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Spotlight Report


Behind a bodyguard of lies

Vivid recreation of a scandal's actors, enablers

By R. Scott Appleby, 3/14/2004

Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal
By David France
Broadway, 656 pp., $26.95

"Sin: A Cardinal Deposed" opened recently at the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre in Chicago. The play's unlikely topic is the conflict, played out in 2002, between Cardinal Bernard Law and Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston attorney who represented 86 survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of John Geoghan. Law's depositions provided the literary source for playwright Michael Murphy. The play gives the final word to one of Geoghan's victims, Patrick McSorley, who was found dead on Feb. 23 in a friend's Boston apartment. Geoghan himself was strangled to death in prison last year.

All of which raises the question: Who would choose to spend discretionary time sitting through the depressing tale of predator priests, greedy lawyers, and duplicitous church officials who lied, dissembled, and covered up both serial pedophilia on the part of others and their own criminal negligence, gross mismanagement, sinful cooperation with evil, and astonishing disregard for the victims (some of whom, tragically, were not "survivors")?

Presumably, the same kind of people who will "sit through" "Our Fathers," David France's wrenching, painfully vivid 656-page re-creation of a fraction of the thousands of acts of priestly sexual abuse and lives devastated in the Boston archdiocese over the last 50 years the same period covered in the John Jay College survey of priestly abuse across the nation. (While concentrating on Boston, France also profiles representative cases in California and elsewhere.)

Readers, be prepared. "Our Fathers" induces the kind of nausea one feels after stumbling upon the scene of a fatal traffic accident. France, a skillful storyteller, is relentless. Vignette after vignette explores the dreary architecture of the betrayal of innocence the predator's exploitation of the church's reputation for holiness to insinuate himself into the lives of young boys (and, less frequently, young girls); the hurricane-force shock experienced by the unsuspecting, first-time recipient of the priest's insistent (and occasionally violent) sexual "ministrations" (as predators Geoghan and Paul Shanley, among others, described their acts of molestation and rape); the child or young adult's repression of the experiences, leading in many cases to lifelong bouts of self-hatred, disabling addictions, and/or isolation; the reluctance of society, including, in the most disturbing cases, the parents of the victim, to believe or support him or her; and, not least, the brutal message conveyed repeatedly by church officials: Your suffering at our hands is negligible, in any case far less important than the damage to our reputation that would accompany a public acknowledgment of the truth.

"Our Fathers" moves beyond these precincts of pain to examine the enabling culture of denial and secrecy that shaped the distressing behavior of too many church officials. France, who covered the crisis in 2002 as senior editor of Newsweek, employs the same vignette-driven style in describing the legal and political dimensions of the crisis, from the fulminations of Catholic lawyers, judges, and former mayors against their archdiocese, to the changing cultural role of The Boston Globe, to the ecclesiastical politics and intrigue that unfolded in Boston; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C. (home of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops); and the Vatican. In these truncated, tense accounts, the author draws upon the dramatic license of the novelist to enliven the facts-based reportage of the crusading journalist. (France takes us, improbably, inside the minds of Roman Catholic cardinals, the pope, and other central characters to whom he had no direct access.) He further intensifies the feeling of grim immediacy by structuring the story as a modern tragedy. (The book opens with a long list of dramatis personae, including popes and politicians reaching back to the '50s.)

How to assess such an admittedly riveting work? On the one hand, the unmistakable zeal of the author is placed at the service of the victims and survivors of this terrible era in American Catholic history. One must be grateful to France for making it impossible for any reader of his book to underestimate the impact of sexual abuse upon children and young people. Beyond this triumph, the book also reflects prodigious research into newspaper accounts, legal documents, church treatises, and other personal lives affected irreversibly by the scandal. France interviewed countless individuals, including Catholic laity such as Jim Muller, the Boston physician (and Nobel Prize winner) who founded Voice of the Faithful as an expression of his moral outrage. Also figuring prominently is Thomas Doyle, the priest who repeatedly warned American Catholic bishops of the recidivism of pedophiles and their presence in the Catholic presbyterate, only to see himself largely ignored and later demoted for his efforts. That France's account, thorough without attempting to be comprehensive, appeared in print roughly one year after the last of the events it describes (Law's resignation) is itself a remarkable accomplishment.

The speed of production also accounts for the book's limitations. Inaccuracies and distortions occasionally creep into the narrative. Some of these were unavoidable, given the moving target. At the time of writing, for example, the most reliable data on the extent of priestly abuse nationally were contained in a late 2002 study by the New York Times. It found that 1.8 percent of the American priests ordained since 1950 had been accused of sexual crimes. Regrettably, the record is far worse. According to the national survey released on Feb. 27, Catholic diocesan records indicate that 4,392 priests were accused of engaging in sexual abuse of a minor between 1950 and 2002. This number represents 4 percent of the 109,694 priests in active ministry during that time.

On the other side of the ledger, France's righteous zeal for the survivors/victims also leads him, now and then, to rely on hyperbole and interpretive liberties that serve, unfortunately, to weaken his credibility. Alcoholism, we are told, "ran endemic" among the nuns and priests who administered Catholic schools. (No one doubts that alcoholism was a problem; no one has demonstrated, however, that it was rampant.) As the Catholic Church en tered the 1990s, France judges, the priesthood was thoroughly discredited and "seemed in danger of vanishing." Hardly.

Apart from such quibbles, the overall tone and content of the book are driven by the determination to demonstrate that a major "cause" of the scandal was the church's erroneous teachings on sexuality, reinforced by "repressive" attitudes and unwise practices, including mandatory celibacy for priests.

France may well be correct in this assumption, but it remains nothing more than an assumption in the absence of careful scrutiny and examination of the larger picture of Catholic priesthood in the latter half of the 20th century. Such scrutiny will require something more solid than "instant history" whose tragic and poignant character is allowed to eclipse every other dimension of Catholic ministry. One searches long and hard in "Our Fathers" for evidence that most priests, even in the disgraced Boston archdiocese, were neither pedophiles nor abusers but instead humble and often heroic servants of the people of God. That they accomplished this underreported feat while laboring under the presumed burden of celibacy and other restrictions on freedom of sexual self-expression is also part of the dramatic story of these years. That story cannot be told without careful consultation of this difficult but rewarding account by David France. But neither can it be told by this alone.

Scott Appleby is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

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