A psychiatrist at Southdown, a Canadian clinic, said Geoghan uses his constant smile to placate others, he defines himself through his work, and, the doctor observed in a Nov. 26, 1996, letter, that Geoghan’s tactic is to “gravitate to a chameleon like position in which he assumes whatever role is necessary in order to gain acceptance,” in order to find a place as a man and father figure to fatherless boys.

Meanwhile, in the documents, another side of the argument peeps through.

The March 4 Newsweek prominently features the accusations of Anthony Muzzi Jr., 47. In the documents, the girlfriend of the patriarch of the extended Muzzi family testifies that one of the boys lies all the time, that he had continually denied that Father G. had abused him, that another son said he was going to find a doctor to help him recover his memory of abuse, so he could get some of the money, and that the sister was pressured into saying she was abused so she could get some of the money, then withdrew her complaint.

Yet the sister’s compliant is in the files: Father G. brushed up against her in the family swimming pool, and, at her mother’s wake, got her into the funeral parlor confessional and touched her breasts.

An unsigned 1998 typed document in the files accuses the Muzzis of dealing in stolen property -- cable boxes, computers, insurance scams -- and says their suit against St. Paul’s Parish is a “phony case.”

Another witness gratuitously assumes that Geoghan is alcoholic, because, she surmises, “all priests” have that problem.

The most compelling document is the much-quoted letter from Margaret Gallant, who wrote to Cardinal Humberto Madeiros in August 1982. After their complaints, Geoghan is still in a parish. Seven in her family have been violated, she says: “We cannot undo that, but we are obligated to protect others from their abuse to the Mystical Body of Christ.”

Her heart aches for the priest and she prays for him, but, she writes, “Father Damien the leper went after a child molester and beat him up. His cause [for being declared a saint] was held up because of it. I am praying to him to bring this cause to Jesus Christ.”

Search for fulfillment

To fulfill himself as both a good priest and a human being, it has been my experience that the priest needs five things: a prayer life that both nourishes faith and enables him to find God in other persons; meaningful work where he can see the lives of others improve at least to some degree because of his effort; intimate friends -- men and women, older and younger -- whom he loves and who love him; a religious superior who is intelligent, caring and just; and a personal spirituality guided by self-knowledge and self-sacrificing love that frees him from both ambition and fear.

Lacking any of these gifts, the temptation is to put other things, many of which are self-destructive, in their place -- alcohol, physical comfort, power, or vulnerable persons he can manipulate for furtive and fleeting self-satisfaction.

But the present clerical culture -- with its hierarchical power structure; its secrecy and corporate cover-up mentality; its reward system based on financial skills and rigid theological orthodoxy; with the often lonely, individualistic rectory lifestyle -- can be an obstacle course rather than a clear path toward spiritual maturity.

Our great novelists have taught us to accept, even admire, flawed clerics -- Bernanos’ country priest with his wine-soaked stomach cancer, J.F. Powers’ pride-stained Father Urban, Graham Greene’s whisky sipping Father Pro-like Mexican martyr.

But no artist has successfully illuminated the dark corner of the pedophile’s heart. Surely some can write; they would serve the church, and perhaps themselves, by telling their stories. Until then, what do we do?

  • Don’t kill the messenger. Thank the press. I’m told on good authority that Cardinal John Cody, archbishop of Chicago from 1965 to 1982, learned of a pedophile ring of priests in a neighboring state who were passing their victims from one to another. The press got wind of it, and Cody used his clout to kill the story. How much better for the church if it had faced the scandal years ago.
  • Get used to the idea of there being fewer priests. Accept that there will be fewer seminarians. Inevitably many will be older and sexually experienced, but a more sophisticated confrontation with sexual issues can instill a spirituality that allows intimacy, but not genital activity, and nourishes a love appropriate to each stage of a man’s development. True, no screening program is foolproof, but we have to trust the Spirit to do her/his work and in time send the right candidates -- including women, married persons and former priests.
  • Rethink the pastoral application of the theology of the sacraments that separates the effect of the ritual from the worthiness of the minister. Of course the Eucharist received from the hands of Greene’s priest, who has sired a daughter, is valid. That does not justify ordaining and retaining in service men whose lives are scandals just so someone can “deliver” Mass.
  • Listen carefully to the victims and act promptly and sensitively on their complaints. In the Globe articles and in the 10,000 pages of documents, the anger of good Catholics who were brushed off with pious pap and false assurances rises like smoke from the pages. The church and its lawyers tried to keep the lid on the scandal. Once it blew off, the victims went for all they could get, using the media and public prejudices to force settlements. We can’t help wondering if the atmosphere would be different if the church had reacted as a shepherd to the victims as well as to its priests.
  • Report criminal pedophiles to the police. But many accusations can be false. Elements within the church can be guilty of McCarthyism, to rid themselves of a priest they dislike for other reasons. Each diocese and religious order should appoint a tribunal to guarantee due process and protect the reputation of someone who may be falsely accused.
  • On Cardinal Law: Perhaps his best friends could suggest to him that resignation can be an act of honor rather than an admission of defeat. Many men in his career path see promotion and power as a sign that the “church” approves of them. That may be true. But there is not a word in the gospels that encourages shepherds to hold on to power. To be remembered as a true shepherd and teacher, he might hand the power to someone else and continue a life of service in some other way.

Living soberly

Films like “The Lost Weekend” and “The Man with the Golden Arm” helped us understand alcoholism and drug addiction as illnesses. Recent controversial films like “Happiness” and “L.I.E.” have not given us any clear answers on pedophilia, but at least they have put the problem on art house screens.

The church’s challenge is to understand in what sense pedophilia is an addiction -- like and unlike alcoholism and drugs -- that sometimes can and sometimes cannot be managed. Every case is unique, but therapy and something like a 12-step program can sometimes, as participants say, teach them to “live soberly.” Sobriety is not a cure, but a change in life. One clergyman who told me that the fictional father in “Happiness,” who abuses his son’s friends, belongs in jail, participates in a 15-year-old organization, SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) and has successfully returned to his ministry.

Just as a church that preaches chastity and sexual integrity must do everything to guarantee that its ministers practice those virtues, it must live out its belief in forgiveness and redemption as well.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit community professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J.

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002