Last Friday, I posted on Ricochet a piece entitled American Catholicism’s Pact With the Devil. In it, among other things, I traced the crisis now faced by American Catholicism to the reign within the American Church of Joseph Bernardin, Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago. In my haste, I got a detail or two wrong, and I was challenged not only with regard to the Cardinal’s cursus honorum but also with regard to the role he played in the scandal concerning the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy. This post is meant to correct the record with regard to minor details, to flesh it out with regard to the profound damage done the American Church by Cardinal Bernardin, and to suggest that we might be witnessing a turning of the tide.
In his prime, Joseph Bernardin was arguably the most powerful Catholic prelate in American history; he was certainly the most consequential since the heyday of James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When he was in his early forties, Bernardin was the central figure in defining the culture and modus operandi of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Later, when he became archbishop of Cincinnati and cardinal archbishop of Chicago, Bernardin’s concept and style of episcopal ministry set the pattern for hundreds of U.S. bishops. Bernardin was also the undisputed leader of a potent network of prelates that dominated the affairs of the American hierarchy for more than two decades; observers at the time dubbed it the “Bernardin Machine.”
In the media flurry that surrounded the allegation of sexual abuse, an impertinent reporter asked the Cardinal, “Are you living a sexually active life?” A simple “no” would have been sufficient. But the Cardinal said, “I am sixty-five years old, and I have always lived a chaste and celibate life.”
However defensible in the arena of public assault, I knew that the statement was not unassailably true. Years before, several priests who were associates of Bernardin prior to his move to Chicago revealed that they had “partied” together; they talked about their visits to the Josephinum to socialize with seminarians.
It is a fact that Bernardin’s accuser did not ever retract his allegations of abuse by anyone’s account other than Bernardin’s.
If, as reported, three million dollars were paid in handling the scandal, certainly there are still informed people in Chicago who know at least part of the story. And the story is complex. It holds repercussions far beyond Chicago and one allegation.
There are three reasons why we should not dismiss out of hand as malicious gossip Sipe’s euphemistically-phrased claims. The first is that what he reports with regard to the hush money purportedly paid the seminarian conforms to what was standard operating procedure in American dioceses at the time. The Boston Globe reports that, between 1992 and 2002, the Archdiocese of Boston secretly settled more than seventy cases of child abuse in this fashion. It would not be odd if this were done in Chicago as well. In fact, it is precisely what one would expect.
The second reason for taking Sipe’s claims seriously is the fact that what we know about the clerical sexual abuse of minors is entirely a consequence of the lawsuits brought against the church and the investigations undertaken by the secular authorities. Had it not been for these, the great game of shuttling the predators around would still be going on. There is no reason at all to accord the benefit of the doubt to the bishops. In and soon after 2002 we learned what accomplished liars they had been.
The third reason for suspecting that what Sipe reports might be right is that he is as well-informed an observer as we have. Richard Sipe is a former priest. He was a Benedictine monk for eighteen years, was laicized by the Vatican in 1970, and married. For a long period prior to his departure from the priesthood, he was involved as a psychologist in counseling priests who were having trouble leading celibate lives. He continued doing so after leaving the priesthood, and at various times both before and after he taught in Catholic seminaries. He has testified in case after case involving the sexual abuse of minors by clergymen. He has written a number of books on the subject, and he is a Catholic liberal sympathetic to the political stance of Cardinal Bernardin. I cannot prove that he is telling the truth, but there is no reason to think him a fabricator of lies. When he estimates that about 6% of the priests in the United States in the 1980s were guilty of the sexual abuse of minors and that two-thirds of the bishops had experience in shuttling these men around, his assertions are entirely plausible. The John Jay Report produced in 2004 for the Catholic bishops by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City of New York indicates that, between 1950 and 2002, 4% of the priests in the United States were accused at one time or another of child abuse, and we can be confident that there were perpetrators who were never accused. Two-thirds of these allegations were lodged between 1993 and 2003. Prior to that time, shame on the part of the victims, fear of the fury that they would incur if they went public, and an ill-deserved respect for the hierarchy of the Church generally dictated silence.
As Diogenes observes, one of the major themes of Sipe’s ruminations is that we will never fully understand what happened if we do not attend to “the connection between the sexual misdeeds of churchmen in powerful positions and the cover-ups — personal and institutional — perpetrated by men they recruited, groomed, and promoted.” Here is the way that Sipe put it in his keynote address:
Why is the fight so furious? Why is the struggle to keep FACTS buried so vigorous? Important clues exist in the genealogy of abuse. I have been able to trace victims of clergy and bishop abuse to the third generation.
Often, the history of clergy abusers reveals that the priest himself was abused – sometimes by a priest. The abuse may have occurred when the priest was a child, but not necessarily.
Sexual activity between an older priest and an adult seminarian or young priest sets up a pattern of institutional secrecy. When one of the parties rises to a position of power, his friends are in line also for recommendations and advancement.
The dynamic is not limited to homosexual liaisons. Priests and bishops who know about each other’s sexual affairs with women, too, are bound together by draconian links of sacred silence. A system of blackmail reaches into the highest corridors of the American hierarchy and the Vatican and thrives because of this network of sexual knowledge and relationships.
Secrecy flourishes, like mushrooms on a dank dung pile, even among good men in possession of the facts of the dynamic, but who cannot speak lest they violate the Scarlet Bond.
I have interviewed at length a man who was a sexual partner of Bishop James Rausch. This was particularly painful for me since Rausch and I were young priests together in Minnesota in the early 60s. He went on to get his social work degree and succeeded Bernardin as Secretary of the Bishops’ National Conference in DC. He became Bishop of Phoenix.
It is patently clear that he had an active sexual life. It did involve at least one minor. He was well acquainted with priests who were sexually active with minors (priests who had at least 30 minor victims each). He referred at least one of his own victims to these priests.
What was his sexual genealogy? What are the facts of his celibate/sexual development and practice? Did those who knew him know nothing of his life? Perhaps so! But he was in a spectacular power grid of bright men. He was Bernardin’s successor at the US Conference. Bishop Thomas Kelly at Louisville was his successor. Msgr. Daniel Hoye and Bishop Robert Lynch, among others, took over his job.
Let me be perfectly clear. I am not saying or implying in any way that these men were partners in “crime” with Jim Rausch. But I am saying that anyone who sets out to solve a mystery has to ask people who knew the principal, “What, if anything, did you know or observe about the alleged perpetrator?”
After all, the Church’s hardened resistance to dealing honestly with the problem of sexual abuse on their own has compelled the civil authorities to move in, ask the questions, investigate allegations. The Church in America has been its own worst enemy – creating mysteries and doubts, rather than clear answers that inspire confidence.
Even bishops innocent of sexual violations themselves, by their silence, concealment of facts and resistance to effective solutions, choose to be part of a genealogy of abuse and reinforce a culture of deceit.
In this speech, Sipe does not use the phrase “lavender mafia,” but his focus is the network of powerful clergymen who protected the malefactors and allowed the seminaries to become brothels. As Diogenes puts it,
We don’t need to jump to a Grand Unified Theory of conspiracy in order to recognize corruption; ordinary self-interest can account for particular incidents of ad hoc collusion by which gay bishops who are sexually compromised take care of their own. By the same token, it is absurd to pretend that politically astute gay bishops in key positions of influence could have been unaware of the liabilities of the men they advanced, defended, and perjured themselves for.
To anyone who has paid attention to the major players in the Crisis, Sipe’s roster of Bernardin cronies is striking. For a glimpse of the Southwest Triangle (Rausch, O’Brien, Moreno) go here, here, here, here, and here. For Robert Lynch’s connections, go here and here. Thomas Kelly, whose archdiocese now has problems of its own, winked through Rudy Kos‘s annulment (in spite of his wife’s insistence he was a pedophile), clearing his way into the Dallas seminary headed by Michael Sheehan, who later became Archbishop of Santa Fe. A power grid indeed!
If you follow the links – most of which are still active – you will get the picture, which is in no way pretty. Too many of those who found their way into positions of influence and power thanks to the patronage of Cardinal Bernardin not only failed to honor the vow of celibacy they had themselves taken but were criminally lax in its enforcement. The effect was to foster a culture of corruption throughout the American Church and to dishearten those – whether homoerotically or heterosexually inclined – who were fiercely intent on honoring their own vows. It was in this context that the small minority who preyed on children were protected from the legal consequences of their crimes and allowed to continue. Bernardin and his proteges regarded the sexual abuse of children as a moral lapse comparable to clerical drunkenness.
As one recent correspondent said to me in the course of reminding me of this passage, “The enemy of freedom is not always foreign and external.”