Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Defending the Indefensible

by James Hitchcock


In this article James Hitchcock points out that in a revealing defense of an accused pedophile priest, a Catholic advocate for homosexuals, Sister Jeannine Gramick of the Sisters of Loreto, uncovered the blatant contradiction in the liberal response to the sex-abuse scandal. Not only was Gramick defending Paul Shanley, but by implication she was also defending the way in which the Catholic hierarchy has dealt with pedophilia.

Larger Work

Catholic World Report


32 - 38

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, July 2005

If any good has come out of the priestly pedophile scandals of the past few years, it is the apparent confirmation that even in the permissive society there remains one sexual transgression still capable of arousing horror and indignation.

But that such a conclusion may be premature was revealed early this year, when the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), for four decades the principal organ of liberal Catholicism in the United States, published (on January 14) a defense of Father Paul Shanley of Boston, one of the worst of the accused pedophiles, who in March was convicted and sentenced to prison for his crimes. The defense was mounted by Sister Jeannine Gramick, a Loreto nun (formerly a Sister of Notre Dame), who for many years has been a leading advocate of "gay liberation" in the Church.

Sister Gramick had been an ally of Shanley in that advocacy, and she visited the accused priest in jail "merely to offer the hand of friendship," not to ask him about his alleged misdeeds. She found him in good spirits but the target of other inmates who (as she reported, in a tone of resigned recognition of human perversity) for some reason considered pedophilia a particularly heinous offense. Of course, Gramick conceded, she was horrified at the abuse of minors, but overall her sympathy was reserved for Shanley himself, whom she had "applauded for three decades." He was a "fighter for justice," someone who believed in "service to individuals, not self-preservation" — an assertion that in context sounded almost like a veiled pun about his sexual practices.

The mendacity of Gramick's defense lay in the fact that she did not confront forthrightly the question of Shanley's guilt, but tried to deflect attention to other issues. Although vaguely conceding that Shanley might have been "troubled," Gramick charged that he was the target of irresponsible media. Shanley's niece assured Gramick of the priest's innocence, and Gramick falsely claimed that all the allegations against him were based solely on the victims' recovery of "repressed memory," thereby implying that his accusers were either lying or disturbed. Noting that there were only a handful of accusers willing to testify in court, she also castigated the Archdiocese of Boston for settling with other claimants, apparently seeing no connection between that fact and their failure to testify. But finally, she asserted, Shanley's guilt or innocence did not matter. Other supposed friends had proven false but, even if he was guilty, she herself offered the hand of "unrestricted friendship."

The media reported that Shanley advocated sexual relations with minors, which Gramick claimed to be a malicious lie, as though refraining from such advocacy (if in fact he did) rendered it irrelevant whether he actually had sex with boys. Shanley's removal from the priesthood was a grave injustice because there was no credible evidence against him, Gramick claimed, and she predicted that he would eventually be acquitted.

In fact as she depicted him Shanley was a veritable saint: unable to understand why he was being persecuted, yet brave and not vindictive, wanting to help all priests accused of sexual offenses. (She did not report that he wanted to help the victims.) She and Shanley prayed, and she noted: "To those who love God all things work together unto good." This apparently meant that Shanley loved God and that any alleged evil he may have done had been to good purpose — by far the most brazen excuse anyone has offered on behalf of pedophilia.

Despite claiming to have read a vast amount of material on the subject, Gramick showed remarkable obtuseness about pedophilia. She recalled a case in which a priest had been accused of misconduct and his community had paid for "counseling" for both the victim and the accused. (She did not report that the accused had been removed from contact with minors.) But twenty years later the victim sued the community, which she took as proof of cynical opportunism. Accusers were driven by "lucrative business interests," she charged, thereby diverting money that should have gone to the poor and making the persecution of Shanley a subversion of social justice. She ended her defense with Jesus' words from the Cross, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" — which in context meant that it was not Shanley but his "persecutors" who were in need of divine forgiveness.

Readers' Reactions

The NCR's unease at publishing Gramick's article was revealed in the fact that the paper followed the unusual procedure of publishing two responses in the same issue.

Maureen Orth, a secular journalist who had written about the Shanley case, found the article "shocking" and disputed Gramick's claim to have read carefully the huge Shanley file, pointing out that some of the allegations against the priest dated back forty years and that a psychiatrist had diagnosed him as "damaged beyond repair." Orth could not understand the "callous disregard" for the welfare of children demonstrated by Shanley's superiors, nor the fact that Gramick herself showed little compassion for Shanley's victims and had never met with them.

David France, another secular journalist who has written about clerical pedophilia, admitted that Shanley engaged in "seriously improper behavior" but questioned whether he was technically guilty of pedophilia, in that he seemed to prefer young males just above the age of consent. France, interviewed in a homosexual newspaper, had called Shanley a "hero" because of the priest's rejection of Catholic teaching about homosexuality, but the journalist complained that the paper had also omitted his bland acknowledgment that Shanley had acted "improperly" during "counseling sessions."

Gramick was allowed to respond to Orth in the same issue of the NCR, asserting that most complaints against Shanley had to do with his "sexual theology," not his actual behavior, and that he was the target of "repeated, exaggerated, and heightened rhetoric." Gramick had not met with the accusers because they refused to meet with her. Apparently unable to comprehend why they might not want to meet with someone who was seeking to exonerate their abuser, she seemed to offer that refusal as further evidence of their dishonesty.

Over the next month the NCR published an unusually large number of letters on the subject, ranging widely in their viewpoints but most significant in revealing that Gramick was by no means alone in her determination to defend accused pedophiles.

Some respondents pointed out the obvious fallacies of Gramick's arguments and the willful obtuseness that underlay them. Carolyn Disco of Merrimack, New Hampshire, reminded Gramick of Shanley's assertions that "the adult is not the seducer, the kid is the seducer," that no sexual act could cause trauma, and that trauma was instead caused by police "dragging kids in" for questioning. Dominican Sister Sally Butler of Brooklyn and Elizabeth Goeke of Portland, Oregon, a counselor, both suggested that Gramick was in denial.

Aggie DiBacco-Miller of White Hall, Maryland, also a counselor, called Gramick "simplistic," because she ignored the fact that it often takes years for victims to reach the point of forgiveness. Sulpician Father Gerald Coleman of Menlo Park, California, quoted Shanley's sister's comment upon his conviction ("There are no winners today, only losers") and called it "Blatantly false. The winners are those abused, the losers Paul Shanley and Jeanne Gramick." Leon Podles of Naples, Florida, called Shanley a "con artist" who showed no repentance and who was interested in "gay liberation" because it gave him access to boys.

Nancy McGunagle of Petaluma, California, asked whether troubled youth who had sought help from a priest had instead met "the predatory, seductive wiles of Satan" and recalled Jesus' words about drowning evildoers with millstones around their necks. She advised that, if Gramick felt called upon to minister to people like Shanley, she should do so only after justice had been done. James E. Orton of El Centro, California, thought that both the perpetrators and the bishops who protected them should go to prison. Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher of Douglas, Alaska, revealed that she had herself been a victim of abuse and pointed out that whatever "good" predators do is merely a tactic to seduce their victims. Abused at age 11, she had failed to come forward not out of "repressed memory" but out of fear and shame.

Pauline Savucci of Westbrook, Maine, recounted that, as a nun, she had worked with Gramick and Shanley for "gay liberation," until various people told her that Shanley had molested them and she asked Shanley "too many questions." Savucci said that she had told Gramick why she was no longer active in the homosexual movement, thereby confirming that, contrary to her disclaimers, Gramick had known of the accusations against Shanley before they became public and had done nothing to "help" him.

Some of the favorable responses to Gramick simply denied the entire problem and in effect blamed the victims. Herman Early of Macon, Georgia, praised the NCR for "performing a great service" in publishing the article. It was necessary to ask why someone, after a lapse of thirty years, might "suddenly become psychologically disturbed. Once they are paid a large sum, they are suddenly healed. As the psalmist says, 'If you, O Lord, mark iniquity, who could stand?'" Father Bernard J. Lynch of London identified himself as having been falsely accused but acquitted in 1989 in New York City, an experience that left him "deeply wounded."

Why was it Published?

Most defenses of Gramick (and by extension of Shanley himself) were almost programmed responses growing out of the prevailing liberal Catholic ideology of the past forty years and laying open all the contradictions and evasions of that ideology.

To justify publishing the article, Thomas W. Roberts, editor of the NCR, engaged in brow-furrowing: the unavoidable admission that one's position is problematical, made merely as a way to avoid having to resolve the problem. Had anyone but Gramick submitted the article, Roberts admitted, he would have discarded it. As it was, he kept it for almost two years and eventually published it because Gramick was a person of "high integrity," as proven by the fact that she herself had been "harassed" by Church authorities because of her homosexual ministry.

But as Greg Bullough of Pipersville, Pennsylvania, pointed out, the personal ties of accused priests to bishops and others seem to be the main reason why predators have been protected by Church authorities, and Gramick's friendship for Shanley fit that pattern. Maureen Orth also identified the "old boy and old girl network" as the force that protected Shanley and allowed him to continue his predatory ways, the same network that prompted Gramick to defend Shanley and prompted the NCR to provide a forum for that defense.

Roberts characterized Gramick as "painstakingly precise" — an odd claim, given the devious and disingenuous nature of her arguments. He also found her unflagging in her "pursuit of principle and justice," another odd claim in view of the fact that Roberts admitted that the accusations against Shanley were "persuasive," which seemingly made her defense actually a denial of justice. In the end Roberts found the issue "inconclusive" and took satisfaction in the fact that the NCR had provided a forum for discussion of "complex" issues. Even if Shanley was guilty, Robert asserted, Gramick's essay was "compelling" in that it forced people to think about the nature of truth and justice. (This in itself is a remarkable claim. The NCR is not in the habit of publishing articles arguing the "complexity" of issues like capital punishment, global capitalism, the war in Iraq, or the rightness of homosexuality itself.)

Roberts' claim that Gramick had been harassed by Church authorities explained the NCR's openness to her special pleading. For years she has been a liberal hero for her systematic attacks on Catholic sexual teaching and as such is above criticism.

Linda Rieder of San Diego reported how, at a meeting of the dissident liberal group Call to Action, Gramick recounted her persecution at the hands of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (now Pope Benedict XVI) but she nonetheless forgave him. Similarly, Rieder insisted, Gramick was merely asking people to recognize Shanley' good qualities and to look at "all sides of the question." By implication Rieder condemned Cardinal Ratzinger, while accepting the claim that Shanley, like Gramick, was a victim of persecution.

The Liberal Narrative

In the world of the NCR, Call to Action, and other dissident groups, evil is always perpetrated by those in authority and their victims are always courageous dissenters, to the point where it is impossible to admit that dissidents themselves can perpetrate evil or that disciplinary action against them might ever be justified. It was impossible to acknowledge that, if Gramick defends pedophilia (as in effect she did on behalf of Shanley) it follows that the Vatican acted rightly in ordering her to cease her activities, an order she openly defies.

Last year a group of women charged publicly that they had at various times been sexually abused by nuns and were rebuffed when they tried to bring the matter to the attention of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The NCR paid minimal attention to those claims, and the secular media showed no interest at all, because the LCWR is an integral chapter in the liberal Catholic master narrative — the narrative of a struggle that pits progressive nuns against reactionary prelates — and to admit that nuns might connive at, even perpetrate, sexual abuse did not fit that narrative.

At the heart of liberal Catholicism is a fundamental contradiction that in effect turns Jesus' story about the Pharisee and the Publican on its head. Those in authority — those whose duty it is to uphold the teachings of the Church — are always to be condemned; while transgressors, especially of the sexual commandments, are to be protected from "judgmentalism." In every issue of the NCR, even as the rhetoric of "love" and "non-judgmentalism" is once again proclaimed, the Pope, bishops, political leaders, and others in high positions are routinely condemned in sometimes savage terms, as tyrannical, ignorant, psychologically disturbed, and worse.

The liberal assault on Catholic sexual morality is two-pronged. On one hand there is the accusation that Church teaching is the product of a neurotic, flesh-hating clerical lust for control — an accusation that is itself highly judgmental. On the other hand there is the "non-judgmental" claim that the essence of Christianity is infinite compassion and tolerance. Pedophilia has been a severe test of that position, but Gramick and her supporters have not allowed themselves to be daunted by the challenge.

Thus Mary E. Seematter of St. Louis, remembering nothing about millstones, proclaimed that Jesus "always forgave, never judged." Father Kenneth Smits of Madison, Wisconsin, boasted that he visits prisoners and announced triumphantly, "There is more than enough mercy for all." David Kundtz of Kensington, California, condemned the desire to make Shanley suffer as he made others suffer and urged people to "find another way." Sister Beth Rindner of Detroit compared Gramick to Jesus because "She is looking for good, loving, forgiving relationships rather than unloving ones."

But, as Pauline Savucci reminded readers, "Let justice be done. That too is a Christian message," and Greg Bullough pointed out that it was entirely just that money should go to the victims, many of whom have suffered loss of jobs and incurred heavy legal and medical expenses. Nancy McGunagle affirmed that the victims themselves have "the most compassionate calling of all" — to continue telling their stories so as to prevent future transgressions.

Only "Social" Sin

Some of the arguments against capital punishment, if taken to their logical conclusion, imply a rejection of all punishment whatever. This is the strand of liberal Catholic thought that Gramick's defense of Shanley exemplified. His guilt was denied or minimized, all thought of punishment was judgmentally condemned as judgmental, and there was vague talk of unspecified "other ways" of dealing with the problem. In another chapter of the dominant liberal narrative, Shanley was cast as the victim and his victims as his persecutors, making it impossible to confront the fact that he was a predator, someone from whom society needs to be protected.

Liberalism is now comfortable only with vague, impersonal ascriptions of moral responsibility — "social" or "structural" sin. Thus Gramick proclaimed that "the community" needed to repent, and that the community's atonement should include repentance for its failure to "help" Shanley — even though she simultaneously implied that he had done nothing wrong.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Gramick's article was something that no one, including Gramick herself, seemed to recognize. Not only was she defending Shanley, but by implication she was also defending the way in which the Catholic hierarchy has dealt with pedophilia. Like the bishops, she disapproved of the fact that the victims had recourse to the secular courts. Yet at the same time, like the bishops' accusers, she claimed that it was because the victims had not found compassion and justice at the hands of the Church. But if Shanley was innocent (and by extension most other accused priests are also innocent), the Church owed nothing to accusers, who were opportunistic calumniators, and bishops acted courageously in not bowing to pressure and in systematically protecting accused priests for many years.

This illogical stance allowed Gramick to continue maintaining the liberal dogma that all the problems of the Church are the fault of the hierarchy and that it is permissible to be judgmental towards those in authority. Whereas many people have criticized the way in which predators were allowed to move freely around the country, Gramick pushed a dependable liberal button by claiming that Shanley left Boston because he could not in conscience take an oath of fidelity.

Gramick is not alone in adopting this contradictory attitude. Call to Action has been severely critical of the hierarchy's response to pedophilia, but Linda Rieder seemed not in the least troubled by Gramick's implication that it was wrong to take action against accused priests. The NCR had campaigned relentlessly against Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who eventually was forced to resign because of his handling of the scandal, but if Gramick was right, Law too was a victim, since he was forced out of office precisely for his failure to take decisive action against priests like Shanley. In Gramick's view the Archdiocese of Boston acted unjustly even in belatedly depriving Shanley of his priesthood.

While it was interesting to notice how readers reacted to Gramick's article, it was equally noteworthy that many others were uncharacteristically silent. The famous observation of Sherlock Holmes, about the significance of the dog who did not bark, might be applied to some groups and individuals who ought to have been outraged by Gramick's willingness to excuse one of the most notorious offenders; one thinks immediately of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP); Voice of the Faithful, a group formed specifically in reaction to the scandals, for the purpose of demanding "structural change" in the Church; and Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, the strongest public critic of the hierarchy's irresponsibility. Whatever such people might have thought of Gramick's article, they could scarcely criticize it publicly, since they are themselves part of the liberal network of which the NCR is the loudest voice. They could blame the hierarchy with impunity, but would jeopardize their own influence if they pointed the finger at a liberal heroine like Gramick. (Similarly they had nothing to say about the disinterested reaction to abuse claims by the LCWR.)

Slow to Condemn

Accompanying Gramick's article was a 1978 photograph of Shanley from the NCR's files, an editorial selection whose coyness could be appreciated only by the most tenacious readers of the newspaper. For if the hierarchy bears heavy responsibility for Shanley's activities, so does the NCR, which at one time publicized him as a liberal hero engaged in "compassionate reaching out" to young homosexuals and, inevitably, obstructed by a close-minded hierarchy. The NCR too had helped give Shanley credibility — something the editors did not acknowledge when his real character became publicly known.

Over and over again the strongest critics of the hierarchy have insisted that the ultimate issue is "accountability," meaning that pedophilia was allowed to flourish because the bishops were not answerable to religious or laity. But Gramick's stance and that of her admirers demonstrated that religious and lay people might not act any more responsibly than did the bishops.

The fact that the dissidents demand "accountability" rather than prevention suggests that they are less interested in insuring that children not be abused than in pressing for changes in Church governance. But avoiding the issue of prevention is not a mere oversight. It goes to the heart of the issue, which is the homosexual phenomenon itself, something that liberal ideology cannot subject to critical scrutiny. Around 90 percent of known abuse victims are boys or young men, yet liberal opinion continues to dismiss as "simplistic" the claim that this fact has any significance, and some liberals even propose the absurd idea that celibate priests prey on boys because they are not allowed to marry adult women. For all their outrage, Father Doyle and David Clohessy of SNAP have never been willing to state the obvious.

Liberals understand very well the danger that the scandals pose to "gay liberation," and they attempt to neutralize that danger. Supporting Gramick, John Politis of Philadelphia cited Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials, and charged: "Sexual abuse has replaced Communism as the public target to pursue without regard for fundamental fairness or justice." Robert F. Mailovich of Arlington, Virginia, spoke of "knee-jerk vigilante enforcers," "money-grubbing attorneys and clients," and "lack of compassion" and called upon "progressive groups" to heed Gramick. Ignoring pedophilia entirely, Mailovich asked why, with so much evil in the world, "inappropriate sexual encounters with an adult are alone at the unforgivable center circle of hell."

Joe Murray of Chicago, the national head of the Rainbow Sash Movement, whose members stage confrontations during Mass by openly proclaiming themselves to be homosexuals and demanding to receive Communion, rebuked Father Coleman for "putting justice ahead of compassion" and praised Gramick for requiring people "to find Christ in Paul Shanley." It was, Murray conceded, permissible to be angry at priests who abused children, but that was to miss the larger issue.

Dishonest though it was overall, in one sense there was a startling honesty in Gramick's defense of Shanley but an honesty that could only be discerned by careful attention to her rhetoric. While affirming Shanley's innocence in a vague way and turning him into a victim of persecution, she never explicitly stated that he had not done the things of which he was accused, nor, despite perfunctory expressions of sympathy for the victims of abuse, did she ever state explicitly that the sexual exploitation of minors is a heinous thing.

In his own response to Gramick, David France, who is sympathetic to the homosexual movement, practiced damage control of the kind engaged in by lawyers whose clients can scarcely expect to be acquitted and can only hope to plead guilty to a lesser charge. Perhaps, he argued, Shanley did not actually have sex with males who were below the age of consent. At first glance it might seem unwise of Gramick not to have settled for a similar defense, or to have made a careful factual argument that Shanley did not do the things of which he was accused. But she is perhaps made of sterner stuff than France and Murray. While they seemed to concede that sexual activities between adults and minors is wrong, Gramick understood quite well that that is precisely the issue. Shanley is innocent not because he did not do the things of which he was accused but because, as Politis and Mailovich angrily charged, condemnation of those things is itself simply an expression of hysteria and bigotry.

Making Pedophilia Respectable

Advocates of homosexuality realize that, despite the support of the liberal churches, their agenda requires nothing less than the repeal of two thousand years of Christian morality. Although ancient attitudes were complicated, homosexuality was accepted in the ancient world in ways that it was not under Christianity, a fact which is cited by "gay liberation" to demonstrate that homosexuality is therefore natural and its condemnation a mere religious dogma.

But perhaps the most common way in which it was accepted in the ancient world was in relationships between adult males and what are now called adolescents, relationships in which the young male gave pleasure to the adult, who was in turn supposed to initiate the youth into the adult world. Thus the repeal of the Christian condemnation of homosexuality, the appeal to the authority of the ancients, necessarily implies the moral rightness of pedophilia.

Gramick is the country's most tenacious Catholic advocate for the claim that homosexuality is completely natural and that it is therefore wrong to forbid homosexuals to act on their desires. But if this is so, then the obsessive desire that some homosexuals have for boys can also be acted upon. Liberal Catholic opinion, which over four decades has all but abolished the concept of sexual sin, which instinctively resists any kind of sexual "repression," no longer has any firm basis for condemning pedophilia.

Skillfully exploiting both the moral confusion of the culture and the sympathy aroused by AIDS, the homosexual movement has made enormous social and legal progress over two decades, pressuring society into something close to full acceptance. But the clerical scandals are a major setback, calling attention to a dimension of homosexual life that most people find reprehensible and thereby preventing the movement from moving on to its next victory, which is precisely the normalization of pedophilia.

France denied the claim that Shanley was one of the founders of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). He was, according to France, merely a speaker at a meeting, some of whose attendees later formed NAMBLA. France implied a clear line between the responsible mainstream of the homosexual movement and a heretical pedophile underground, but in fact few prominent homosexual activists condemn NAMBLA and what it stands for, and scarcely anyone bothers to deny that an obsessive pursuit of the young is an integral part of the homosexual culture.

Even as the clerical scandals were exploding, a respectable university press (Minnesota) published a book justifying sex between adults and children — Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors — and even as the Los Angeles Times was unmasking a major pattern of pedophilia in the archdiocese of Los Angeles, the newspaper chose Levine's work as "book of the year."

Even more bizarre was the fact that, at a time when Catholic leaders were making repeated, compulsive public apologies for having tolerated pedophilia, propaganda in favor of the practice was being presented on Catholic college campuses and elsewhere, in Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues, where audiences have been reported laughing and applauding when a 13-year-old girl, recounting her seduction by an older woman, concludes, "They say it was a rape, but if it was, it was a good one." (Reportedly also, that line has been omitted from some performances, presumably because it is not yet opportune to reveal the full homosexual agenda; and the girl's age was later changed to 16.)

There is an appropriate irony in the pedophile scandals, in that it was only because the perpetrators were Catholic priests that the media pursued the issue as tenaciously as they did, but in doing so they called attention to the most unsavory aspect of homosexuality, thereby retarding the move to make pedophilia socially acceptable.

That the media have been driven primarily by anti-Catholic bias does not diminish the necessary service they have performed for both the Church and the larger society. However, just as the NCR would not pursue the issue of sexual molestation as perpetrated by nuns, so the secular media will not pursue in a systematic way the same phenomenon among clergy of other denominations, teachers, scout leaders, therapists, and other groups.

In time the issue will fade, and at some point, before not many years have elapsed, there will be a reappraisal in which fashionable opinion concludes that perhaps the whole scandal was indeed a kind of hysterical witch hunt, that pedophilia can indeed be beneficial to the young. Sister Jeannine Gramick's admirers call her a prophet in the moral sense, but when that day comes she will be viewed as a prophet in the popular meaning of the term: one who foretold the future and even helped to bring it about.

James Hitchcock, a frequent contributor to CWR, is a history professor at St. Louis University, founding member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and author most recently of The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life.

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