The Boston Globe ran a story over the weekend alleging that the Vatican's top prosecutor on sex-abuse cases failed to report an abusive priest to civil authorities when he was a high-ranking official in the Jesuits' Chicago Province.
Given the legwork that reporter Michael Rezendes put into culling the sources for the story, the piece is well worth your time, but it leaves some unanswered questions. There's a lot of smoke here, to be sure, but it leaves me with the feeling that the Globe could have gone to greater length to locate the source and extent of the fire.
Here's the lede, the wording of which suggests some delicate legal vetting:
A prominent American Jesuit recently named by Pope Francis to prosecute priests accused of sexually abusing minors under church law was himself one of several Catholic officials who allowed a notorious abusive priest to remain in ministry for years after learning of his long history of sexual abuses, legal documents show.
The Rev. Robert J. Geisinger, named in September as the Vatican’s “promoter of justice,’’ was the second-highest-ranking official among the Chicago Jesuits in the 1990s when leaders were facing multiple abuse complaints against the Rev. Donald J. McGuire, a globe-trotting priest with many influential supporters, including Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
But the Jesuits failed to notify police or take effective steps to prevent McGuire from continuing to molest minors.
Got that? Geisinger was "one of several Catholic officials" who knew about McGuire's abuse but "failed to notify police or take effective steps" to prevent him from re-abusing. What is being suggested is not that he actively sought to cover up, but that he enabled evil to perpetuate by failing to do the right thing.
The story continues:
Documents examined by the Globe, most of them church records produced during lawsuits filed by McGuire’s victims, show Geisinger had detailed knowledge of the complaints against McGuire as early as 1995 and advised officials in Chicago on how to discipline McGuire as late as August 2002.
That last date reflects especially badly upon Geisinger. August 2002 was two months after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which mandated that diocesan officials report abuse to civil authorities. Although the Jesuits as a religious order are not themselves under diocesan authority, they work in dioceses and, as such, are responsible for abiding by the bishops' rules.
More from the Globe:
McGuire was finally convicted in 2006 by a Wisconsin jury of molesting two boys who had notified civil authorities. He was also convicted on federal charges in 2008 and is serving a 25-year-prison sentence.
“It’s astonishing that, for such a high-profile, sensitive position, the Vatican wouldn’t want someone whose background is unassailable, in the sense that there shouldn’t even be questions raised,” Philip F. Lawler, the editor of Catholic World News, said of Geisinger. Lawler has been a prominent critic of the church’s handling of the sex abuse crisis.
Great quote from Lawler, and kudos to the Globe for putting his words above the obligatory quote from SNAP or BishopAccountability.org (the latter are quoted further down in the piece). Lawler's advocacy for victims is more potent than that of those organizations, because he does not share their institutional antagonism to the Church.
When the Globe asked the Vatican for comment, the Holy See's press office doubled down:
Geisinger, reached at his Rome office, referred questions to the Vatican press office, which expressed confidence in his abilities, saying, “the Holy See fully expects Father Geisinger to continue to do an excellent job as promoter of justice, based on his prosecution record, his commitment to justice, and his concern for victims.”
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the press office, said in a statement that Geisinger had “voiced concerns regarding McGuire’s conduct” while working with the Chicago Jesuits, and he credited Geisinger with presenting the case for McGuire’s expulsion from the priesthood in 2008. Lombardi noted that Pope Benedict acted on Geisinger’s request in less than two months.
The rest of the story lays out the documentation of Geisinger's role in the case. At the end is the quote from BishopAccountability.org:
Said Terence McKiernan, founder of the advocacy group bishopaccountability.org: “Do you really want to pick someone who is actually in the paper trail of one of the most egregious cases that the Jesuits have ever handled?”
It's a weak note on which to end the piece.
Let me explain: There is no question that anyone who fails to report a well-grounded suspicion of childhood sexual abuse to civil authorities commits a grave wrong. That was true in the 1990s and it is true today. Likewise, as Lawler said, anyone in such a high-profile position as the Vatican's promoter of justice should have an unassailable record on abuse. As a victim of abuse myself, and as a Catholic, the information the Globe has unearthed on Geisinger gives me no reason to rejoice at his being where he is in the Curia. But if all the Globe can ultimately do is highlight that Geisinger is "in the paper trail" of the McGuire case, then it seems to me that there are angles of this story that have not yet been explored.
Given that the 2002 letter from Geisinger was written while he was serving in the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, a good place to start when asking further questions would be: What exactly was Geisinger's job in Rome at the time? Was he handling abuse cases there? Can this case be taken as representative of the advice he gave at the time? To my mind, Geisinger's voice in the 2002 letter sounds more like a bureaucrat trying to put out administrative fires than a priest concerned about the safety of the Lord's flock. Even so, more context is needed before we can understand his role in the whole mess.