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Op-Ed

What went wrong in the Catholic Church?

Why have its leaders been unable to deal with the priest sex abuse scandal in an honest and convincing way?

February 10, 2013|By Michael D'Antonio
  • Frank Zamora, 67, holds an old photo of his son Dominic Zamora, then 8, sitting on the lap of his abuser, priest Michael Stephen Baker, as Zamora joins members the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) during a news conference outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.
Frank Zamora, 67, holds an old photo of his son Dominic Zamora, then 8, sitting… (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)

The files released last week by America's largest Catholic archdiocese revealed new and disturbing details about how church officials schemed to protect priests accused of molesting children. But was the scandal in Los Angeles really so much worse than in other places?

Sadly, no. The details emerging from the documents mirror what happened in archdioceses across the country, as church officials time and again put their own concerns above the needs of victims.

One of the earliest cases to draw nationwide attention involved Gilbert Gauthe, a priest who raped dozens of boys in rural Louisiana. By 1984, when Gauthe was indicted on 34 counts of sex crimes against children, church officials had been aware he was abusing children for at least a decade. But instead of reporting his crimes, they transferred him to another parish, where he continued to have sex with the children in his charge. He was stopped only after a boy he raped wound up in the hospital due to his injuries.

FULL COVERAGE: Priest abuse scandal

In the nearly three decades since the Gauthe case, more than 6,000 priests were, by the church's own definitions, "credibly" or "not implausibly" accused of raping or sexually abusing children and adolescents. Lawsuits and criminal charges were brought against nearly every Catholic diocese in the U.S., and nearly 500 clerics were jailed.

Periodically some of the cases mushroomed into larger scandals, as lawyers for victims won years-long battles to make public files that showed the church had known of crimes committed by priests and schemed to protect them and the church from disgrace and prosecution. In Boston, a torrent of documents ultimately forced then-Cardinal Bernard Law to resign. In Philadelphia, the vicar general, Msgr. William Lynn, was sent to prison after his conviction on charges of conspiracy and endangerment.

For the last three years I have investigated the Catholic sex abuse scandal in the United States and abroad. I have seen only a few cases in which the church willingly came clean about its actions. Instead, victims have had to use the courts and the news media to pressure the church for the truth. Because few countries allow for the kind of fact-finding permitted in American civil lawsuits, Catholics in places such as Ireland, Belgium and Australia have had to depend more on government authorities, who often haven't seen a need to make church documents public. Still, government efforts in some places, including the Ferns Report in Ireland and a recent investigation by police in Australia, have made it clear that it wasn't just in North America that church officials tried to evade authorities, deflect scandal and conceal facts.

Los Angeles is an exceptional case because of the volume of documents made public (thanks to this newspaper, other media and legal pressure from victims), but what those documents reveal is consistent with behavior seen around the world. Time and again church leaders have responded to complaints against priests with cover-ups and deflections, and they have been unable to deal with scandal in an honest and convincing way.

But why? It clearly would have been better for the church, both morally and practically, to react aggressively and report molesters immediately, while at the same time doing everything possible for the victims. So why didn't it?

I've done a lot of thinking about that question. One part of the answer, I believe, has to do with the nature of the priesthood. To be ordained is to be elevated, to be taken into a special and higher relationship with God. That's something Catholic officials had a hard time letting go of when it came time to see molesting priests in their ranks for what they were: criminals.

Another factor, I believe, was Catholicism's attitudes toward sex. On the one hand, it is something sacred when part of marriage. But church teachings forbid virtually all sexual expression outside of marriage and condemn homosexual sex without exception. Moreover, priests are expected to be celibate, which puts them at an even greater distance from the realities of ordinary life. All of this undoubtedly complicated things when church officials were confronted with extreme sexual deviance in their own ranks.

Sex and power. These are two factors that Catholic leaders have failed to confront, even as the church falls down around them. Any recovery from the great scandal will require change in both areas. Thirty years on, even under the threat of criminal prosecution, they seem incapable of the kind of self-examination that would allow such change. Instead they fight against truth-telling and suffer further ignominy. No wonder this is a scandal without end.

Michael D'Antonio is the author of "Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime and the Era of Catholic Scandal" to be published in April.

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