Catholic church, sex abuse
As allegations of sex abuse—and official cover-up mount, outraged
Roman Catholics are urging their leaders to redeem and reform the faith
BY JOHANNA MCGEARY - Time magazine
The shock is that so many cases have spilled like stained vestments into public view—not just in Boston but in Los Angeles and St. Louis, Mo., and Philadelphia and Palm Beach, Fla., and Washington and Portland, Maine, and Bridgeport, Conn. The horror is not their singularity but their ghastly similarity: claims of a Roman Catholic priest sexually abusing children, and the church covering it up whether it involves Father Dan or Father Oliver or Father Rocco ...

Or Father Brett. Frank Martinelli was an impressionable 14-year-old altar boy who yearned to be a priest. He saw a holy future unfolding when the Rev. Laurence Brett, the charismatic young priest at St. Cecilia's in Stamford, Conn., enrolled him in a select teen group dubbed Brett's Mavericks. It wasn't quite the kind of special relationship with a trusted priest that Martinelli expected. On a Washington field trip, Father Brett allegedly fondled young Frank in a bathroom. Martinelli claims that while Brett was driving him home, the priest urged the boy to give him oral sex, blessing it as a way to receive Holy Communion. Like most youngsters 30 years ago, Frank was too ashamed, too scared, too uncomprehending ever to say a word.

Martinelli, now 54, didn't become a priest after all. He married, had a son and settled in Milwaukee to work as a consultant for nonprofit organizations. His life was marred by inexplicable confusions, anger, depression and lost faith. Not until one night in 1991 did he understand why. He was talking on the phone to an old Connecticut friend when the friend blurted out that he had been abused back in those Maverick days by Father Brett. "I had this rush of feeling," Martinelli told Time. "I realized, Wow, that's what happened to me." He began seeing a therapist and a year later filed a civil suit in New Haven, Conn., federal court against Brett and the Bridgeport diocese, then led by Bishop Edward Egan.

Church authorities in Bridgeport had discovered Brett's proclivities as early as 1964. They did not report him to civil authorities or warn parishioners, and they let him minister at ecclesiastical posts around the country. In 1990 when Egan took over as bishop, he met with Brett and later noted, "All things considered, he made a good impression. In the course of our conversation, the particulars of his case came out in detail and with grace." As a result, Egan let Brett come back to Bridgeport as a priest.

In November 1992 Brett confessed to an indiscretion and later to two more—but stayed in the ministry. Then came Martinelli's allegations, and then another accuser surfaced. A week later, Egan finally told Brett he could no longer serve as a priest. In mid-1997 a jury decided the diocese had breached its duty by not warning Martinelli of the priest's predilections and awarded him nearly $1 million. An appeals court overturned the award, and the case was later settled for an undisclosed amount.

Today Brett is on the run and still officially a priest, despite pleas to defrock him. Egan, now Cardinal and Archbishop of New York and perhaps the pre-eminent prelate in the U.S., is under heavy fire to explain his handling not just of Brett but of other pending cases of priests whose abuses he allegedly hushed up while in Bridgeport. For Martinelli, there's still no solace. He would, he says, have settled for nothing in cash if he just could have got a public apology.

Thousands of Frank Martinellis and hundreds of Father Bretts cast a dark shadow over the Roman Catholic Church this Eastertide—and so have the U.S. bishops who let the crimes fester. The crisis gathers steam day after day, with perhaps 2,000 priests accused of abuse across the country and hot lines jamming with more victims' calls. It is not just what Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law called "a tragic error" but a spiritual and financial body blow to church authority as well, demoralizing to every man who wears a Roman collar. Lives have been hurt, trust damaged and the credibility of the church to speak on social issues tainted.

How long does it take powerful institutions to learn that it's not just the crime, it's also the cover-up that damns you? The Roman Catholic Church kept silent for decades about the immoral, even criminal betrayal of its children, but in this era of openness, that just won't do. When priests stand in their pulpits this holiest week of the Christian year, what are they going to say to congregations shamed, in pain, frustrated, angry that so much was so hidden for so long? As the Roman Catholic faithful in America are bidden to rejoice that a risen Christ will save their souls, they now want to hear how their church is going to save itself.

After weeks of silence, Pope John Paul II issued a vague Holy Week message, saying, "As priests we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination" and offered "concern" for the victims. But the muted words would not satisfy those looking for a concrete course of action. In a Palm Sunday pastoral letter, Egan reiterated his policy of overseeing abuse allegations himself but urged victims to bring them to the attention of police. And he defended his Bridgeport conduct like a lawyer: every case disclosed had occurred on his predecessor's watch; he took the word of experts when he recycled abusive priests back into the ministry.

Many of us may have just awakened to the stunning extent of priestly pedophilia since January, when the Boston Globe exposed the predations of John Geoghan and the habit the diocese had of systematically concealing them. But the U.S. church has known all about it—how deep sexual misconduct ran, how widespread, how frequent—at least since the first big abuse scandal broke at a Louisiana trial in 1985, when the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe was sentenced to 20 years for molesting dozens of children, who were awarded a combined $18 million in damages.

In the years that followed, there were more big cases and big financial settlements—an estimated $1 billion or more—but only halfhearted efforts to adopt firm guidelines on how to handle the problem. Early on, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, then a canon lawyer at the Vatican embassy in Washington, drafted a 100-page report advising that offenders be moved away from kids, that victims be succored and that the public be told the truth. But whenever a fresh case erupted, the church said it was an aberration, an isolated example, one bad apple. Or media bashing by an anti-Catholic press.

Dioceses lapsed into a pattern of denial and deception. They treated sexual pathology as a moral failure and crime as a religious matter. The Roman Catholic Church is a stern hierarchy that has always kept its deliberations secret, policed itself and issued orders from the top. An obedient priest moves up in power by keeping his head down, winning rewards for bureaucratic skills and strict orthodoxy. When Cardinals are created, they take a vow before the Pope to "keep in confidence anything that, if revealed, would cause a scandal or harm to the church." When it came to sex abuse, the Vatican essentially told bishops, You're on your own. But if saving the church from scandal was literally a cardinal virtue, then the bishops of America's 194 dioceses who had direct responsibility for priestly misconduct would make it their first principle. Better by far never to let the public know.

If allegations came to diocese attention, the bishop, a power unto himself who often operated as if ordination gave him a share of the Pope's infallibility, acted as prosecutor, judge, sentencer. Desperate to retain even sinful men, as the number of priests shrank alarmingly, and ever putting the image of the church first, bishops refined the system. Convince the family that publicity would harm the faith. Don't report to the police; don't warn the parish. Treat the priest with confession, time out at a discreet rehab center and Christian forgiveness; then let him resume duties at a new parish, the same way they dealt with whisky priests' alcoholism. For years the bishops believed, or made themselves believe, pedophilia could be "cured," until the serial molestations and multiple victims and repeat offenders proved it wasn't so. Only the most recalcitrant recidivists were eventually "laicized"—forced to give up their priestly vocation—long after they had done their worst. And if a victim finally sued, the strategy was to admit nothing, buy silence, settle out of court and seal the deal with a confidentiality contract. The church, said Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk who testified as an expert for plaintiffs in priest-abuse cases, "took a very defensive position, rather than proactive."

It is hard to remember in this age of confession, but 30, 20, even 10 years ago, children kept silent about sexual molestation. By and large they were ignorant, scared, guilty and sure no one would believe them. "I don't know that I identified it [as abuse] then," Chris Dixon, 40, told Time. He came forward only this month to detail two-decades-old allegations against Bishop Anthony O'Connell, of Palm Beach, Fla., who resigned a few days later: "Why would anyone believe me? I thought my parents would blame me."

Devout families—and predator priests frequently chose their victims from the most ardent parishioners—had been taught for generations to exalt, respect and trust priests. Who could imagine dear Father Tim—who came to dinner, played with the kids, counseled mom, acted like a dad—would do something so sinful? Doubting the priest would cost you your spiritual security. When Ralph Sidaway told his mother roughly 65 years ago that a parish priest had molested him, "she beat the crap out of him, because you don't say that about priests," says Sheldon Stevens, a Florida lawyer who handled a case lodged by Ralph's adult son Kevin, who says he was molested by the Rev. Rocco D'Angelo as a child. The church knew it and used it to dissuade people from pressing complaints.

Nor is there any way of knowing whether the pedophile epidemic is being checked. Almost every case on record happened years ago. Even if it has grown easier for adults to reveal shameful incidents in their past, it's still hard to get young males to come forward while the abuse is going on. "The last thing I want to do as a teenager is run around telling everybody some priest gave me a b___ j__," says John Falls, a grown-up Californian who says he was molested by his boyhood priest. Says Neil Blake, a New Mexico lawyer litigating abuse cases: "I don't know if priests are still out there molesting kids, because they won't tell anyone about it. We'll find out in about 2015."

The horror stories exploding onto front pages are modifying church behavior, whether its leaders like it or not. Under duress, some bishops have scrambled to announce "zero tolerance" toward any priest, past or present, against whom allegations have been made. Up to a dozen Los Angeles priests have been quietly dismissed in recent weeks. Southern California's Orange County diocese removed the Rev. Michael Pecharich from his church in early March as soon as it substantiated a single case of abuse, which was decades old. And when Kathryn Barrett-Gaines and her sister, now in their 30s, contacted the archdiocese in Washington two weeks ago to accuse Monsignor Russell Dillard, 54, the popular pastor of the city's oldest African-American Roman Catholic congregation, of "kissing and inappropriate touching" when they were teens, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick immediately suspended his good friend. Dillard told his spiritual superior he "did not exceed the bounds of propriety" any further than "father-daughter kissing." Nevertheless, McCarrick shipped Dillard off for evaluation at a sexual-abuse clinic, informed the police of the complaint and will not let the much loved pastor return if the sisters are telling the truth.

Already Dillard's loyal, well-educated and well-connected parishioners are vocally contesting his suspension. There's a tough trade-off for swiftly protecting the public: not everyone is comfortable with the lack of due process that zero tolerance provides for the accused. Of course, there was little due process when investigations were left in bishops' hands. And last year the Vatican issued new rules so discreetly that most churchmen don't know that anything was changed. Rome quietly published, in Latin, a papal directive known as a motu proprio (meaning under his personal authority), tucked inside a long annual record of the Holy See. It directed that allegations of sex abuse be brought secretly for judgment by Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once known as the Inquisition, keeping procedures strictly in church control. No mention was made about informing civil authorities.

Nor has the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops produced universal guidelines for how zero-tolerance policies will be fairly administered. Jan Malicki, ordained in Poland, came to North Miami in the late '80s as an associate pastor. In 1998 two women accused him of sexual abuse while one of them was a minor. Malicki says the diocese made him a scapegoat, rushing to announce his imminent arrest, and then claimed the church bore no responsibility under First Amendment protections. Even though county investigators concluded two years ago that they had no basis to charge him, Malicki is still on a leave of absence. "The archdiocese has left this priest twisting in the wind, trying to wash their hands of this," says his attorney, Ellis Rubin. "Has this gone too far?" wonders Dillard's predecessor at St. Augustine's. "I think every priest now worries every day he may be accused of something."

As the accusations pile up, the church's relationship with the law is facing revision. To this day, only 19 states require clergy to report suspicions or allegations of sex abuse against minors to civil authorities. While legislators rush to write the church into "mandatory reporter" laws, many bishops say they've already pledged to tell the cops of any new charges. Some dioceses, like those in Boston and Bridgeport, are combing through their secret archives to hand over details of all cases, going back 49 years. But in New York, Cardinal Egan has barely noted the changing weather. He will retain power over problem priests for himself, reporting abuse charges to police only if the victims agree and he feels there is "reasonable cause" to believe them. Back files will stay closed.

States are also looking at their statutes of limitation for sex-abuse claims, which differ widely. A few, such as Florida, can pursue criminal charges in most cases, but some states don't allow prosecution more than one or five or 10 years after an injured child turns 18. That has freed most predator priests from criminal convictions and long jail terms. But neither side felt it won a resounding victory when the suit filed by a plaintiff against Denver's highly popular Rev. Marshall Gourley was thrown out because the statute of limitation had expired. Gourley maintains his innocence.

For years most cases that made it to trial were civil complaints, but they were financially devastating, sometimes costing millions. So some dioceses adopted hardball legal tactics that abused victims all over again. A group of 39 plaintiffs have been battling the diocese of Providence, R.I., for as long as 10 years to get recompense for alleged abuse at the hands of 11 priests. Church lawyers attack the victims' credibility and besmirch their families. They bombard victims with as many as 500 written questions, demand 30 years' worth of tax returns, require names and dates for every doctor visited back to age 12. They cross-examine mothers about their children's sex lives. "It's intimidation," says Lee White, 45, one of the plaintiffs. "I feel like I am being reabused."

First, the institutional church has to acknowledge the magnitude of the damage. The Pope's cryptic paragraphs at the end of his Holy Thursday letter to priests hardly constituted a ringing mea culpa. At a stiff press conference afterward, Dario Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, a contender for the next pontificate, short-circuited the avalanche of questions with a sample of Vatican stonewalling, sternly defending current policy. Citing the "serious and severe" internal rules the church has applied to pedophile priests, the Cardinal looked up from his text and asked what other nstitutions had such guidelines. "I would like to know one!" he demanded, waving a finger

The Vatican has long dismissed all the fuss as "an American problem," as if it plagued no other countries. In the corridors of Rome, prelates disparage the "litigious" nature of U.S. society and blame abusive priests on lax American sexual mores. Complains a Vatican official: "In America there is too much reliance on modern psychology in place of the church's traditional wisdom." Officials say the Pope is greatly pained by the crisis in the U.S. church. But that doesn't mean he is ready or able to confront such an explosive issue. The papacy hates to bend to outside pressure. St. Paul, Minn., attorney Jeff Anderson, who has been suing the church regularly for abuse victims, says, "They're not going to change until a bishop goes to jail and every bishop hears the door clang behind him and that sound resonates to the Vatican."

But it wouldn't take a Vatican II-style revolution to start improving the church's handling of sex abuse. Atlanta's Archbishop John Donoghue ticked off a few lessons in a recent pastoral statement: Report accusations immediately to the law. Cooperate in investigations. Move the accused away from kids. If he's found guilty, bar him from the ministry.

Scott Appleby, director of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, says the Conference of Catholic Bishops should immediately hammer out an enforceable uniform code of binding policies that enshrine those principles. "The problem in the past," he says, "has been the autonomy of each bishop, free to adopt or ignore conference policies." Many have suggested that each diocese name a board of independent lay advisers—lawyers, psychologists—to oversee every abuse case. More rigorous screening and modernized seminary training for sexually immature priests would help too.

Good baby steps, all. But growing numbers of Roman Catholics, such as Northwestern University professor of religion Cristina Traina, say that's not enough to make up for the church's "extreme violation" of trust. Many victims accused of suing for the money say that what they really want is spiritual generosity: an apology from the church, acknowledging that crimes were committed and explaining how the church let known pedophiles abuse again. Anger will not begin to heal until prelates from the top down profess genuine confession and true contrition, says Traina. "There has to be a public expression on behalf of all the people involved in the cover-ups," and then the power structure that exalted secrecy must be altered to meet "industry standards" of ethical behavior.

Realistically, Rome will not address big reforms while the crisis is boiling. That is a reassuring tradition for the two American Cardinals most implicated in the scandals, Boston's Bernard Law and New York's Egan. But plenty of influential Catholics are suggesting that the U.S. church would benefit from penitential resignations at the top. Says an editorial in the upcoming issue of the national Roman Catholic weekly America: "If early on some bishops had been willing to claim full responsibility and resign, victims, parishes, the media and juries might have been less inclined to vent their anger on the church as a whole. That not one bishop (except the two who were themselves abusers) has resigned during this 15-year-long crisis is astonishing."

If the bishops stay, Roman Catholics would like their leaders to trade the church's culture of secrecy for openness and accountability. The first obligation, says Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, is "to make such matters known." The second is to set transparent rules that hold the church responsible for its mistakes. That clarion call comes from conservative columnists like William J. Bennett, who advises, "Candor and full disclosure are a must if the reputation of the church is to be protected." And it comes from sex-abuse experts like Richard Sipe, who says, "The church is not going to get out of this without opening fully a dialogue and going beneath the secret system of handling things." Even victims say it, over and over. Jim Griley, 39, who says he was abused by California priest Michael Pecharich 30 years ago, is on a mission to break the church of its secrecy. "This is going to bring a cleansing to the church," he says. "They need to turn these stones over. They need to get this out in the open."

The enormity of the scandal has provoked American Roman Catholics as nothing has before to call for debate on controversial doctrines—like celibacy, married priests, women priests. The Rev. Richard McBrien, a religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, thinks these issues lie at the root of the pedophile problem. The Boston archdiocese's official paper last week urged Roman Catholics to question and study whether these age-old tenets are still relevant. Liberal advocates argue that a church struggling to fill its depleted ranks of priests might get more healthy, sexually mature candidates if married men and women were allowed in. But there is no sympathy in Rome for any alteration of the celibate, men-only clergy. The only realistic hope for such drastic reform, says Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, lies with whoever succeeds the current Pope.

Roman Catholicism has never been a democratic faith. But in an impassioned sermon two weeks ago, Monsignor Clement Connolly, of the Holy Family parish in South Pasadena, Calif., which isn't involved in any of the allegations, challenged authorities to open the church's heart and mind to unprecedented dialogue. "We don't have an instrument in place," he told Time, "but I think if we talk with the people and listen to the people and share with the people, the instrument will emerge."

As Roman Catholics across the country fill the pews for Easter Mass, many lament the scandal that has shaken their belief to the core. "Of course we're outraged," says Herb Timm, a Winnetka, Ill., parishioner. Holy Family worshiper Ed Ternan called it a "milestone moment in the life of the church," tragic for the victims, tragic for the priests, tragic for the church. "The old way of dealing with it by not dealing with it is not going to work." Instead church leaders need to pray that they can find the remedy before parishioners lose their faith.