Comment: Why the Bishops Don't Want You to Read This Book

By Eugene Cullen Kennedy
The Kansas City Star
July 11, 2006

More than two years ago, Wilton Gregory, the then-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, claimed the clergy sex abuse scandal was "history." Gregory was saying, in effect, that Catholics didn't have to worry about it anymore and it was safe for their children to become altar servers again.

That statement was meant to reassure Catholics (it did not) and end all the talk about the scandal and shield the bishops from further attacks and lawsuits (it didn't do that either). A new book, Sex, Priests and Secret Codes, reveals the long history not just of clergy sex abuse but of church officials' desire to deny it and dismiss it from our attention.

Why don't these church officials want you to hear of — much less read — this book written by the Rev. Thomas Doyle, psychotherapist Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall, a tracker of sexually abusive priests?

Sipe, trained in dealing with the mental health of the clergy and a frequent "expert witness" at trials of accused sex abusers, told me that this annotated history of the problem was prompted by the responses from church officials at legal depositions.

"The church has the best records of the history and development of sex abuse up until this time and yet, time and time again, officials deny that they knew that such a general problem ever existed or that they knew anything about a particular problem in their own diocese," he said.

"Every bishop," Sipe observed, "knows that sex with a minor violates the priest's vow of celibacy and that it is immoral and illegal. Yet under oath, they deny any knowledge of sexual abusers among their priests and claim that in reassigning such priests, they only followed the advice of lawyers and psychiatrists so that any subsequent failing by the priest is not their fault. They also say that the problem is exaggerated in the press and that the bad publicity is made by anti-Catholics and anti-clergy factions."

Sipe cites a classic deposition exchange between a lawyer and a well-known archbishop:

"I forgot," the prelate says about reassigning a priest guilty of sexual abuse to pastoral work.

"I've never had any," the archbishop says of priest sex abusers. The lawyer hands him a letter about the case that the archbishop had signed. "I don't remember," he answers.

The lawyer asks if it is his signature on the letter. "I forgot," the archbishop replies.

Sipe said he and his co-authors have identified this official response pattern of denial, deferral and deceit repeatedly as church officials defend against the charges that victims bring against the church.

When a bishop agrees to a deposition, his lawyers demand the condition that there be no questions about the celibacy demanded of priests. This forsaking of marriage and family is cited by many contemporary experts as a possible cause of compromised psychosexual development in seminarians. Nonetheless, recent popes have forbidden any study or even discussion of celibacy and John Paul II referred to it as the "jewel" of the priesthood.

The church's own records, Sipe says, belie this refusal to examine celibacy because its abuse is documented "as far back as the Synod of Elvira in 309 A.D. We find accounts of the abuse of minors, predominantly men and boys. In 1051, St. Peter Damien wrote Gomorrah in response to the well-known sexual corruption of the celibate clergy. He recommended harsh treatment, including putting offenders away in monasteries, not allowing them to walk the grounds alone, and forbidding return to pastoral work to prevent these things from happening again.

"There is a history of penitential remedies that included turning sex abusing clergy over to civil authorities for punishments that could include death or the galleys. You find documentation of the existence of this problem down through the centuries. Our book explores them, as well as the other evidence about sexual violations by the clergy that have been so well known that the bishops' denial of any knowledge of the problem makes them sound naive at best and criminal at worst."

In 1984, co-author Doyle helped prepare a report alerting the bishops to the dimensions and possible costs of the problem. As a result, he lost his job at the Vatican Embassy in Washington. Even after the problem began to break open, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk (the president of the bishops conference at the time) dismissed the report, saying it did not tell the bishops anything they did not already know.

It is that knowledge of the problem, according to Sipe and his co-authors, that the bishops now deny, much to the pain and frustration of the victims of sex abuse.

"We want people to know this," Sipe declares, "so that they can confront the bishops with confidence about their claims of being abused. This book is a plea for dialogue on a subject whose history is well known and is not yet over."

Eugene Cullen Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of Cardinal Bernardin's Stations of the Cross, published by St. Martin's Press.


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