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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

The US Priest Scandal: Rome’s Strategy for Damage Limitation

Clive Gillis

The paedophile priest scandal in the United States peaked during April of this year with 3,000 priests facing allegations.

But the Vatican, alert as ever, was ready with a strategy for damage limitation.

Breaking its silence officially on 15th April, the headlines ran, "Pope orders talks on US sex scandals". The billion faithful witnessed John Paul II condemning the wretched priests, who were often not only exploiters but themselves exploited. He described them as "evil". The eight American cardinals were summoned to Rome. Surely heads would roll.

Meanwhile the scandal rocked the USA. One journalist commented, "The edifice of the Roman Catholic Church is starting to crumble before our very eyes". Another said, "Priests don’t walk the streets in clerical dress for fear of being spat upon". Devastated Roman Catholics hoped this vitriol would be short lived. The popular perception of shamed Cardinals facing the pope on the 23rd April for tough action suggested a concerned Vatican in touch with ordinary folk.

L’Osservatore Romano

But Cardinals heads didn’t roll. On the contrary, L’Osservatore Romano’s front page carried no account of the meeting but rather photographs of World Vocations Day, April 21, when 20 new priests were ordained for the Diocese of Rome. The pope exhorted the new priests to look to Mary "Mother of Priests" in order, "constantly" to find a "genuine path of holiness", and "be holy ministers," as "every vocation is … at the service of holiness … holiness is the context in which the Church’s entire pastoral life must be placed".

The reader had to turn to the back page of L’Osservatore Romano for any report of the conference. The tame headline, "Pastors must inspire trust in people," seemed at best inadequate. Priests are called pastors, thus distancing them from the miracle of transubstantiation. Paedophilia is not even mentioned.

The pope merely says, "Because of the great harm done by some priests and religious, the Church herself is viewed with distrust … many are offended … the abuse is a crime". The rest is mitigation: "Clinical experts" had "led Bishops to make wrong decisions". Subtle phraseology like, "this time of trial will bring a purification … sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood … the present crisis … this difficult time," suggested that the Vatican judged the situation to be only a temporary one.


What Rome calls, "the present crisis" surfaced in 1983. It emerged that archdioceses had been aware of these offences for at least some decades. Their response was simply to move priests on, with no thought for the abused. This pattern recurs ad nauseam. The problem is as old as Rome. In the 2nd century the Didache inveighed against this sin. As I write, Ralph Ranalli of the Boston Globe states: "A Superior Court judge has ordered the Archdiocese of Boston to turn over 50 years’ worth of records". This takes us far beyond ‘the present crisis’.

Multi-million judgements

1997 saw a record $119 million judgement against the diocese of Dallas. Then another twelve altar boys, victims of the same priest, came forward the following year. By pleading poverty and the shame of Church bankruptcy, a further award was held at $31 million. Rome then brought in professional risk assessors. Despite the vast storm of publicity this year, the victims of infamous paedophile priest John J Geohan, of Cardinal Bernard Law’s Boston Diocese, only received 10 million dollars. When we take into account inflation, the large number of victims (84) and the considerable culpability of the archdiocese, this was in reality a Vatican victory.

Although out of court settlements have reached a billion dollars and not an Archdiocese lacks accused priests, Rome’s exercise in damage limitation has largely succeeded. In one poll only 30% of Roman Catholics said they would be reducing their giving. Admittedly some rich Romanist philanthropists have also redirected their giving. One in Cardinal Law’s diocese said, "Those church leaders who have made a series of bad judgements may continue to hold on to their titles, but they will be leaders in title only."

Lacking credibility

Until recently, archbishops could decide the outcome of local elections with a few words, but they now lack credibility. Falling vocations to the priesthood have stoked the already embarrassingly loud cry for the abolition of celibacy. Sipe, author of Sex, Priests and Power, Anatomy of a Crisis, 1995, estimates that only 2% of those vowed to celibacy actually achieve it.

The Vatican strategy is subtle. Back in Boston, Law is leading the way by slashing the services of the huge Boston Catholic Charities which is the social services arm of the Roman Church, one of the state’s largest providers. Cardinal Law pushed through a plan to reduce, "the number of sites where it delivers services from 52 to 6 … within 5 years". At risk in this power game are 175,000 Boston poor. The publicity war must eventually swing back in Rome’s favour.

None of the eight Archbishops, including Law who was being vilified around the world in April, were removed. Clearly the April summit was a meeting to plan damage limitation, in which it was decided that if even one Prince of the Church went, there would be no knowing where the damage would end worldwide.

Cardinal Law rehabilitated

It was expedient therefore to turn Law, now 70 years old and the USA’s senior Romanist, into the world’s "young people’s" Cardinal. The World (Roman Catholic) Youth Day was held in Toronto this year. The reviled Cardinal Law suddenly started holding high profile pre-pilgrimage masses and rallies. Reuters and other global news agencies showed him boarding the coach in late July as the "young peoples guardian" on the trip from Boston to Toronto. Before the coaches drew away, he personally promised the parents that he would guard their offspring. Law was also pictured in the coach surrounded by happy young people.

Brother Bernie

In Toronto, Law was allowed to share in the atmosphere of papal adoration. The pope mentioned the scandal in public for the first time. The press reported "Abuse Victims Flock to Law". Thus, "In an extraordinary display of reconciliation among Catholics, a group of priest sex abuse victims and their advocates shed protest signs to join worshippers at Holy Cross Cathedral yesterday, receiving Communion from Cardinal Bernard Law." Law and hundreds of young people wept and embraced one another. The Vatican’s plans were succeeding.

Law asked "alleged victim Arthur Austin, whom he instantly recognised, to ‘pray for me,’ words that reached directly to his (Austin’s) soul."

The report continues: " ‘it was a very healing moment because it was not the archbishop or the cardinal who spoke to me. It was my brother, Bernie, who responded to me,’ said Austin, who wore a button saying ‘Reject Cardinal Law’ during the encounter. That’s the radical grace of God in the world. The decision by Austin – who previously called Law ‘a criminal, a murderer of children … an affront to Jesus Christ’ – and four other victims and advocates to seek communion from the cardinal, capped a weekend of bridge-building among disparate groups of Catholics."

Latin America

The Vatican fears that the present antipathy to Rome will spread to her Latin American heartlands where she is already facing hostile political regimes and loss of members to the Evangelicals. Bernard Law was himself born in Torreon, Mexico.

The day before the Vatican broke its silence on the scandal, its Mexican strategy emerged. While Law cowered at home rather than face angry protesters outside his cathedral, a huge crowd including "thousands" of Latin American pilgrims gathered in St Peter’s square for the beatification of six of their own. This pre-emptive coup included the first two women from Latin America.

Cardinal Maradiaga

A Salesian who had come over for the ceremony was interviewed for Roman Catholic consumption in the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome.

Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras was asked for his impression of the scandal. He said, "This is an issue … exploited by the media. When money, politics and justice get mixed up together justice … becomes injustice. We all know how openly anti-Catholic Ted Turner is and he’s the boss not only of CNN but also Time Warner … The New Your Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe … have taken the lead in … persecution of the Church … The Catholic Church is … the only one that obstructs a policy that dehumanises … this vehemence levelled at the Catholic Church in the United States reminds me of Nero, Diocletian … and more recently Stalin and Hitler … persecution on the part of the civil authorities is what is happening." When the American press got to hear about it they had a field day.

Referring to Law, his fellow countryman, he said, "What is being done to the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston Bernard Francis Law … is a scandal … He is a man that has done such good to us all in Latin America". He said, "The judge that will preside over the trial is the same judge that supports all the feminist’s movements" He condemned the proceedings against Law as a "sideshow".

Archbishop of Mexico City

Cardinal Roberto Rivera Carrera, Archbishop of Mexico City, also sprang to Law’s defence. "He is a friend of mine, born in Terreon my own home town … We are very fond of him here in Mexico … It is not just a press campaign of persecution against him, let me say again, (but) against the whole church … a general plan of inveterate persecution … its what happened in Mexico with the persecution last century, in Spain, in Nazi Germany and in the communist countries … It is happening today in the United States".

Father Marcial Maciel

Asked about echoes of the scandal in Mexico, Carrera said, "Our newspapers gave a great deal of coverage in Mexico … we Bishops said if anyone knew … of … such they should report … to the ecclesiastical and if necessary to the civil authorities". He concludes, "To date there have been no such charges".

This claim was contradicted by David Adams in The Times on 30th July. He referred to, "allegations concerning Father Marcial Maciel, 82, the Mexican-born founder of the Legionaries of Christ. They date back to the order’s creation in 1941 and span two decades of alleged abuse against about 30 seminarians, who were under 16 at the time. Carrera’s ‘if necessary to the civil authorities’, is contradicted by the absolute determination of the Mexican hierarch ‘not to wash their dirty laundry at home’."

Vatican silence has been maintained despite a stream of complaints about Maciel Father Marcial Maciel, 82 is the Mexican born founder of the Legionaries of Christ in 1941. Adams reports, "The legion is Mexico’s fastest-growing order with 503 priests and 2,500 seminarians operating in 20 countries, including a strong presence in the US, Spain and Ireland. It operates a string of private schools in Mexico, as well as a university in the capital … Their stories were buried for years by the Mexican media, which feared offending the order which has close ties to Mexico’s political system has opened up, the story of abuse in the legion has slowly begun to emerge."

Adams continues: "In the last three months the accusers have appeared in an hour-long discussion programme on Mexican TV," (but) "the Pope has repeatedly praised Father Maciel for his loyalty to the Vatican as well as for being an ‘efficacious guide to youth’."

Yet one wonders how long Rome can continue to insulate Latin American Roman Catholicism against the winds of change.

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