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Purification Rites 

Pope John Paul II has sought to reconcile the church and history. Will his mission survive the pedophile scandals?

Walker Percy spent most of his distinguished career 40 miles outside of New Orleans in the rustic town of Covington. The book-lined home overlooked a bend in the Bogue Falaya River, shaded by cypress and dogwood. From that pastoral setting he published in 1971 Love in the Ruins. His third novel was a spiritual comedy as implied in the subtitle: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World.

The protagonist, a bourbon-swigging psychiatrist and descendant of the utopian saint Thomas More, is waiting for the apocalypse near his bayou. Tom More's wife "has run off with a heathen Englishman ... to Cozumel," and Tom has invented a lapsometer to measure brain waves of sex and happiness. Mankind's dislocation -- Christ replaced by science -- is a leitmotif in this biting satire much as in Percy's five other novels.

Percy, who died in 1991, strove to find meaning for a world he considered fallen. In Love in the Ruins, Tom More laughs at the weeds sprouting in society's cracks, resisting messages to save his soul. Read today, a generation later, the novel shows quite a strain of prophecy. The Republican Party has become the "Knothead Party" after changing its name from "the Christian Conservative Constitutional Party." The Democrats have become the Left Party. "There are Left states and Knothead states, Left towns and Knothead towns, but no center towns," writes Percy, anticipating today's red and blue states in our divided body politic.

Percy's take on Catholicism was also prescient, though he scrambled some facts in sketching the lines of today's balkanized landscape of faith:

"The American Catholic Church, which emphasizes property rights and the integrity of neighborhoods, retained the Latin Mass and plays The Star Spangled Banner at the elevation. The Dutch schismatics in this area comprise several priests and nuns who left Rome to get married. They threw in with the Dutch schismatic Catholics. Now several divorced priests and nuns are importuning the Dutch cardinal to allow them to remarry.

"The Roman Catholics hereabouts are scattered and demoralized. The one priest, an obscure curate, who remained faithful to Rome, could not support himself and had to hire out as a fire-watcher. It is his job to climb the fire tower by night and watch for brushfires below and for signs and portents in the skies."

To be a Catholic these days is to embrace the isolation of Percy's priest in his perch. Lay folk recoil from an epic scandal that leads to the Vatican. One looks for omens of repair. Rome does not add up. The searching soul gazes at a great wall of structural mendacity, institutional lying by a hierarchy that refuses to confront its own dark underworld.

"For the most part, Catholics, including lay church employees, sisters, deacons, even many priests, had no way of sharing responsibility for the crisis and its resolution," writes the historian David O'Brien of Holy Cross College in a recent issue of Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education. "When it comes to resolving the most serious issue in its history, the American church is controlled by the Pope, the bishops, for the most part each on his own, and their chosen advisors."

Some bishops have expressed sorrow for the hierarchy's horrendous behavior. Well, who isn't sorry? The bishops' National Review Board published a lame report that fell back on fraternal correction -- bishops must coax their worst members to step down. I don't know a soul who believes that will happen. The media have retreated. Many reporters are sick of the story or find it difficult convincing their editors to keep running stories about church officials who can't be held accountable for acts that would cost elected officials their jobs. Bishops seem above reproach.

Polls show that 80 percent of Catholics disregard papal teaching on birth control. Roughly the same number wants a mechanism to remove bishops who betrayed the trust in handling child molesters. Only the pope can do that under canon law; John Paul II has left many bishops, tarred by scandal, in office.

Vatican officials, echoing the pope, blame the media. "The scandals in the United States received disproportionate attention from the media," Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, told the Associated Press on Oct. 10, 2003. "There are thieves in every country, but it is hard to say everyone is a thief."

REFORM MOVEMENTS SUCCEEDED when they strike empathy with a mainstream society. But the crisis springs from Catholic outrage at the church hierarchy. Words like "transparency" and "accountability" mean nothing in Rome. A striking sign of this gap in language and values came when the Vatican gave Cardinal Bernard Law his new home at a basilica in Rome. The curia consider His Eminence a victim.

How does the mind of faith answer this governing psyche and its defenders in a Knothead intelligentsia?

The deeper story of the crisis -- the impact of the facts -- will not register in Rome unless people send legal documents and well-crafted summary letters, with specific requests, to Vatican officials. Nothing will change until reform groups build bridges with the Vatican and cardinals at the key congregations in Rome. The Catholic right has cultivated Vatican leaders for years. The Catholic left wrote off the curia years ago as hostile to change. The huge majority of Catholics -- the center, regardless of their views on abortion -- rarely thought about the Vatican in a political way touching on their own lives, until the crisis arose.

The Catholic reform group Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) took an important step in August by sending a letter to the pope with petitions bearing 23,000 signatures asking John Paul to meet with a representative group of abuse survivors. John Paul's call for the "the purification of the historical memory" is one of his papacy's central themes. By 1998, as Luigi Accattoli wrote in When a Pope Asks Forgiveness, John Paul had acknowledged church "responsibility for the treatment of Galileo, the Jews and Muslims, Hus and Luther, the Indians; the injustices of the Inquisition, the Mafia, racism," among 40 apologies. The pope has met with many such groups. Why not abuse survivors?

"We have to develop a language for the laity to become more involved that is accepted within the church," says VOTF director Steve Krueger. "This movement can't be dependent on the next headline. You have to work through the disappointment that not everyone 'gets it.'"

On Sept. 9, "emeritus" Bishop Frank Rodimer of Paterson, N.J., met with John Paul on an ad limina visit, the every-fifth-year trip a given bishop makes to see the pope. Rodimer recently retired. Does John Paul know that the man paid $250,000 of diocesan funds to resolve his negligence suit because of a vacation home Rodimer rented with Father Peter Osinski, who sexually abused a boy over several summers in a bedroom down the hall? Osinski is in prison. If the pope did not know, why not? If he knows, did he forgive Rodimer? Does he think Rodimer should repay the $250,000? Shouldn't we be told either way?

I SPOKE A WALL OF MENDACITY. What kind of lies are at issue?

Predatory lies to the assaulted boys and girls, now women and men, thousands of them; bishops' lies to the parents and countless parishioners when Father left; lies to the scattered priests who blew the whistle on criminals in their midst; lies of commission and omission by at least two generations of bishops and cardinals to cops, the courts and the press on sexual crimes that carry ancient penalties in canon law.

Behind the mendacity lies a swamp of civil lawsuits, bishops and cardinals slogging in the muck. Lawyers, waving subpoenas like nets, chase the hierarchs. On terra firma stand the judges, ruling on motions for discovery of church files, the letters, psychological reports and internal memoranda that are raw materials from a sexual underworld.

From 1989 through the 1990s, Canada, Ireland and Australia were rocked by horrid revelations on the Irish Christian Brothers. In 1994, Barry Coldrey, an Australian member, went to Rome and researched a history of sex abuse patterns in his order from their archives. He presented the document to his international superior, Kolm Keating. "He was not thrilled that it was written, though he treated me decently," Coldrey says.

Still, he adds, "It's fair to say I was marginalized."

Coldrey estimated that 10 percent of the 4,000 members of the Irish Christian Brothers had sexually abused youths. This was "the dark underside of the old Irish-Australian working class church, covered over many years by tribal loyalties," he wrote.

Moreover, wrote Coldrey: "A sexual underworld is a larger, more amorphous state-within-a-state inside a diocese or Religious Congregation, where there is a substantial [number of] people who are not living their vows (or have not for periods in the past) and who cooperate to hide one another's extracurricular activities ... [with] other clergy and church workers who are merely breaking their vows by having heterosexual or gay sex with consenting adults."

Coldrey's words capture what victims' attorneys hope to find in documents -- proof that it wasn't a sick priest or two, but a system with pathological cracks that warrant why it should pay and pay again.

Personnel files shape the questions put to bishops and church officials, under oath, about perpetrators. Some files are sealed when settlements are negotiated. As documents are made available, the revelations constitute a subterranean history of the church few imagined as recently as Clinton's impeachment. That is why bishops pay great sums to keep them secret.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese under Cardinal Roger Mahony faces 493 civil lawsuits, the settlements for which reportedly may reach $1.5 billion, much of it covered by insurance. Mahony's more pivotal battle may be the one costing God-knows-what in legal fees, against a criminal grand jury subpoena for voluminous personnel files of priests. The cardinal argues that the files are privileged by the wall of separation between church and state. Mahony has his own preservation in mind. He saw how media reports on clergy files released by the courts in Boston brought down Cardinal Bernard Law.

In Philadelphia, a grand jury is in its second year of probing the handling of abusive clerics by, among other prelates, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

"The documents must be made public so that we simply know the truth," says Carolyn B. Disco, a co-founder of New Hampshire Catholics for Moral Leadership. "The [U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] at the height of the scandal in November '02 voted unanimously, without debate, effective immediately, to recommend the destruction of priest personnel files seven years after a man leaves the diocese."

The 2004 John Jay College of Criminal Justice study commissioned by the bishops' conference found 4,392 priest perpetrators -- 4 percent of U.S. clerics -- in the last 50 years. Only 257 have been prosecuted. This figure comes from, which is assembling a massive online archive. Already, the site has posted 1,500 of 45,000 pages from Boston archdiocesan documents and 9,000 pages from Manchester, N.H.

"Davenport, Iowa, is the only diocese besides Boston where a judge has ordered the massive release of church files," says Terry McKiernan, co-director of "Bishop William Franklin is fighting the order tooth and nail. The documents released so far show that priests -- many of them trained at Kenrick Seminary in the St. Louis Archdiocese -- often abused their victims together, staging orgies, collecting and creating pornography, and pimping their victims to other priests. Victims were transported across state lines for purposes of sex. One religious order priest accused in Iowa had 15 assignments in 10 states before he was finally warehoused at a Stigmatine monastery. ...

"Abusers who served in Iowa have also offended elsewhere, from Minnesota to Florida and Tennessee to California. It's obvious now that bishops who allowed such behavior were all following the same policies and practices."

JOHN PAUL II IS ONE OF OUR GREATEST POPES. His place in history is assured by his stirring achievements as a global evangelist, his role as a catalyst in the fall of Soviet communism, and his willingness to admit historical mistakes by the church. Yet on the crisis that cuts so deeply into the heart of the church, his failure is undeniable -- and it's a failure borne of denial about sexual realities of clerical life.

John Paul was briefed on pedophilia scandals at least as early as 1993 when bishops from Australia and America, including Cardinal Bevilaqua, made ad limina visits to Rome. U.S. bishops wanted a streamlined process to defrock pedophiles. John Paul refused. New Mexico Archbishop Joseph Sanchez had just resigned following revelations of sexual encounters with teenage girls. Urging prayers for "our brother from Santa Fe ... and the persons affected by his action," John Paul also criticized the media for "sensationalism [which] has become the particular style of our age."

But sexual crimes by priests fueled the media coverage as the decade wore on. Church documents kept surfacing. There were but a few scattered papal comments, yet no policy, no investigation, no effective response, until April 2002, when John Paul summoned the U.S. cardinals and read his longest statement on record.

"The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime," he declared. "It's also an appalling sin." The pope then defended bishops for "a generalized lack of knowledge" and relying "at times [on faulty] advice of the clinical experts." But, he said: "We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God." He was referring to aberrant priests. He then said, "There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."

Well, which is it? Expel such priests or forgive them if they return back to God? This is not the absolutism for which this pope is famous.

Absent papal sanctions, a bishop remains a bishop even if he has lost a diocese. Sanchez has reportedly done ministry in Alaska; Anthony O'Connell, who resigned his bishopric of Palm Beach, Fla., for abusing a seminarian, is a bishop somewhere; so is Daniel Ryan, who resigned from Springfield, Ill., amid lawsuits over his abuse of youths. Rodimer of Paterson suffered no loss of stature in Rome. The issue is moral justice, some equivalent of due process. Canon law invests ultimate power in the pope. Why does this pope tolerate bishops who shield pederasts or molest the young themselves?

A KNOTHEAD VERSION OF CATHOLIC intelligentsia is well at work constructing an alibi for John Paul's failures. The chief Knothead is George Weigel, whose 1999 biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope, runs 990 pages and all but ignores the extensive coverage of abuse cases in the early 1990s. Not a word on Gilbert Gauthe, James Porter or the notorious Irish priest Sean Fortune. "Discipline among the clergy faltered," he writes. "Scandals involving priests were evils in themselves and another barrier to recruitment and reform within the presbyterate." Weigel became an ad-hoc adviser in Rome at the 2002 meeting with U.S. cardinals. Later that year, Weigel published The Courage to Be Catholic, an assessment of the crisis in which he defended his omissions in the previous book. He blamed bishops for not briefing the pope in years past, even though the aforementioned 1993 ad limina visits were well reported by Catholic News Service. Ah, but there was another reason. "The Vatican is simply not part of the Internet culture and the information flow from Washington was inadequate," writes Weigel.

Contrary to Weigel's specious excuses, the Holy See has a fine Web site; the press office was sending email news releases in 2002. Information flowed in 1997 when the papal nuncio in Washington requested copies from U.S. bishops of their diocesan policies on handling such priests, as reported at the time.

Weigel places much blame on the culture of dissent within the church, a rather wide net to cast as it includes both the vast majority who oppose the birth-control ban and those who want to force the removal of bishops who recycled child molesters. Meanwhile, John Paul's visionary phrase, "the purification of historical memory," hangs over the Vatican, and us, like a cloud.

WHEN A MAN BECOMES A CARDINAL, he kneels before the pope and in Latin swears "never to reveal to anyone whatever has been confided in me to keep secret and the revelation of which could cause damage or dishonor to the Holy Church." As A.W. Richard Sipe has written: "Secrecy is rationalized as the only way to avoid scandal." But by 1992, secrets were pouring out.

The Vatican spent years trying to undercut American bishops' efforts to throw out the worst priests. In 1989, Cardinal Bevilacqua asked Father Thomas Doyle, the former canonist at the Vatican Embassy, for a memo on how to gain Vatican approval for a swift process to defrock pedophiles. Doyle wrote that John Paul "will not laicize a priest against his will." Under canon law, a priest could argue that molesting children was a disorder: his moral responsibility was impaired. Still, the bishops' conference sent representatives to Rome, seeking an administrative process to expel pedophiles without papal permission.

"They were looking for special norms without submitting legislation," a Vatican canonist told me in 2002. He wore robes on a sunny fall day. We sat in an old building. He complained about bishops not preaching against birth control, scorning their "antinomian attitude" -- disrespect for church law.

"There was very good reason not to grant special norms on pedophiles," he continued. "The U.S. [canon law] tribunals violated grandly -- terribly -- the annulments of marriage!"

What did marriage annulments have to do with pedophiles?

Rome had allowed certain exceptions to the code for annulments, he explained. "Instead," he said, dripping exasperation, "just the opposite happened. Laxity on marriage annulments."

All those lay folk, spilling secrets of marital failure to canonists in hopes of a second church wedding, had thwarted bishops wanting to expel pedophiles! The Vatican canonist was alarmed that bishops had not used secret trials for the child molesters. Rome wanted those provisions used in 1989, but American bishops had found that civil subpoenas could obtain secret files on penal trials or anything else. A penal trial was time-consuming -- a Texas case took eight years -- as the bishop waited to see if Rome approved or reversed him.

"The attitude here in 1989, at the Holy See, was that you have legal provisions," said the canon lawyer, as if scolding U.S. bishops. "Use them."

Few bishops resorted to the archaic proceeding. The Vatican-U.S. standoff lasted 12 years. Rome won. In 2001, John Paul ordered the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to rule on cases of laicization. Bishops began holding trials or forwarding cases to Rome.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), had experience in this difficult field. In 1998, the CDF accepted a case, drafted by a canonist from Mexico City and another at the Vatican, which accused Legion of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel of sexually assaulting seminarians in Rome in the 1950s and 1960s. Maciel was accused of giving the victims absolution in confession. Profaning the confessional is a canonical crime without a statute of limitation.

Maciel claimed his innocence in statements responding to media reports of the preceding year. The Legion claims that charges against him were disproven and cites a mid-1950s Vatican investigation (over accusations that Maciel abused drugs) after which he was reinstated. The Vatican never revealed the results of that investigation. At Christmas 1999, Ratzinger aborted the canonical proceeding without a trial. He later told a Mexican bishop that the situation was "delicate." Maciel is a Mexican national. Were he an American priest he would be thrown out under the bishops' 2002 youth protection charter, his case remanded to the CDF for laicizing.

If Weigel carries the Knothead brief for papal innocence on the abuse crisis, Father Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of the journal First Things, is Maciel's prime defender. "After a scrupulous examination of the claims and counter-claims," Neuhaus has written, "I have arrived at a moral certainty that the charges are false and malicious."

In 1994, when Maciel and the pope were pictured together in an advertisement in Mexican newspapers, the group of accusers had expanded as ex-Legionaries connected across the years. In 1997 the nine men went public in The Hartford Courant. After the group published an open letter to the pope in a Mexican newspaper, Archbishop Justo Mullor, the Vatican ambassador to Mexico, promised to brief the pope. He told them: "The church has tribunals of her own." And so in Rome they filed the case. Six years later, nothing.

Neuhaus made his "scrupulous" examination without interviewing any of the men. "Scrupulous" here is the language of disinformation, of mendacity.

Maciels' ideologue defenders totter on a knotty limb. Maciel must be defended because Ratzinger must be defended. Ratzinger must be defended because Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who reportedly intervened to halt the proceeding, must be defended. Sodano's decision must be defended because Pope John Paul II (who in 1994 called Maciel "an efficacious guide to youth") must be defended. The pope must be defended because he is the pope.

Maciel, who has promoted his mother for sainthood, dodges probing reporters in his native Mexico. He lives comfortably at the Legion seminary in Rome, where his honored guests at dinners have included Weigel, Neuhaus, Ratzinger and Sodano. At a beatification ceremony in 1992, Maciel told aides, "Don't start my canonization process until I've been dead 30 years." Where is the purification?

IF JOHN PAUL II IS WILLING to meet with Bishop Rodimer, why not with survivors?

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is focused on fostering support groups and changing laws to allow greater opportunity for civil redress and prosecution of perpetrators. Voices of the Faithful, while supporting survivors, is a Catholic movement seeking church reform. The most important change is a separation of powers to give lay people a role in removing guilty bishops. That will never happen until the language of the crisis becomes a reality in Rome.

Many Vatican officials watch CNN and use the Internet, but the Italian press says more about their world. The ornamental language of Vatican documents reflects the milieu of a king's college enclosed in a sacred castle. One thing the Vatican congregations take seriously is mail. English-speaking priests work there. Letters to them are more a gauge of what Catholics think than media reports.

Cardinal Giovanni Re is today the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and on the short list to be pope (though he would eschew such desire). His office deals with bishops the world over. I doubt that Cardinal Re has ever downloaded material from, if he even knows it exists. But Re, Ratzinger and Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of Congregation for Clergy -- and the priests who handle their mail -- know a compelling letter or document when it reaches them.

How many of these cardinals and their staff have ever read a bishop's deposition? Or a grand jury report? Castrillon Hoyos in the mid-1990s recommended a notorious pederast from Tucson named Robert Trupia for canon law consulting while Trupia was fighting his suspension. In time, Castrillon changed his mind. Trupia was recently laicized.

The abuse scandal that arose in the English-speaking countries never engulfed the Vatican because the Italian legal system does not afford the sweeping powers of discovery subpoenas as in the common law system. The Italian press has far less to draw upon in reporting such matters. Sworn interrogations in civil proceedings, matched with church files that show prior knowledge in reassigning child abusers, provide a paper trail that does not exist in the Roman curia unless documents are sent. Cynics will argue that such efforts are useless, citing Ratzinger's giving shelter to Maciel. The curia may well stonewall in the short run.

That is why John Paul's words are so important: "There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."

WALKER PERCY DIED BEFORE the first wave of national media reports on clergy sex abuse, but he had a friend, the Covington artist Lyn Hill, who while painting his portrait in 1977 confided that she was abused as a child by a Benedictine priest. "He looked like he had been hit in the face," recalls Lyn Hill Taylor, who founded the state SNAP chapter in 2002. She has since married.

"Walker had the idealism of the convert," she continues, "the magical touch with history that the Vatican has for such Catholics. But it was diminished by the way he was treated in Rome."

Percy in 1988 attended a Vatican conference where he delivered a paper extolling the uses of television to spread the good news of the gospel. "He felt used as a superfluous participant," continues Hill Taylor. "He said they were rude and he couldn't find what he thought was the church in Rome. But he always felt that the church will survive no matter how bad its people, including the clergy. He used to laugh and said, 'We're all sons of bitches but God loves us anyway.'"

Percy supported the church's stance on birth control and was staunchly opposed to abortion. What would he have thought of her activism?

"I think the father in him, and the intellectual, would have come out," says Hill Taylor, pointing out statements Percy made about his ancestors' history with slavery. "When he realized how wrong the Percys had been about blacks, he endorsed civil rights and was public about it. I'm sure that took him years. And it would have been hard for him to reach any such conclusion about the church. But as a man who faced truth honestly he would have been on our side, I'm sure of that."

click to enlarge UPI PHOTO


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