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Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop Myers keep the scandal alive

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 06, 2013

Last Friday I was rejoicing over the news that one American archbishop, at least, finally seemed to “get it” regarding the sex-abuse scandal. Now I’m afraid I was celebrating too soon. Within hours the smile had been wiped off my face, by two separate incidents that showed how thoroughly many bishops have missed the point.

Cardinal Mahony’s sad apologia

First Cardinal Roger Mahony, clearly stung by the news that Archbishop José Gomez had stripped him of his public functions in the Los Angeles archdiocese, released a defense of his own record, in the form of an open letter to his successor. Petulant and self-serving, the cardinal’s statement regurgitated the tired old arguments that American prelates have been making for over a decade to justify their failures.

Back in 2002, Cardinal Mahony was wondering aloud how Cardinal Bernard Law could live with himself after covering up evidence of abuse; now the disgraced former Archbishop of Los Angeles was making the same feeble attempts at self-justification that the disgraced former Archbishop of Boston had made before his resignation. He was only doing what the “experts” had recommended, the cardinal said; he had not yet come to appreciate the severity of the problem; he was doing what other American bishops had done. Ah, isn’t that the truth!

Yes, Cardinal Mahony—like most other bishops—took the advice of the psychologists who were running treatment centers for troubled priests. But in doing so he, like other bishops, ignored the advice that had been given years earlier by other psychologists. In 1947, Father Gerald Fitzgerald recommended that pedophile priests should be removed permanently from ministry. If his advice had been followed the sex-abuse scandal could have been avoided, thousands of young people might have been spared from trauma, and the Church might have been saved from $3 billion in legal damages. The problem was not that American bishops had never been warned; the problem was that they chose to overlook the warnings, to follow a different sort of advice.

“Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem,” Cardinal Mahony lamented. True, there were no courses in the seminaries on how to handle sexual molesters. But didn’t the bishops intuitively know—haven’t all responsible adults always known—that pedophilia is a very grave offense? I myself never studied the subject in school. Even without special training, I can assure readers that if I had ever discovered anyone molesting my children, I would have taken action: vigorous action; decisive action.

The problem, really, is that our bishops did not think of abuse victims as their children. Time and again, bishops acted not like the heads of spiritual families, but like the administrators of impersonal corporations. They used their influence to protect not the innocent children but the guilty priests. They served the clerical fraternity rather than the Mystical Body.

The bishops who showed such wretched judgment did immense harm to the Church, and damaged their own personal credibility gravely, if not irreparably. Archbishop Gomez apparently reached the conclusion in light of the evidence that has now been made public, Cardinal Mahony can no longer be a trusted representative of the Los Angeles archdiocese. The cardinal’s self-serving response confirms that judgment.

In the course of his open letter to Archbishop Gomez, Cardinal Mahony did land one solid blow. (It is revealing, and characteristic, that he buttressed his own case by undermining his successor.) He called attention to the fact that while internal archdiocesan files have only recently been made public, Archbishop Gomez had the opportunity to peruse those files months ago, when he first arrived in Los Angeles as a coadjutor:

Not once over these past years did you ever raise any questions about our policies, practices, or procedures in dealing with the problem of clergy sexual misconduct involving minors.

Here Cardinal Mahony was strongly hinting that Archbishop Gomez took action only because the truth was already out—that his decision to relieve the cardinal of public duties was motivated by public-relations concerns. If that is the case, then Archbishop Gomez was responding the same way so many other bishops had responded: taking action only when it was no longer possible to keep the lid on the scandal.

Is that criticism on target? I hope not. I hope that Archbishop Gomez was motivated only by the desire to protect his flock. But even if his reasons were mixed, I applaud the result. Better to do the right thing with imperfect motives than to do nothing at all. At least and at last, for whatever reasons, an American prelate had been called to account. The archbishop’s dramatic announcement was an unmistakable step in the right direction.

But then…

Archbishop Myers’ incomprehensible appointment

Sunday brought the staggering news that in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, a priest who had been convicted of groping a young man has now been appointed as co-director for the archdiocesan office of clergy formation. What could Archbishop John Myers possibly have been thinking? How could he be so utterly insensitive?

To be sure, the conviction of Father Michael Fugee was overturned on appeal. But rather than risk another trial he made a plea agreement with prosecutors and agreed to enter a counseling program for sex offenders. So a sex offender is heading an archdiocesan office. And not just any office, but an office designed to guide other priests in their spiritual formation. Is this not exactly the sort of scandal that the Dallas Charter was supposed to prevent?

An archdiocesan spokesman said that Archbishop Myers has full confidence in Father Fugee, even while emphasizing that the priest is now in a position where he does not have access to children. Does that really bespeak full confidence? 

Under the Dallas Charter—the policies the American bishops approved at their June 2002 meeting in Dallas, in a panicked response to public outcry about the burgeoning scandal—a priest who is credibly accused of the sexual abuse of children should be removed from public ministry. Yet here was Father Fugee, who had been not only accused but convicted by a New Jersey jury, serving in an office of the archdiocese. It emerged that he had previously served as a hospital chaplain, with unsupervised access to children, even after the conviction. The archdiocesan review board had cleared him for ministry, as had the archbishop. The case vividly illustrates that the policies put in place by the Dallas Charter provide no reassurance at all to the faithful, if the policy-makers do not prove themselves trustworthy.

There’s more. During Father Fugee’s trial, the jury heard a statement in which the priest said that he was homosexual or bisexual. (An appeals court would later cite concerns about that statement as a reason for overturning the verdict.) So now a priest who is homosexual or bisexual, who is in a sex-offender program, is dispensing advice to other priests in Newark, and potentially dealing with the priests who are coping with similar problems. Is there any reason for confidence that he is offering mature spiritual counsel? Can we assume that he would respond properly to other cases in which priests were accused of misconduct?

The astonishment, bewilderment, and outrage that greeted the news from Newark is completely understandable; the complacent reaction from the archdiocese (“We have not received any complaints from the prosecutor’s office...”) is appalling.

Right now, one of two things is true. Either

  1. The phone is ringing off the hook in the office of Archbishop Myers, as other bishops all around the country call to ask him what on earth he has done, and demand that he quickly undo it. Or...
  2. Ten years into the greatest crisis the Church has faced since the Reformation, most American bishops still haven’t begun to grasp the problem.

There is no third option. And as I look at those two possibilities, I shudder to think which is more likely. God help us.

A final thought: Please say a prayer for the repose of the soul of Bishop John D’Arcy, who lost his battle with cancer last Sunday. While serving as an auxiliary bishop of Boston under Cardinal Law, Bishop D’Arcy wrote several notes urging the cardinal to recognize the damage being done by predatory priests. Those notes reportedly irked Cardinal Law, who used his influence to have Bishop D’Arcy appointed head of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese, nearly 1,000 miles from Boston. Years later, when the files of the Boston archdiocese became public, those same notes showed Bishop D’Arcy to be one of the few points of lights in an otherwise gloomy portrait of episcopal neglect and malfeasance. May he rest in peace.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Apr. 29, 2013 2:12 PM ET USA

    Also the possibility that the Bishop, or someone in the chancery office is being either bribed or blackmailed.

  • Posted by: bruno - Feb. 08, 2013 8:13 PM ET USA

    I'm not quite so discouraged. But perhaps this is because these priests were formed in that same spiritual chasm that opened after the misinterpretations of Vatican II became prevalent in the 70s. Everyone alike must at last stand before the throne of God. Come swiftly, Lord Jesus!

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Feb. 08, 2013 7:10 PM ET USA

    Archbishop Myers' appointment of Fr. Fugee to head up clergy development tells me nothing has changed in that diocese. Needless to say, the media will stay on top of this appointment, but that will do nothing but drive sinful behavior deeper underground. In Los Angeles, I trust Archbishop Gomez, instead of speaking out while he was coadjutor, was marking time until he took over the diocesan reins. I will cut him this much slack and only hope Rome removes Mahony's priestly faculties.

  • Posted by: jacquebquique5708 - Feb. 08, 2013 10:54 AM ET USA

    One of the best commentaries that I have ever read on the situation. The "glass is half full" with Bishop D'Arcy and his "star" shines a little brighter in the heavens.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Feb. 08, 2013 1:40 AM ET USA

    If bishops would simply take some time to learn the Catholic religion, they would discover this thing call sin. And they might then discover that everyone is a sinner. And they might then learn that recognizing the moral falibility of human beings is the very reason God needed to create His Church in the first place.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Feb. 07, 2013 10:44 PM ET USA

    I can only suppose that Archbishop Myers is completely isolated from ordinary mothers and fathers, some of whom must surely wonder whether he has any idea of their outrage. It is the responsibity of parents to protect their children from evil influence, and that takes precedent over any other authority, including that of Archbishops. Now, after all that has happened, even now, it seems that parents still cannot trust priests or their Archbishop in this matter! Where is common sense?

  • Posted by: Jbernardcraig8251 - Feb. 07, 2013 4:20 PM ET USA

    There is a SURPLUS of priests in the Newark archdiocese; recall it has been #1 in ordinations for man y years. So, shortage of priests can be ruled out as a Motive. Jack64

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 06, 2013 10:13 PM ET USA

    There is a shortage of priests; perhaps this factored into the decision somehow, benefit of the doubt? It is still unthinkable that such a poor decision could be made despite the available information. There is a need for some fundamental redirection among some pastors.

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