2016-06-30
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William Donohue is the president of the Catholic League, a 350,000-member organization well-known for going toe-to-toe with the media for anti-Catholic bias. Voluble and opinionated, Donohue delights in sparring with his many critics. These days, he says he's surprised even himself with his vehement anger at the church he normally loves to defend. He explains why, and pronounces his cure for American Catholicism's ailments, in this interview.

How important is this crisis to the church?

This is the Catholic Church's Watergate, and these wounds are entirely self-inflicted. This has nothing to do with anti-Catholicism in the media or anyplace else. The Catholic Church is wholly to blame for this dereliction of duty, the collapse of standards. And I don't think it's any mistake as a believing, practicing Catholic that this series of events unfolded during Lent. I believe Christ gave the Catholic Church a huge cross, one that it has justly earned. And I believe that while the cross is a symbol of death, it is also a symbol of resurrection and redemption. I believe the Catholic Church will in the long run come out of this for the better, after it faces up to the crisis. It has yet to face up to the crisis. But it's going to be forced to face up to it.

How will it be forced?

Lay people will force them to. Let me be specific. In the Bronx recently, a Father Gentile was sent off to a parish in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx. Word got out he had been previously involved in a sex abuse scandal. The parish had contacted the Archdiocese and got nowhere. So they started pressing it themselves with petitions and flyers and they got it out.

If you pick up Newsday (April 2), a priest whom I know personally, Father Brian McKeon, was let go in November, because he was a serial pedophile. Now why was he let go? Because after some parents had complained and the dioc of Rockville center did nothing, one of the parents got so angry--and this is after he'd been sent off to Canada to get treatment and come back to Long Island, and was working in Nassau Hospital and doing work in parishes, a parent put over 100 fliers on people's windshields in the parking lot of Nassau University Hospital, saying the man is a pedophile and the diocese is doing nothing. And after that he was let go.

You're going to see lay participation like this all over the United States. At the end of the day, it won't matter if the bishop wants to move with alacrity, because he'll be forced to.

And the media did a very good job of outing a Father Vollmer on Long Island. The day after he is outed, we see steps taken to release him. Between the media and lay Catholics, once they get word there's a problem here, the day is gone when people are going to sit back and feel sorry for the priest. One of the fundamental problems with the clerics in the United States is an astounding lack of courage. They've gone soft. They've bought into the therapeutic movement. They flip-flopped 180 degrees from the rigidity of the Catholic Church of the 1950s and 60s to being kinder and gentler to such an extent that anything that was judgmental was wrong, they downplayed discussions of sin and hell. Everyone was to be loved. Anybody with a malady can be cured. We can save people. While there are obvious kernels of truth and goodness to what I'm saying here, it's also true that if you make that the mainstay of your philosophy, where feelings triumph over reason, and where you don't have the courage of your convictions to say this guy has to go...Even (a monsignor) who knew Father McKeown had problems, said, "Probably in hindsight I should have been more participatory." Probably? So he's still not sure. There's no courage there to make the tough decisions.

That kind of unmanliness is deeply ingrained in the Catholic Church. But you can find someone who is friendly and affable and at the same time accountable. I know many priests like that.

And here's another problem. Too many of the bishops treated this problem of sexual abuse as being morally analogous to a priest who might have had a drinking problem. If a priest has a drinking problem, you can put the poor devil in the tank for a month and let him clean up his act and you can bring him back, because most of the damage has been done to himself. But this is a very serious crime. This is evil. And treated as something other than evil is moral delinquency.

What will happen as a result of all of this?

Now, not only will the bishops be forced to turn over the names to the district attorneys--that's going to happen in the United States--but something else has to happen. There have to be disciplinary measures against priests who know about the transgressions of other priests, and associate pastors who work with a pastor with a problem. If they don't notify the diocese, that priest should be suspended. There's got to be a tough line taken because otherwise this problem will spin out of control. Look at the age of most of these men. Most of these guys are in their late 60s. A lot of this happened in the 1970s and early 80s, when the sexual revolution hit the church like a hurricane. And they have to deal with that.

But we know that sexual abuse is constant through time and among all people. Is it possible there are older cases we just don't know about?

Well, yeah, a lot of adult Catholics have to be asked the hard questions. Why did you accept the money and shut up? Now, if you're poor I can understand it. Other people weren't poor and decided, "Nah, it's ok, I'll take the money and run." So that's got to end, too. These people have to be prepared to say, "I'm not going to settle out of court. I want the man out." Too many people are concerned about their own case and getting the money. What about the next kid who could have been abused? So let's talk a little bit about the responsibility of lay Catholics, who once they find out about the problem, what are they going to do about it? There's a lot of blame to go around here.

You're talking about a laity that rises up and says we're not going to take it anymore, and at the same time, the hierarchy is an integral part of the Catholic Church. Yes, it has its bad points, and this may be one of them. But if you have these angry unleashed laity, how do you balance the need for authority in the good sense?

Well, I think an angry laity, once they find out about a miscreant priest and then report it to the proper authorities--that I think is healthy. What may not be healthy is a situation where the most activist elements of laity get involved. That's the danger because what you're going to have is the far left and the far right. And they're not going to be representative of the rank and file. That's always the danger, because those who lust for power are on the far left and far right. This is fodder for them.

I've been watching this for a long time. The far right will tell you the reason we have this problem goes back to Vatican II. We made too many reforms. They blame everything on the reforms. The far left says the problem we have today is we didn't make enough reforms. We've got to do A,B,C, and D. Both sides greet the bad news about the Catholic Church, particularly regarding matters sexual, as good news because they feel vindicated.

I think there's a danger in letting either side speak for the rank and file, because the average Catholic doesn't want to turn the church inside-out and upside-down the way the far left wants, nor do they want to go back to pre-Vatican II times the way the far right does. Like most Americans, they're generally satisfied where we're at. Sure, we might make some other changes, but we don't need to put the car in reverse.

So I do want lay participation, but I want it to be done in a less active and organized way and more in the form of you actually get involved and don't depend on the bishop to do what's necessary. Pick up the phone and call the local newspaper. That would be a healthy participatory way of getting involved.

What do you believe is the root of the problem?

There are two different problems. One is the problem of sexual abuse, and the other is the cover-up. Regarding the former, that clearly is the product of the sexual revolution. The Catholic Church is just like the military--they're both traditional institutions. They're not given to change quickly. But when change comes it hits them hard. The sex rev, together with the triumph of moral relativism, the declining signif of truth--this hit the society in every place from the bedroom to the boardroom. There was a collapse of standards. In education, in sexuality, in so many different areas of society. Beginning in the late 60s, and particularly throughout 70s and early 80s, which is precisely that moment when most of these acts take place. So I think to some extent the sexual revolution combined with the premium placed on the therapeutic mode, the emphasis on feelings and non-judgmentalism. You put them together and it had a devastating impact on a lot of priests, who felt it was OK to drop their guard.

Regarding the cover-up. Look, I can give you an explanation which is not a justification. I do know that a parent's impulse is to protect the best interests of their child. Sometimes the kid runs astray of the law. What does the parent want to do? Keep the kid's name out of the paper, protect the kids and families' reputations. A bishop looks at his priests to some extent the way the parent loves the child, and that is to say he loves the priest, and he wants to protect them. And when he finds out a fellow priest has gone astray, their impulse is to protect him and the church. I can understand it to a point. But this is not a situation in which someone had too much to drink. This is a very serious addiction which can ruin the lives of young people. At the most immediate micro-level the church has to deal with active homosexuality in the church. Some people are reluctant to discuss it. Those people are intellectually dishonest. Because everyone knows, everyone knows, most of the cases we're talking about is the guys putting their hands on the guys, not on the girls. And over 90% of them are not putting their hands on minors. They're putting their hands on adolescents. There's a word for that. It's called homosexuality. That's not to say there can't be good gay priests. Of course there can be. The real question he is sexual immaturity.

Let me give you an example of sexual immaturity. This Father McKeown-here's a window into his mind. Wwhat did he have in his room in the rectory? Nintendo. Most people's first reaction is that that's the lure to get the boys. I would say yes. But that's incomplete. He also enjoyed Nintendo. I'm sure he played it all the time when the boys weren't there. Your'e talking about immature men.

This was happening among Protestants and Jews. So if it's true that among Protestants and Jews and others that they're mostly hitting on women, what does that say about priestly celibacy?

The rate of sexual abuse dealing with youngsters since the Catholic priesthood compares equally to that of clergy in other religions, between 2 and 5 percent. The figure in the adult general population is 8. So do you change the problems from one group to the other? Look, In British Columbia, the Anglican Church is going bankrupt--one of the dioceses is going bankrupt--because the ministers, all of whom are married, can't keep their hands off the kids. Celibacy is not going to cure that one.

See, I think the problem is in disciplinary measures across the board. Celibacy could arguably have something to do in terms of sexual molestation in the Catholic priesthood. It certainly has nothing to do with the other probem, which is the big one, which is when the bishops find out about it, what do they do? They play musical chairs.

But the number of men willing to be celibate is lower because of the sexual revolution...

So it becomes more attractive to homosexuals.

Right, so it becomes more attractive to homosexuals and to people who are sexually immature. So the liberal argument is, let's make it optional.

Somebody should be watching this carefully. There is someth fascinating going on in the Catholic left today. One side is saying, 'Let's keep celibacy-that's not the problem. The other side is saying, "Let's get rid of celibacy. It is the problem. Why would you have this split? The side that wants to keep celibacy is largely interested in keeping the priesthood safe for gays. If you bring in women, it's an inhospitable environment. Those who want to get rid of celibacy think there are too many gays in the priesthood, and they want women in and the right to marry them. And these people are all on the same side philosophically--Which interest are you serving? Gays or feminists?

In your perfect world, how does the celibacy and sexual orientation issue get resolved?

I think the way it gets resolved is by dropping the hammer on offending priests, so that we have less of this. One of the major reasons we've had this problem is that everyone knew that by violating his vow of chastity, there would be no real penalty. They all knew it, straight and gay. How many people have been bounced out of the Catholic Church for violating their vow of celibacy? How many people have been excommunicated from the Catholic Church for any reason in the last 10 years? I can think of one, and it was a guy from Sri Lanka, and a year later they invited him back. Punishment is something that doesn't come naturally. The church has gone so soft. But once the word gets out, that if you want to play you're going to pay, not only will you have less of it, over time you'll have more men who will reconsider the priesthood because they won't look at it as a nest of homosexual activists the way they do right now.

What caused the cover-up?

Too many bishops think their first allegiance is to their priests. That's wrong. They have to get it through their head that their first allegiance should never be to their priest. Their first allegiance should be to the church in a broad sense. The priests are an important, integral part of the church. But what about the laity? Don't they count? You've gotten to know Father John, and he's done some good work. But now you know he's committed these serious crimes. Is your first interest is going to be to him or to the church, to everyone else he serves and everyone else he's going to affect again? They've got to shift-a mental shift-away from the first interest being the priests.

There have been some bishops like Wuerl in Pittsburgh. Back in the late 1980s he was confronted with one of these priests, and he said you're out. What did the priest do? He appealed to Rome. Rome said to Wuerl, put him back in. Wuerl said to Rome, I won't do it. And so the Vatican reconsidered and went along with Wuerl. But that took courage. And this has to be a criterion for becoming a bishop. Too many people become bishop because they're non-controversial. Because they walk the middle of the line, and they don't want to shake the boat. So what you get is a bureaucratic kind of profile of people going in.

What is the role of the Vatican in all of this?

I think it's a diversion. There are a billion Catholics in the world. This guy is supposed to be in charge of everything from Botswana to the Bronx. It's insane. This doesn't take a rock scientist to figure out what's going on here. The bishops are getting advice from lawyers, who are damage control experts who always give you a reason not to say or do anything. Then you get the psychiatrists who live in La-La Land who think they can cure every malady under the sun. Then you get the lack of courage on the part of the bishop, who likes the advice he's getting from the psychiatrist and the lawyer. What was never exercised? Common sense and the courage to follow your convictions.

These lay people forced the dioceses. Did they need instructions from Rome? See, I think this is passing the buck. Sure, the Vatican can do more and give guidelines, but what kind of guidelines do you need for this? I really think this is a matter of accountability in every single diocese.

We have a vacuum of leadership in the Catholic Church in the United States. The de facto leader was Cardinal John O'Connor. When he died, that baton was passed to Cardinal Law. But no one can credibly argue that he is now the leader of the Catholic Church in the United States. So who is? I think people will be watching to find out if there is someone who will emerge as a convincing spokesman for the church, as a kind of a bellwether.

People have to ask themselves some serious questions. Isn't there room for some calibration, some sensible middle ground? Everyone seems to want to indulge in the sexual revolution, but they don't want the consequences. There are moral, physical, spiritual, and psychological consequences. I don't know of any excess that is not going to create problems.

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