Will column: Has the Catholic Church committed the worst crime in American history?
PHILADELPHIA — “Horseplay,” a term used to denote child rape, is, says Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, part of a sinister glossary of euphemisms by which the Catholic Church’s bureaucracy obfuscates in documents the church’s “pattern of abuse” and conspiracy of silence “that goes all the way to the Vatican.” “Benevolent bishops” are those who allow predatory priests, shuffled from other dioceses, to continue as priests.
The fuse for the national explosion of fury about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy was lit in Boston — the excellent 2015 movie “Spotlight” recounts The Boston Globe’s victory over the stonewalling Catholic hierarchy in 2001-2002. But the still-reverberating detonation occurred last August in a Pittsburgh grand jury’s report on the sexual abuse by approximately 300 priests of at least 1,000 victims in six Pennsylvania dioceses.
Seven months later, the nationwide stonewalling and cover-up continue by the church that, Shapiro says, has resisted discovery “every step of the way.” And “bishops are still involved.” The church fought his office’s jurisdiction, and fought the release of the report with its sickening details of, for example, giggling priests photographing and fondling boys, and “whips, violence and sadism.”
Shapiro says that his being Jewish has not adversely affected public perceptions of his office’s scrutiny of the church. This might be because of credible reports about a boy being raped and then forced into a confessional to confess his sin. Or a boy having his mouth washed out with holy water after oral sex.
The church’s crime wave is global. A French cardinal is convicted of concealing decades of sexual abuse by a priest in his jurisdiction; The Washington Post reports how clerical pedophiles “preyed on the most isolated and submissive children,” at an institute for the deaf in Argentina. Scrutiny of Latin America, from which today’s pope came, will be interesting.
In America, the acid drizzle of stomach-turning revelations might become a deluge now that 45 states’ attorneys general have contacted Shapiro about possible investigations in their states. It is highly unlikely that the abuses and conspiracies of silence about them are confined to Pennsylvania. Asked if this might be, cumulatively, the worst crime in American history, Shapiro says: Perhaps, considering the power of the guilty institution, the scale and prolonged nature of the crime, and the “sophisticated criminal cover-up.” He speaks of charging the guilty — when possible; many predatory priests have died, and statutes of limitations shield others — “the way you would typically charge the mob.”
An issue that used to bedevil Western nations — negotiating the border between the powers of civil authorities and the church’s prerogatives of self-governance — has been settled in favor of the former. So, when other states’ attorneys general consult with him, Shapiro says “do not trust the church” about voluntarily surrendering archives. The U.S. Justice Department has put dioceses on notice about preserving records concerning such things as the shuffling of predatory priests to benevolent bishops.
In November, a much-anticipated meeting of American bishops in Baltimore concerning sexual abuse was neutered by the Vatican, and the pope’s February meeting on the subject produced nothing reassuring. In America, the unfolding story — Shapiro says this is “only the third or fourth inning” — will involve legislating. Pennsylvania might open “a civil window” for suing the church, a measure fiercely resisted by the insurance industry that has sold liability policies to dioceses.
“The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith,” said the Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc in 1920, a statement wisely construed by Georgetown University professor emeritus James V. Schall, S.J.: “Europe is where Old Testament, New Testament, and Greek and Roman traditions melded. … Catholic origins united [Europe] under common assumptions about what life, liberty, God, man, and cosmos were about.” It is therefore momentous that the church is in perhaps the worst self-inflicted and self-prolonged crisis since the Reformation.
Many common locutions — e.g., “Catholic Italy” and “Catholic Ireland” — no longer denote anything real. In the United States, the most religious modern nation, Catholics are leaving their religious affiliation at a higher rate than any other Christian sect. In December, Illinois’ attorney general said the church in that state concealed the names of all but 185 of the 690 priests accused of sexual abuses. The former archbishop in the nation’s capital, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, came to Washington from Pittsburgh. The church’s leaders, says Shapiro, “have shown over decades, centuries really, a focus on protecting the power of their institution.”
In a homily last September, the pope discerned something Satanic in the sexual-abuse scandal. He meant, however, that “the Great Accuser,” aka Satan, was attacking the pope’s bishops.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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