The Catholic gun didn't go off: Silence greets Dallas News series

Once there was a man who lived in a lighthouse on the foggy Atlantic. That's the start of a very, very old sermon illustration. I thought of it this past weekend as I read the first chunks of the sprawling Dallas Morning News reports on the globalization of the clergy sex-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. I've been on the road for several days and I leave the country for a week tomorrow, so I am reading and typing fast.

Back to the sermon illustration. As the story goes, this lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts. Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire.

This rare silence awoke the keeper, who leapt from bed shouting, "What was that sound?"

What does this have to do with the Dallas series? That's simple. The series seems to be breaking new ground but the mainstream press, and even the always lively world of Catholic bloggers, seem to be greeting it with silence. Chilly silence? Can't really tell yet.

For those who are not following the action, here is the opening of today's story by reporters Brooks Egerton and Brendan M. Case. They have been working on this investigation for 18 months.

The Mexican bishop had trouble on his hands. An attacker had nearly killed one of his priests, whose sexual misconduct was well known to the bishop. And now villagers were telling police about a stream of young male visitors to the priest's parish residence.

The U.S. bishop had a different problem: a lack of Spanish-speaking priests to serve a growing immigrant population. And so, in 1987, the Rev. Nicolás Aguilar got a fresh start in Southern California. Just nine months later, he was on the move again, leaving behind one of the largest child sexual abuse cases in Los Angeles Archdiocese history. Again, scandal was contained with the priest hiding abroad.

Father Aguilar's tale of international flight fits a pattern that Catholic Church leaders have repeated around the world, a yearlong Dallas Morning News investigation has found.

The other names in this story are huge -- Cardinal Norberto Rivera of Mexico City and Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, the leader of largest U.S. diocese. And Father Aguilar did not slip away quietly, according to the Dallas News series. It continues:

After dodging criminal charges in California, where police said he had molested at least 26 boys, he was charged in a 1997 Mexican abuse case. Church leaders kept him in ministry while the matter was pending and even after his conviction in 2003. Recently, he was spared punishment on a technicality, a Mexican judge said.

Cardinal Rivera did not respond to written requests for information. Cardinal Mahony declined to be interviewed. The reporters did not stop there and you can read the results of their pursuit for yourself.

So what is going on here? Let me say out loud what a cynic might say.

This is not a sexy story anymore. And the Boston Globe owned the old story, two years ago. The Globe has the Brand Name nailed down.

The U.S. bishops have done something and discussing whether they did the right things gets complicated. We are headed into an election year and the sacramental status of Sen. John Kerry is getting the Catholic ink. People are tired of the story and it does not sell newspapers, magazines or books. The Catholic left has reasons to be silent and so does the Catholic right. We don't have sexy art, yet.

There's more, I am sure. And I missing something?

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