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'Gospel Of Shame': Facing facts about abusive priests

By David Mehegan, Globe Staff, 11/09/1993

A Gospel Of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic Church
By Elinor Burkett and Frank Bruni
Viking, 292 pp., illustrated, $22.50
  Buy it on   ( receives a small percentage of each sale.)

This is a story we think we know, having read all about James Porter and many other Catholic priests guilty of molesting children. And it starts as we might expect, with the chronicle of the former Father Porter's abuse of dozens of children in several states, and the ultimately successful efforts of his victims to organize and bring him to justice.

But Elinor Burkett's and Frank Bruni's "A Gospel of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic Church" is more than a true-crime book. Although not without flaws, it is a tough, thoroughly researched and fair book that every priest, bishop and thoughtful adult Catholic ought to make himself or herself read.

The ugliness of this account goes far beyond the details of priests molesting children. Before the Porter case blew sky-high, the church's standard way of dealing with pedophile priests was to treat their uncontrollable urge as a moral ill that could be repented of, and to transfer them, properly chastened, to another parish. In this way, dozens of priests like Porter were able to molest children in parish after parish.

Even more disturbing, as Burkett and Bruni show, was the tendency of church leaders to soft-pedal the problem, impugn the charity and motives of the accusers and sometimes, when backed to the wall, make financial settlements designed in part to pull the shades. In one 1988 case involving a priest who carried on a sexual relationship with an adolescent girl, the diocese of Joliet, Ill., paid the girl's family $450,000 on one condition: She had to sign a pledge not to discuss the case or reveal the size of the settlement.

Although pedophilia may be no more common among priests than among youth leaders or lay schoolteachers, Burkett and Bruni contend that it is a far more serious crime for a priest. When a child is sexually molested by a priest, who has been presented to the child as God's representative, the psychological trauma can be profound. "They have a sense," says one therapist quoted in the book, "that they must be real expletive if a messenger of God would do this to them." With Christian clergy, there also is the spectacle of hypocrisy, abuse of power and exploitation of the weak -- the most condemned sins in the New Testament.

Only recently have church leaders brought themselves to uncircle the wagons, face facts about abusive priests and move forthrightly to minister to victims (and the US church is way ahead of Rome and the rest of the Catholic world). But not without strong inner resistance. Accusations usually come from the laity, the media or civil authorities, and bishops have a hard time accepting impeachment from those quarters. They know that sexual molestation of children is an abomination, but they have tended to see it as something they should handle discreetly, internally and in a way calculated to protect the good name of the church. But with its monarchic/oligarchic culture, the interest of the church is not always easily distinguished from that of its ruling class.

Yet Burkett and Bruni are shrewd enough not to pin the whole thing on the clergy; they reveal the tendency of lay people to deny the reality of priest sexual abuse. Accusers, even when the abuse is well documented, have often found themselves ostracized in their parishes. Many Catholics "have made it abundantly clear," Bruni and Burkett write, "that they simply don't want to know about priests molesting their children. When confronted with the truth, they cry foul and attack the messengers as Catholic-bashers."

In addition to a somewhat hysterical tone and a few errors (for example, girls are not barred from altars), the book has a major blind spot: Burkett and Bruni give no attention to the possibility of false accusation. Most of their cases involve priests who were flagrant molesters or at least arrested numerous times, and those who side with priests are presented mostly as naive or willfully blind. But in the current atmosphere, false finger-pointing is bound to be a danger, and bishops clearly are not wrong to worry about injustice toward the accused, about the good being tarred with the bad. That may explain why even the best of them are not eager to lead the cry.

Burkett and Bruni's sweeping and vague solution is to call for the democratization of the church. That might be a good thing, but how it would solve the abuse problem is not clear, unless by making it easier for lay people to out the renegades without recourse to courts. The suggestion that the church was purer and better in its early, nonhierarchical life is naive. The authors do not call for the elimination of mandatory celibacy, although they argue that the celibate priesthood reinforces sexual immaturity and provides a haven for men uncomfortable with or afraid of sex. But even without providing all the answers, Burkett and Bruni disclose the extent and complexity of the problem -- a worthwhile job, done well.

This story ran on page 34 of the Boston Globe on 11/09/1993.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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