If there was an omnipresent reader who had somehow managed to follow my 30-plus years of work linked to the Catholic clergy sex crisis, I think that she or he would have spotted at least one overarching theme.
The big idea: This is a scandal that cannot be divided according to liberal and conservative prejudices. Anyone who tried to do that would have to avoid too many case studies, too many tragedies, too many people — on the left and right — hiding too many crimes. I have argued that wise, patient reporters will listen to liberal and conservative activists and then search for issues and ideas that they share in common.
Hold that thought, because I will end with that.
Every now and then, we see an important story produced by journalists (often in the mainstream press) who seem to think the scandal is all about the sins of conservatives or (often in some independent Catholic publication) all about the sins of liberals.
The Associated Press just produced a story of this kind, a report that raises important issues and was built on tons of journalism legwork to get solid sources. It’s a valid and important story. But it appears that these journalists only saw half of a larger tragedy. The headline: “Unmarked buildings, quiet legal help for accused priests.”
Yes, secrets were uncovered. But stop and think about that headline. Is the assumption that all Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse are, in fact, guilty? Is it possible to imagine that some Catholics might support efforts to research and clear the names of priests who they believe have been falsely accused and have valid reasons to do so? And are all these efforts on the right? Just asking.
Here is the AP overture:
DRYDEN, Mich. (AP) — The visiting priests arrived discreetly, day and night.
Stripped of their collars and cassocks, they went unnoticed in this tiny Midwestern town as they were escorted into a dingy warehouse across from an elementary school playground. Neighbors had no idea some of the dressed-down clergymen dining at local restaurants might have been accused sexual predators.
They had been brought to town by a small, nonprofit group called Opus Bono Sacerdotii. For nearly two decades, the group has operated out of a series of unmarked buildings in rural Michigan, providing money, shelter, transport, legal help and other support to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse across the country.
Again and again, Opus Bono has served as a rapid-response team for the accused.
That leads us to the big, sweeping thesis statement:
The AP unraveled the continuing story of Opus Bono in dozens of interviews with experts, lawyers, clergy members and former employees, along with hundreds of pages of documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests.
In recent months, two of the group’s founders were forced out after Michigan’s attorney general found that Opus Bono had misused donated funds and misled contributors. A third co-founder, a priest, was abruptly removed from ministry earlier this month after the AP began asking about an allegation that he had sexually abused a child decades ago.
Still, since 2002, Opus Bono has played a little-known role among conservative Catholic groups that portray the abuse scandal as a media and legal feeding frenzy. These groups contend the scandal maligns the priesthood and harms the Catholic faith.
Are there conservative groups that make claims of that kind?
Of course there are. Like legions of other reporters, I have been shouted at by some of those Catholics. There are Catholics on the right who see no need to keep digging on these issues and they wouldn’t trust journalists to do that work anyway.
But I have also known conservative Catholics who are in the forefront of efforts cracking down on clergy sexual abuse and who are furious that some Catholic shepherds — liberals and conservatives — have helped shelter repeat offenders and men who have committed unspeakable crimes.
This AP story has solid information on people who clearly went too far in their efforts to defend priests and who, along the way, did sketchy things with money. Like I said, this is a valid and important story and it needed to be reported.
However, there is a difference between saying that Catholic priests are being railroaded and saying that SOME Catholic priests, in the rush to crack down on hellish crimes, are being railroaded and, in some cases, denied their rights under church and secular laws.
I would also like to note that, at the heart of the accusations swirling around men like former cardinal Theodore McCarrick (and others) are claims that these men have been hidden and supported by networks of powerful Catholics inside and outside the church. The questions I keep asking: Who helped McCarrick come to power? Who protected him? Who profited from his support and protection?
AP has raised very serious issues about Opus Bono and shown strong signs of work that crossed ethical and doctrinal lines. But is the assumption that there are no similar problems in groups — perhaps inside church structures — with ties to the Catholic left? Isn’t that what many people claim that the McCarrick affair is all about?
As you read the AP report, noet that the investigation — over and over — focuses on the activities of Catholic conservatives, alone. As I said: There is a story there and it’s clear that problems exist. Someone needed to investigate Opus Bono.
But is that the only story linked to efforts to defend and, maybe, shelter accused Catholic priests? This is a problem with only one side? Like I said, it would appear, based on this AP report, that all of the problems are on the Catholic right. All of them.
Now, in conclusion, let me share (once again) my views on what this whole crisis is about — based on interviews down the years with activists on the Catholic right and left, people who believe that strong action must be taken. But they also are people who know this is a scandal big enough to impact all corners of the church. There are three core realities:
I: The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders — left and right, gay and straight — have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.
II. Classic pedophiles tend to strike children of both genders. However, in terms of raw statistics, most child-abuse cases linked to Catholic clergy are not true cases of pedophilia, but are examples of ephebophilia — intense sexual interest in post-pubescent teens or those on the doorstep of the teen years. The overwhelming majority of these clergy cases are adult males with young males.
III. One of the biggest secrets hiding in the bitter fog from all of these facts is the existence of powerful networks of sexually active gay priests, with many powerful predators — McCarrick is a classic example — based at seminaries and ecclesiastical offices. Thus, these men have extraordinary power in shaping the lives of future priests.
Read the whole AP report. It is important. It is also incomplete.