By Michael D. Langan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Pulitzer Prize winner Michael D’Antonio’s new book “Mortal Sins” will be the gold standard for unraveling what happened during the Catholic priests’ sex abuse scandal of the last three decades. D’Antonio’s balanced exposition and analysis is the equivalent of a cleansing shower on a disturbing period in church history that will reverberate for 100 years or more.
The monumentality of the evil laid out in “Mortal Sins” will gag readers. While there is no prurience in the writing, the matter-of-factness of the sexual activity is jaw-dropping. The crimes documented include a fact pattern of enormous proportion. The doggedness of those who pursued justice is admirable.
In “Mortal Sins” D’Antonio makes the case that:
• The abuse scandal is the product of the church’s culture of secrecy and sexual blackmail.
• Three Americans – lawyer Jeff Anderson, priest Thomas Doyle and victim Barbara Blaine – are responsible for creating a worldwide movement that has seen hundreds of priests convicted of crimes and more than $3 billion paid to people who were abused as children, with countless more claims unresolved.
• Disillusioned church members and the financial burden have forced the closing of almost 1,400 parishes in the United States.
• The victim/heroes include deaf children abused and ignored by hundreds as well as raped and molested girls and boys who became unyielding opponents of the church as adults.
• Abuse crises throughout the world – in the United States, Canada, Ireland, on the European continent and elsewhere – have created public outrage.
• Victims have caught church officials at the highest levels in cover-ups and other attempts to avoid responsibility.
• Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, Emeritus, handled abuse cases for 20 years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and allowed many perpetrators to escape sanction.
• The emotion which energized those who organized a concerted attack on Rome was inspired not by hatred but by anger over the crimes that had been committed, by empathy for victims, and by a fierce commitment to exposing the truth.
This is the point where the reviewer – for the sake of balance – might ordinarily insert remarks that show how much good the church has done over centuries. The church’s claim to moral supremacy, upon which it bases its authority, has had a sad, scandalous slide downhill over the past 50 years.
“Mortal Sins” reads like a detective story. Start with a hot summer day in 1984, when Cardinal Pio Laghi, the Vatican’s handsome ambassador to Washington, began his daily staff meeting, which he called “la congressa,” with a number of items on his agenda.
One of the items was a letter that Laghi passed along, explaining that it was a sensitive problem to his American assistant, Father Thomas Doyle. Doyle was a 39-year-old with a “bushel full of advanced degrees.” The letter, from Monsignor Henri Larroque of Lafayette, La., “… noted a multimillion-dollar payment he had to settle lawsuits filed by the parents of several boys who had been sexually assaulted by a local priest named Gilbert Gauthe.”
But that wasn’t the way that parents of a sexually abused child reacted. Fortunately for the world, the parents of Scott, Glen and Faye Gastal, did not accept the provision of their financial payment by the diocese that they keep quiet. Instead they hired a fellow Cajun, J. Minos Simon, to represent them. Simon was a “theatrically gifted and relentlessly aggressive, 62-year-old” lawyer who fancied white suits and enjoyed shooting Louisiana alligators with a handgun. Look out, Rome!
When Bishop Frey received notice that the Gastals were suing the Louisiana diocese, he sent another report to Laghi. Laghi couldn’t figure this out, as in his experience such cases were always handled privately. Doyle told him, “You don’t understand. In America, this can happen.” Laghi asked for more detail but apparently wasn’t too bothered by the case.
The Gastals eventually won a large jury award, and Gauthe went to jail for years. Lawyer Simon’s success with the case prompted a call from Minnesota lawyer Jeffrey Anderson, who had hoped to pick up some tips about suing the Catholic Church.
In 1984, Anderson received a case referral from a lawyer friend, Tom Krauel. It involved the case of a troubled teenager, Greg Lyman, who was in state prison.
Greg earlier committed a burglary and exposed himself to two young girls, ages 7 and 4. Greg’s parents had a friend, Father Tom Adamson, who worked at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in St. Paul Park. He was a charming, intelligent and athletic man. Greg had become an altar boy at Adamson’s suggestion. Reader, you can guess where this story is going. In a steam room at a gym, the priest masturbated the boy and told him, “Don’t tell anybody. You’ll get in trouble and so will I.”
When Greg’s parents found out, they contacted Krauel, who referred the case to Anderson. Bishop Robert Carlson of the St. Paul archdiocese met with the parents and the boy. A few days later, a $1,600 check arrived in the mail. The Lymans didn’t know what to do with it. Eventually they retained Anderson, suing the diocese for compensation that would pay for their son’s psychological care and recognize their own pain and suffering. They also wanted to make the church think twice about covering up for pedophile priests. Meanwhile, more complaints about pedophile priests surfaced. Father Doyle contacted Father Michael Peterson, a priest psychiatrist who ran a small mental treatment center for clergy, St. Luke’s, outside Washington, D.C., in Maryland. His was one of a number of centers that offered quiet care to ordained men across the country. Peterson confided to Doyle “that in the past, priests and bishops with sexual problems were routinely diagnosed with depression, alcoholism, or some other, less stigmatizing problem.”
But the facts were otherwise. So much so that Pope Paul VI in 1969 had consulted directly with Dutch psychiatrist Anna Terruwe about a worrisome number of his priests’ emotional lives, according to D’Antonio. She found a high rate of immaturity among Catholic priests and estimated that as many as 25 percent suffered from serious psychiatric illness.
An American colleague of Terruwe, Conrad Baars, reported that “Priests in general … possess an insufficiently developed or distorted emotional life.” Addressing America’s bishops in 1971, Baars warned that some men joined the priesthood to “make amends for past sexual sins … the consequences of the system have been largely disastrous,” he concluded.
As D’Antonio puts it, “In a few years’ time the exposure of the depth of deception practiced by bishops would change public attitudes toward church authority.”
Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine priest, conducted numerous studies that indicated “a vast system of clerical blackmail that served, in a perverse way, to strengthen the clerical culture. Under these conditions, priests who had sex of any kind, even alone, routinely confessed and sought absolution from each other … the guarantee of forgiveness meant that priests were united in their secrecy.” His 1990 book, “A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy,” set out his findings with considerable nuance.
When Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law first spoke of yet another scandal uncovered, the sexual abuse in the 1960s of multiple young victims by the Rev. James Porter, he said: “I’m absolutely fed up with the media coverage of this case of 25 years ago.” He added, “By all means we call down God’s power in the media, particularly the (Boston) Globe.” The Globe, undeterred, continued to run stories of priestly abuse, reporting on Father John Geoghan who was defrocked in 1998 after abusing “hundreds of children of various ages.” In this case, the Boston archdiocese agreed to a settlement of $30 million to certain clients. This was before another archdiocesan priest, Father Paul Shanley, was engaging in deviant behavior. For decades, D’Antonio writes, “high church officials, including Law, knew of complaints against Shanley - 26 in all - and continued to promote him …”
Barbara Blaine, the third hero in this story, was an admirer of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Blaine worked night and day in the 1980s on Chicago’s impoverished South Side, “standing for life,” as Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernadin had requested. Blaine remodeled an abandoned convent to serve the poor. She also sought psychotherapy after she was sexually assaulted by the Rev. Chet Warren, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales in Toledo, who blamed her, a 13-year-old at the time, for his rapaciousness.
Over time, Blaine became part of a network, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which became a touchstone of information and mutual support nationally.
There are many more sex crime cases recounted in “Mortal Sins.” It is filled with a good journalist’s honest reports of a huge scandal that was so broad and diffuse that it took years to unfold. Cardinals’ memories are especially pliant. Cardinal Roger Mahoney’s recollection, for example, is described as faltering more than 70 times, using the words, “I don’t recall” during his deposition involving claims made against priests under his jurisdiction.
It will take years to undo at least some of the harm, perhaps the most severe since the Reformation.
Can it be remedied? Pope Francis, who has indicated a preference for the poor and dispossessed, offers the chance of a renewal of the church; a new dawn, not, one hopes, the liminal light of sunset, as he deals with this scandal.
Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime and the Era of Catholic Scandal
By Michael D’Antonio
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press
432 pages, $26.99
Michael D. Langan was interviewed in 1999 for the Conference of Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection director’s post in Washington when he retired from the Treasury Department.