Who will protect sheep from shepherds? Inquirer and Globe team spotlights sins of many bishops

I’m not sure that we’re talking about a true sequel to the massive 2002 Boston Globe “Spotlight” series about sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic priests.

Still, there’s no question that journalists at The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Globe have — working together — produced a disturbing report documenting the efforts of many U.S. Catholic bishops to hide abusive priests or, at the very least, to avoid investigations of their own sins and crimes during these scandals.

The dramatic double-decker headline at the Inquirer says a lot, pointing readers to the key fact — that U.S. bishops keep stressing that only Rome’s powers that be can discipline bishops, archbishops and cardinals::

Failure at the top

America’s Catholic bishops vowed to remove abusive priests in 2002. In the years that followed, they failed to police themselves.

For the most part, this report avoids pinning simplistic political and doctrinal labels on Catholic shepherds who are, to varying degrees, involved in this story.

If you know any of the players mentioned in this report, you will recognize that it offers more evidence — as if it was needed — that this scandal is too big to be described in terms of “left” and “right.”.

I am sure that critics more qualified than me will find some holes and stereotypes. Experts will be able to connect the dots and see the networks that protected abusers or even produced them. Informed readers can do this, because the Globe-Inquirer team consistently names names. We will come back to one interesting exception to that rule.

Another point: It really would have helped if editors had acknowledged that there are valid theological, as well as legal, issues in this fight. Yes, there are bishops who have used centuries of theology about the role the episcopate plays in the church as a defense mechanism to hide their actions. However, this doesn’t mean that the theological issues are not real. Maybe call a theologian or historian — or several? To be blunt, there is more to this theological puzzle than this:

The Vatican has allowed bishops who have faced credible allegations to slide quietly into church-funded retirement. Those still in power take orders only from Rome.

“The bishops simply do not have anyone looking over their shoulder,’’ said the Rev. John Bauer, a Minneapolis pastor. “Each bishop in his own diocese is pretty much king.”

So, yes, there are problems. But let’s not miss the big news, here. Focus on this thesis statement early in the report:

Sixteen years after the clergy sexual-abuse crisis exploded in Boston, the American Catholic Church is again mired in scandal. This time, the controversy is propelled not so much by priests in the rectories, as by the leadership, bishops across the country who like Finn have enabled sexual misconduct or in some cases committed it themselves.

More than 130 U.S. bishops — or nearly one-third of those still living — have been accused during their careers of failing to adequately respond to sexual misconduct in their dioceses, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe examination of court records, media reports, and interviews with church officials, victims, and attorneys.

At least 15, including Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington who resigned in July, have themselves been accused of committing such abuse or harassment.

That’s infuriating. However, things get worse — if you want to believe that America’s bishops — or large numbers of them — have done their best to police themselves.

Put down that beverage before you read this next part. You’ll want to protect your keyboard or laptop.

Most telling, the analysis shows that the claims against more than 50 bishops center on incidents that occurred after a historic 2002 Dallas gathering of U.S. bishops where they promised that the church’s days of concealment and inaction were over. By an overwhelming though not unanimous vote, church leaders voted to remove any priest who had ever abused a minor and set up civilian review boards to investigate clergy misconduct claims.

But while they imposed new standards that led to the removal of hundreds of priests, the bishops specifically excluded themselves from the landmark child-protection measures. They contended that only the pope had authority to discipline them and said peer pressure — public or private shaming they euphemistically called “fraternal correction” — would keep them in line.

It hasn’t.

Several of the cases studied in this piece have been covered extensively in the past. After all, this scandal dates back into the mid-1980s and the 2002 revelations lit fires everywhere.

That brings us to the fine details of allegations linked to Archbishop Harry Joseph Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

As this new investigation noted, he was held in high regard by many because he had effectively handled the “nation’s first clergy sex-abuse scandal in Lafayette, La. — the 1985 case of the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, who had molested dozens of children.” Flynn was a crucial player in efforts to promote the 2002 Dallas reforms.

Then, in 2014, Flynn had to answer questions under oath about his own actions, when dealing with abuse. This report notes that — more than 130 times — the bishop said he could not recall key details.

So this brings us to one specific case study. Read carefully:

Before Flynn retired, he hired canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger, who would later become an adviser to Flynn’s successor, John Nienstedt.

Some of the records that crossed her desk horrified her, she said: Reports of a priest with pornography on his computer. Another imprisoned for criminal sexual misconduct and theft. Warnings and concerns to Nienstedt that had been all but ignored. …

Consider the case of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer.

Flynn ordained Wehmeyer in 2001 despite concerns expressed by his seminary supervisors, who feared he was not up to the demands of being a priest, court records show. Haselberger warned Nienstedt not to promote him. In 2009, the bishop ignored her advice, naming him pastor of two merged parishes.

The following summer, Wehmeyer sexually abused two brothers, 12 and 14, during a camping trip — assaults that eventually led to his conviction on molestation and child-pornography charges.

By that time, Haselberger had had enough.

The canon lawyer quit in 2013, but turned matters over to Ramsey County Attorney John J. Choi.

In a piece packed with names and specifics, that leads us to a slightly vague reference that caught the eye of one longtime GetReligion reader.

In 2015, Choi’s office charged the archdiocese in a six-count complaint that alleged Nienstedt, Flynn, and a former vicar general had ignored Wehmeyer’s sexual misconduct and failed to protect children. Prosecutors cited “a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior” over decades at the highest levels of leadership in the archdiocese.

Nienstedt apologized and resigned 10 days later.

As I have repeated several times, this piece of investigative journalism repeatedly uses the names of people caught up in these horrors.

This raised an interesting question for this GetReligion reader: Who was that unnamed “former vicar general”? Was this church official linked to any other cases?

As it turned out, this “former vicar general” was quite well known. He was Father Kevin McDonough, the older brother of Denis McDonough — who in 2013 became the chief of staff for President Barack Obama.

Denis McDonough was so powerful that The Politico, in a headline, called him “Obama’s Obama.” Meanwhile, his older brother had served as chaplain for the Minnesota Senate and was a prominent social activist, before reaching one of the top jobs in that archdiocese. Click here for more background on all of that.

This leads to a question for journalists working on the sequel to this feature: What happened to Father Kevin McDonough, in terms of the legal fallout from his actions?

A final note: Readers should check out this year-old Inquirer op-ed written by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, which the newspaper is now promoting as related content to the new investigation. The headline: “Media coverage of church sex abuse scandal is unbalanced.

It’s crucial to note that “unbalanced” is not the same thing as “invalid.”

Thus, when reading the new Inquirer-Globe feature, it may help to recognize the tension between these two Chaput statements. First, his lede:

In recent years the Inquirer has done a variety of valuable reporting and editorializing on sex abuse in the Catholic Church and past failures by the Church to root out abusers and to protect the innocent. The entire public — including Catholics — can be grateful for that.

Then this thesis statement:

Truth is always a good thing. So it's been odd to notice that the Inquirer has often seemed less committed to reporting the history, roots, scope, and intractability of chronic sexual-abuse problems in our public schools, institutions, and society at large — and even less interested in what the Church has done and is doing to deal with the problem.

What happens next? Obviously, journalists will — with good cause — be climbing all over next week’s Baltimore gathering of the U.S. Catholic bishops. In addition to following debates about how to hold bishops accountable, reporters should listen for new references to this explosive word — “seminaries.” Also, what will Pope Francis allow, in terms of discipline for his bishops, archbishops and cardinals?

Stay tuned. And keep reading.

Please respect our Commenting Policy