Roman Catholic Church's Sexual Conspiracy of Silence

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Catholic Bishop Robert Finn, shown here at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2011, was the highest ranking Church official to be indicted as a result of a cover-up involving priests and child pornography.

Roman Catholic Church’s Sexual Conspiracy of Silence

For centuries, the secret shame of sexual abuse of the most vulnerable members of their flocks by errant priests has been a dark cloud hanging over the Roman Catholic Church. Although it may be too late for thousands of victims to be able to feel any satisfaction, at last justice is being served.

On June 12, 2005, the New York Times carried an Associated Press release stating that sexual abuse by priests had cost the Roman Catholic Church in the United States more than $1 billion thus far in settlements and added that the cost would surely rise by millions of dollars because of hundreds of still-unsettled claims. According to the AP, at least $378 million had been spent in just three years after the conspiracy of silence was shattered in the Boston Archdiocese and spread like wildfire across the nation.

On October 12, 2005, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles released information from the confidential files of 126 clergy accused of sexual abuse and admitted that for more than seventy-five years they had moved accused priests to new assignments, ignoring parishioners’ complaints. The documents were released as part of settlement discussions with lawyers for more than five hundred accusers in a civil lawsuit.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who has represented victims in their claims against the church, has said that he tried to warn various bishops as early as 1985 that abuse settlements could rise to over $1 billion. None of the church hierarchy believed him, and one archbishop assured Doyle that no one would ever sue the Catholic Church.

The fuse that ignited the firestorm of criticism against the church was the revelation that the Boston Archdiocese had shuffled Father John Geoghan from parish to parish, disregarding the many accusations that he was guilty of child abuse. In civil lawsuits, more than 130 individuals swore that Father Geoghan had sexually abused them as children during his thirty years as a priest in Boston-area parishes. When a judge ordered the release of archdiocesan files, the public was shocked to discover that dozens of priests accused of pedophilia had been shuttled to different unsuspecting parishes.

In 2001 Geoghan was sentenced to nine to ten years in prison, and in September 2002 the archdiocese settled with eighty-six of his victims for $10 million. On August 24, 2003, Geoghan, sixty-eight, was strangled to death by a fellow inmate, thirty-seven-year-old Joseph L. Druce.

The case of Father Paul R. Shanley might serve as a model of the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of pedophilic priests that has been going on for centuries. Father Shanley, who would come to be reviled as a “marauding sociopath,” a supporter of man-boy love, and a perverted monster, was also regarded by some parishioners as a devoted and compassionate priest. And herein lies the conflicted root of the dilemma—in many instances the priests with the sexual problems became part protector and part predator, demeaning the role of shepherd that is so devoutly, self-lessly, and honorably enacted by the great majority of the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Father Shanley had himself been molested by a priest at age twelve but had never told a single member of his family, who had always considered Paul a very pious boy. After two years at Boston University, Shanley transferred to St. John’s Seminary, also in Boston. It is somewhat disconcerting that of the seventy-seven graduates in his class of 1960, five priests have been publicly accused of sexually abusing children. In 1995 Father Shanley would state that he had been abused by a priest and a faculty member while at the seminary.

Two weeks after his ordination in 1960, Father Shanley was accused of sexually molesting an eleven-year-old boy in the Stoneham, Massachusetts, parish where he served as assistant pastor. Although the chief of police received several more complaints and condemned Father Shanley as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, none of the families wanted to go public with a prosecution against a priest. One mother of an abused boy wrote to the pastor and to Cardinal Richard Cushing in Boston, but nothing came of her complaint.

Secretly Father Shanley continued to abuse boys, but publicly he became very outspoken regarding his views on homosexuality. In a 1970s interview with the Catholic Reporter he said that homosexuality and bisexuality were “normal and natural,” and he disagreed with those who proclaimed sexual intercourse between members of the same sex to be pathological.

Father Shanley was not speaking for the traditionalists in the Roman Catholic Church, who regard marriage as a sacrament instituted by God wherein man and woman produce children in his image. Sexual love between a married man and woman creates a communion that gives birth to new life. Homosexuality is considered abnormal and unnatural, if not evil. In some of his public statements, Father Shanley seemed to be speaking on behalf of NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association, especially when he parroted their party line by claiming that when an adult and a child have sex, it is the child who is the seducer.

By 1979 Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, leader of the Boston Archdiocese, had heard enough of such radical proclamations from Father Shanley, but without any further investigation, Medeiros appointed Shanley pastor at St. John’s in Newton, Massachusetts.

While serving at St. John’s in 1983, Father Shanley was accused of abusing two six-year-old boys. It was one of those offenses that, in May 2002, brought Shanley, seventy-one, to face charges of raping a six-year-old boy. Once he was charged with sexual abuse, more than thirty men came forward to make claims against him. In February 2005 he was found guilty of child rape and sentenced to twelve to fifteen years in prison.

At a Vatican meeting in April 2002 the cardinals agreed on a “zero tolerance” policy toward priests found guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor. Critics of the gathering at the Apostolic Palace stated their concern that the cardinals had declared that the scandal of priests preying on children was primarily a homosexual issue. By so doing, the critics said, the church was avoiding the real issue of a religious culture of secrecy and repression that had existed for far too long.

For decades in America it has been no secret that Roman Catholic seminaries have been ordaining homosexuals as priests. Regardless of the hypocrisy involved—a church that condemns homosexuality ordaining homosexuals—many clerics have observed that if it were not so, the church would soon have no priests to serve its parishes. Some researchers have estimated that between 35 and 50 percent of Roman Catholic priests are homosexuals. If the church were suddenly to cease the ordination of homosexuals, it would have to allow married clergy or permit the ordination of women.

A growing number of traditional priests reemphasize the concept that celibacy is the true issue, rather than one’s sexual preference. There are no statistics that there is a preponderance of homosexual child abusers in the church or in the larger society. Heterosexual child molesters undoubtedly make up a larger percentage of those with the illness of pedophilia. The command of the church is to practice discipline and self-control of the sexual impulse, which is as great a challenge for heterosexuals as it is for homosexuals. Psychotherapist A. W. Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest, who conducted a twenty-five-year study of celibacy, sexuality, and the clergy, estimates that 50 percent of priests, regardless of their sexual preference, are sexually active in some way.

One answer to the diminishing number of heterosexual priests is the one Protestants adopted at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century: allow the clergy to marry.

Actually, the command for the priesthood to remain celibate has no basis in the Bible. Peter, the “rock” on whom the church is built, the disciple of Jesus that the church claims as its first pope, was a married man—and it is likely that the other apostles also had wives. Priests followed the examples of the rabbis, married, and had children for the first thousand years of Christianity. If one wishes to become slightly cynical, the reasons for the church’s twelfth-century edict on celibacy was determined more by the greed of the political powers of the time than by any ecclesiastical verdict. The lords of the lands worried that the offspring of the clergy would inherit church property free from taxes, as well as church titles, and these nobles pressured and bribed the church to encourage celibacy among its priesthood. Even so, married priests did not vanish overnight—nor did popes who fathered children.

Women within the Catholic Church believe that Jesus’s incarnation as a male does not deny them the opportunity to serve in his name. Die-hard Catholics insist that the priesthood of Jesus can only be manifested in a masculine body. But, adds George Weigel, the biographer of Pope John Paul II, a males-only priesthood takes nothing away from women, and he reminds his readers that “the highest, unsurpassable figure in the communion of saints, the first Christian is Mary, who is not a priest and who has higher powers.” Weigel cautions that the issue of male vs. female priests “is a lot more complicated and interesting than contemporary gender politics would have you believe.”

A Newsweek poll conducted in 2002 found that 50 percent of U.S. Roman Catholics admit that they are at odds with their church’s teachings on human sexuality; 59 percent do not believe that refusing to ordain gays into the priesthood would reduce the problem of abuse; 51 percent say they would have no problem attending a church with an openly gay priest; 73 percent would be pleased to allow married men to become priests; 65 percent favor ordaining women.

There is little question that the Roman Catholic Church’s conspiracy of silence regarding certain priests’ predilection toward young boys has been going on for centuries. Researchers commissioned by Roman Catholic bishops found that more than 11,500 abuse claims have been filed against priests since 1950. In 2000, American bishops pledged to report any suspected abusers in their midst to law enforcement authorities. In 2008, Bishop Robert W. Finn and the Diocese of Kansas City settled lawsuits with forty-seven plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases for ten million dollars and agreed to follow a list of nineteen preventative measures, among them the stipulation that he would immediately report any priest suspected a being a pedophile to law enforcement. In 2010, the Vatican issued a strong recommendation that such a policy be strictly followed by all bishops.

On October 14, 2011, for the first time in the twenty-five-year history of the Roman Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals, the leader of an American diocese was held criminally liable for the behavior of a priest under his supervision when Bishop Finn was indicted for failing to report abuse charges against Father Shawn Ratigan. Michael Hunter, director of the Kansas City chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests and himself a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, hailed Bishop Finn’s indictment as a huge victory. If convicted, Bishop Finn could face a jail sentence of up to year and a fine of up to one thousand dollars. In addition, the diocese would face of fine of up to five thousand dollars.

Father Ratigan’s unacceptable behavior with children was reported in May 2010 by the principal of a Catholic elementary school. In December 2010, a computer technician found hundreds of photographs of child pornography suggestive of child abuse on the priest’s laptop. When Bishop Finn learned of the photographs, he ordered Father Ratigan to a convent with the admonition to cease all contact with minors. However, the priest continued to attend children’s parties, and, with the bishop’s approval, presided at a girl’s first communion. After the filing of a civil lawsuit by one of the families of Father Ratigan’s victims and a report criticizing Bishop Finn for being too trusting of the errant priest, the Rev. Ratigan attempted suicide. In December 2010, Bishop Finn admitted that he was aware of the lewd photographs that Rev. Ratigan had taken of young children.

Thus far, France has been the only country in which a bishop has been convicted for his failure to exercise proper supervision over a priest accused of child abuse.

In The Changing Face of the Priesthood (2000), Donald B. Cozzens quotes a second-century gospel commentary that admonishes priests: “Thou shalt not seduce young boys.” Let us pray that the conspiracy of silence has ended and that the Church will be more solicitous toward its most innocent members—both young boys and girls—and its troubled and conflicted clergy.

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