From Bad to Worse: Pedophile Priests and the Challenge to the U.S. Church

Clergy child molesters, episcopal negligence, empty claims of reform: Recent scandals have even Catholic conservatives furious.

BY: Rod Dreher

 

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An Ecclesiastical Enron
"For God's sake, this is the umpteenth time something like this has happened!" says one angry priest. "The Louisiana case [that initiated the wave of lawsuits against the Church] was 1985! This is 2002! How does Law have the hubris to stand in front of cameras and say that now, now he's come up with a policy?"



Accurate estimates of the amount of money the Catholic Church has paid in damages and settlements to victims of clergy abuse are impossible to come by, but informed sources within legal and abuse-survivors' circles put the number at between $600 million and $1.3 billion since 1984. The Church is hemorrhaging both money and the trust of its members. Morale among priests, the vast majority of whom serve with integrity, has suffered. And many place the blame squarely at the foot of the American bishops, whom they accuse of placing the "good" of the institutional Church over the welfare of the flock.



"The bishops have the mindset of company men," observes one priest. "Being company men is fine when the company is on a growth curve. But not when your company is Enron."



The analogy to the disgraced energy corporation collapsing under the weight of its leaders' own malfeasance may sound extreme, but consider what happened in Dallas in 1997, when a jury returned a staggering $120 million judgment against the diocese in a molestation case egregious even by the abysmal standards of such matters. Church officials, pleading that the Dallas diocese would be bankrupted, convinced the plaintiffs to settle for $31 million instead. Had the victims not agreed, the 400,000 Catholics in Dallas could have witnessed the selling off of many of their schools and parishes.



"It is disgusting. It is revolting. It tries your faith," says a veteran clergyman, a Dallas native. "But priests who try to speak out just get crushed."



The scandals involving Porter and Geoghan are arguably the worst in modern times, but they are by no means the only ones to receive national attention. Consider these high-profile cases, all from the last decade:



  • The landmark civil suit in Dallas primarily involved Rudy Kos, a former priest, who was convicted in criminal court of serial molestation of altar boys, and sent to prison. During the trial, it was revealed that Church officials were repeatedly warned that Kos was a danger to children, and did nothing. After the verdict, Msgr. Robert Rehkemper, former vicar general of the diocese, said in an interview, "No one ever says anything about what the role of the parents was in all this"; also that Kos's child victims "knew what was right and what was wrong. Anybody who reaches the age of reason shares responsibility for what they do." Michael Sheehan, the seminary rector who was advised time and time again about Kos's attraction to children, but allowed him to remain, continued to rise in the hierarchy, and is now archbishop of Santa Fe.

  • In 1999, the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif., already paying out $5.4 million in child sex-abuse settlements from the early 1990s, shuddered when DNA and taped evidence proved that Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann had been having sex with one of his priests - a relationship the priest claimed Ziemann forced on him with blackmail. It emerged that Ziemann, who resigned, had lost millions of the diocese's funds in shady investment schemes - fraud for which he was never prosecuted because, said local law-enforcement officials, Church authorities refused to cooperate with investigators.
  • John Bollard, a former Jesuit seminarian in San Francisco, filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit four years ago against the Society of Jesus, claiming his superiors in the order pressed him constantly for gay sex. When their claim to be immune for religious reasons from sexual-harassment law failed, the Jesuits settled the suit.

    The ongoing crisis began, as a public matter, in 1985, when a Louisiana priest named Gilbert Gauthe was convicted of molesting a number of boys in the Diocese of Lafayette. On the heels of the Gauthe conviction, the American bishops and heads of religious orders received a confidential report co-authored by the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer working in the Vatican embassy in Washington. The lengthy document warned the bishops that the Gauthe case was likely to be only one of many, and that if they didn't act swiftly and decisively to clean out their stables, the Church could lose an estimated $1 billion over the next ten years. It also cautioned that conventional methods for treating pederasty are not effective.

    Continued on page 3: »

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