Yvonne Abraham

The church’s poor excuse

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / May 19, 2011

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The swinging sixties? Seriously?

Five years after they began analyzing the causes of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, researchers at John Jay College in New York have come up with a report only a bishop could love.

Priests sexually abused children because they were isolated and poorly prepared to deal with the run-amok mores of 1960s. They freaked out as, all around them, premarital sex and divorce rates exploded, the report says.

As for those who supervised the priests — that would be the bishops — they can’t be faulted for failing to spot the abusive priests in their midst, the report concludes: “No single psychological, developmental, or behavioral characteristic differentiated priests who abused minors from those who did not.’’

The thing is, it wouldn’t have mattered if the creeps had entered seminaries with “Abuser’’ tattooed on their foreheads, judging by how church bigs dealt with the predators credibly accused by traumatized victims. So many of those who came forward were ignored, dismissed, or worse. And this happened well beyond the sixties.

It took Peter Pollard 20 years to report his abuse by the Rev. George Rosenkranz at a parish in Marblehead. In 1987, he told the Rev. John McCormack, the church’s top official handling complaints for Cardinal Bernard Law, that the priest had repeatedly kissed and touched him, starting when he was 14. He said the parish monsignor had discovered Pollard with the priest in the church’s darkened basement on Holy Saturday night in 1967, after Rosenkranz had insisted they masturbate together. The monsignor merely asked them to turn on the lights when they were done, and left.

McCormack’s response?

“He told me he didn’t feel like what had happened was abuse,’’ Pollard, now 59, recalled yesterday. McCormack suggested Pollard had merely misinterpreted the priest’s expressions of affection. Only after Rosenkranz was arrested for lewd conduct years later did the church remove him from his parish, Pollard said.

So yes, permissiveness was to blame for the abuse crisis. But not just the permissiveness that came with the sexual revolution — a far more dangerous kind that lived in the church so many loved. Priests who abused did so because they knew they could get away with it.

The report doesn’t soft-pedal the church’s failings in responding to the crisis, but it does go out of its way to explain them sympathetically, arguing that society as a whole lacked understanding of sexual victimization at the time: Because diocesan leaders didn’t meet with victims until 2002, “the understanding of the harm of sexual abuse to the victim was limited.’’

For real? A bishop in an institution whose business is fighting suffering and sin would have to meet a victim personally to understand that the rape of a 10-year-old is a heinous act that does permanent harm? Besides, with a few shining exceptions, the church hierarchy did something more than fail to recognize the harm of sexual abuse: They actively discouraged victims from pursuing cases and coddled priests who should have been locked up.

Look, it’s laudable that the church, which helped pay for the study, would want to spend this much time and energy understanding the causes of sexual abuse. The problem is that no similar energy or seriousness has gone into the business of holding church leaders to account.

You might think that after his obscene dereliction of duty, McCormack would have faced a judge, or at least been banished from church leadership. Instead, he is the bishop of Manchester, N.H. And his former boss, Cardinal Law, who presided over the cover-up? For his many transgressions, he was banished to . . . Rome.

Pollard sees this report as yet another injustice. The saddest part is, he can’t even get angry any more.

“It does feel like the bishops wrote it themselves,’’ he said. “But you have to have expectations to be angry.’’

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at