“We have nothing to fear from the truth”: 25 years of covering clergy sex abuse

“We have nothing to fear from the truth”: 25 years of covering clergy sex abuse

Veteran Catholic journalist Philip F. Lawler speaks with CWR editor Carl E. Olson about covering clerical abuse from the early 1990s to today.

Philip F. Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for decades, and Catholic World News, which he founded in 1995, was the first English-language Catholic news service operating on the Internet. Today he serves as editor of Catholic World News and director of CatholicCulture.org, and is also the author of several books, including The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture (2010, Encounter Books) and, most recently, Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock (2018, Regnery).

Lawler was editor of Catholic World Report from 1993 to 2005, and has covered the clergy sex abuse crisis extensively, during that period and since. He recently corresponded with CWR’s current editor, Carl E. Olson, about covering this and related topics before they hit the mainstream media in 2002, and about what the latest round of scandals mean for the Church in the United States and beyond.

Carl E. Olson, for CWR: When and how did you first begin reporting on the clergy abuse scandals in the Church?

Philip F. Lawler: To be honest, I don’t remember when I first began to investigate the issue; it was more than 25 years ago. But I do know that by November 1993, we carried a full dossier on the topic—a cover story—in Catholic World Report. From that point forward, the issue was always on the front burner for the magazine, and when I started up Catholic World News as a daily online service in 1996, I took the same editorial approach. You’ll find literally hundreds of stories in our archives that pre-date the eruptions of 2002.

CWR: Some “progressive” Catholic critics now claim conservative Catholics downplayed the clergy abuse scandal. Yet a number of conservative critics in the mid-1990s raised questions about clergy sexual abuse, you among them. Is failure to address the sexual abuse scandal something peculiar to conservative Catholics?

Lawler: Not at all. There are obviously some people who want to distract attention from the central questions raised by the scandal, and they find it convenient to claim—in clear disregard for the evidence—that “conservative” Catholics ignored the issue.

In all honesty, however, we should admit that many good, faithful Catholics were very reluctant to recognize the importance of the issue. They were trained to respect the hierarchy, and perhaps they took that deference too far. They were also suspicious of the media—with good reason, since the secular media have regularly distorted issues of faith and attacked the Church unfairly—and so they were slow to recognize that in this case, there really was a scandal to expose. Even now, after all these years, there are some Catholics who—God love them—simply can’t bring themselves to realize the extent of the problem, and grasp at any argument, however flimsy, that can be used to justify the bishops’ failures.

Still there were plenty of “conservative” Catholics who were vigorously pursuing the issue. I do think Catholic World Report led the way, but we had company. If you really are a conservative, in the sense that you seek to preserve the Catholic patrimony, then you should be ready to fight against the corruption that threatens that treasure. That’s how I always have approached the issue. We have nothing to fear from the truth. If the truth of the matter shows a need for profound reform—and it does—so be it.

CWR: Based on your experience and reporting, what were the key factors in the clergy abuse scandals? In what way is the current situation different from the early 2000s?

Lawler: There were several important factors, coming together at the same time to create a sort of “perfect storm.” The clear teachings of the Church regarding sexuality were under assault in the 1960s and 1970s, at the same time that the sexual revolution was bringing enormous changes in public attitudes. At the same time, unfortunately, the traditions of ascetical discipline in clerical life were breaking down. Priests who had been formed with strict standards saw those standards torn down; seminarians were no longer trained to keep the battles for chastity “far from the castle walls.” And of course there were other factors sapping priestly morale: the decline in Mass attendance, the defections from the clergy, and so forth. Quite a few priests lost their way, I’m afraid. I suspect that alcohol problems played a major role—both by lowering the inhibitions of priests who were already in trouble, and by helping their colleagues not to notice.

And an uncanny ability “not to notice” was a huge factor! Bishops, especially, developed habits of putting the best possible interpretation on anything they heard about their priests—even at times when they knew better. Too often they denied the obvious, even the undeniable. What’s worse, they misled their own people about the realities of the situation, and thereby did incalculable damage to their own credibility and teaching authority.

As I wrote in The Faithful Departed, this was a three-part scandal. First, some priests—a shockingly large number, albeit a small percentage—molested young people. Second, the revelations gave ample indications of widespread homosexuality within the clergy. Third, the scandal showed that bishops had covered up evidence of abuses, and in many cases lied to their people while doing so. With the Dallas Charter, the American bishops addressed the first part of the scandal. The new procedures should work to curb the abuse of children, although the procedures depend on the determination of the individual bishops. The second and third parts of the scandal, unfortunately, were not addressed in Dallas and haven’t been addressed subsequently. Homosexual activity within the priesthood is, if anything, more evident now than it was in 2002, and if it involves adults rather than teenage boys, it is not usually regarded as an urgent concern. And our bishops still haven’t taken the steps necessary to restore their damaged credibility.

The McCarrick scandal drew attention to this unfinished business, for two reasons. First, it involved homosexual activity by a prominent prelate, which had continued for years and had obviously not hampered his rise through the ecclesiastical ranks. Second, it involved that uncanny ability of bishops “not to notice” misconduct. Many Church leaders had been informed about the problem. Many others would surely have recognized it, if they had only looked at the evidence. So now we’re looking squarely at the unresolved second and third parts of the same devastating scandal.

Ultimately, McCarrick’s downfall was an encounter with an under-age boy. I don’t think many people knew that he had abused minors; I didn’t know. But I did know, and countless others knew, that he had taken advantage of seminarians. Doesn’t it stand to reason that someone who would chase 19-to-20-year-olds would be a danger to 16-to-17-year-olds? For that matter, wasn’t his desire for young men—of legal age or not—enough to disqualify him from higher office? The whole sordid story illustrates the inability and/or unwillingness of Church leaders to recognize a problem—a danger to their flocks.

CWR: Cardinal O’Malley has spoken of the need for “clearer procedures.” What needs to be more clear? And will it help?

Lawler: Even before Dallas, there were plenty of canonical options in place for a bishop to use, if he chose to discipline a priest for abuse. The bishops didn’t use those options. In the McCarrick case, the problem should have been addressed decades ago—not by a formal canonical procedure, but by responsible Church leaders picking up the phone and informing their colleagues that this man was not fit for higher office. At the bare minimum, other bishops should have confronted McCarrick (I know of one who did), and they certainly should have refused to set him up as their spokesman. Or maybe a sort of “family intervention” could have been quietly arranged. The tragedy is that, as far as I know, nothing happened.

(By the way, I was appalled by Cardinal O’Malley’s statement, in which he admitted that a prominent priest had warned him about the likelihood of a scandal involving then-Cardinal McCarrick, but said that he had never personally received the letter, and had taken no action. He, of all people, as chairman of the special papal commission on sexual abuse, should know that sort of buck-passing is unacceptable in these cases.)

But Cardinal O’Malley is right to point out that the Vatican still has not established a clear standard for holding bishops accountable for their handling of these issues. Pope Francis actually established a tribunal for that purpose in 2015—and then, inexplicably, scrapped it before it was ever put to work. In 2017 the Vatican announced that the tribunal was unnecessary because existing procedures were adequate. Cardinal O’Malley—who, again, is the key man in the universal Church for such questions—obviously disagrees. So do I. The failure to address part three of the scandal can be laid at the feet of Pope Francis.

CWR: What role do you think widespread theological dissent against Church teaching regarding sexual morality played in creating an atmosphere in which sexual activity of clergy could be rationalized?

Lawler: You probably can’t prove a causal connection, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that abuse peaked at the same time that dissent—particularly on issues involving sexual morality—came to the fore. And it makes sense, logically, that if priests were no longer holding the Catholic faithful to high standards, they would let their own personal standards slip as well.

In particular, the widespread practice of contraception—breaking the link between sexual activity and procreation—paved the way for acceptance of extra-marital sexual activity, including homosexual activity.

CWR: Some “progressive” Catholic commentators speak of the US bishops of the 1980s as if they were lock-step “conservative” bishops all eagerly following every letter of John Paul II’s pastoral vision for implementing Vatican II. The implication is that it was the “conservative” vision of John Paul II that facilitated clergy sexual abuse. What do you think about that?

Lawler: Well, I can assure you that back in the 1980s, orthodox Catholics would have been delighted to see some evidence that the American bishops were all conservatives, all in lockstep with Pope John Paul II! At that time, remember, our bishops were issuing statements on the nuclear freeze and the economy, ignoring the epidemic of liturgical abuse, and authorizing awful translations of the Mass. In fact, one major reason why so many American Catholics loved Pope John Paul II is that he provided us with encouragement and leadership that we weren’t getting from our own bishops.

It’s true—the records clearly show—that in the 1980s our bishops were routinely ignoring and/or covering up clerical abuse. But then, that’s how they were handling other problems, too. They were routinely ignoring and/or covering up evidence of heresy being caught in parochial schools, for instance.

There are plenty of people who would like to pin responsibility on John Paul II, for different reasons. Radical theologians would like to dismiss his teaching legacy. Bishops would like to shuck of their own responsibilities, passing the buck. Victims’ lawyers would like to reach into the “deep pockets” of the Vatican. But the evidence is quite clear: the bishops had authority to deal with the problem, and they didn’t.

CWR: We’re now very aware not only of bishops covering up abuse by priests but also of bishops engaging in sexual misconduct with priests and seminarians. Without becoming paranoid and adopting elaborate conspiracy theories, should the lay faithful be suspicious that many US bishops may be so compromised by what they have done or know others to have done that they shouldn’t be expected to undertake serious reform?

Lawler: Simple answer: Yes. As a body, the American hierarchy is hopelessly compromised in terms of credibility on this issue. The only solution is a serious investigation by someone who is—and, equally important, is known to be—completely independent and able to demand answers to tough questions. I can see only two possibilities:

• Another commission set up by the US bishops’ conference. But we’ve already been done that road, and it would be tough to convince people that this time the commission really would have autonomy.
• A formal Vatican visitation, complete with Archbishop Scicluna and his crew. That approach has produced some results in Chile, although we still haven’t heard the end of that story.

(There’s a third possibility that makes me shudder: a Congressional commission with subpoena power. Aside from the obvious Church-state conflicts there, it would be run by grandstanding politicians, with one eye on their poll ratings and no interest in Catholic doctrine or sacramental life. Fortunately, no one is suggesting that disastrous course of action. At least not yet. But if the bishops can’t put their own house in order…)

Individual bishops can’t do much by themselves to launch an investigation. But they can ask their own questions, demand honesty of their colleagues, and make it plain that they won’t cover up for the bishops who are compromised. A bishop who recognizes widespread corruption in the hierarchy can’t continue to “play ball,” to conduct business as usual.

If there aren’t fireworks at the next USCCB meeting—or sooner—we’ll know that we’re headed for even more trouble.

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