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Catholic Community Grapples With Pennsylvania Sex Abuse Report


On a day when Roman Catholics around the world traditionally congregate in churches to celebrate mass - on this particular Sunday, some may have found their faith and the church's leadership being tested. Catholic communities are grappling with a devastating grand jury report released last week by Pennsylvania's attorney general. It documents decades of sexual abuses of children - lurid allegations against some 300 priests accused of sexually molesting more than 1,000 girls and boys. We're going to discuss the impact of this report now with three guests - Terry McKiernan, who founded a group called Bishops Accountability, Kurt Martens, an expert in canon law - i.e., church law - at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative who wrote a recent op-ed about the church abuse scandal in The New York Times. Welcome to all of you.

KURT MARTENS: Thanks for having us.

TERRY MCKIERNAN: Thanks for having us.

ROD DREHER: Thank you.

SINGH: I want to begin with Terry McKiernan. Your group, Bishops Accountability, works to hold bishops accountable for crimes committed by priests under their supervision. Has nothing changed since the sex abuse scandal in Boston broke in 2002?

MCKIERNAN: There have been a lot of changes. And I think the Pennsylvania grand jury report is actually, in a somewhat-neglected section, specific about the changes that have happened since 2002. But they also register some disquiet about the persistence of the old culture. And I would say that extremely urgent in all of this is that we not be lulled by this talk of its history, which was really the church's first response to this devastating report. If it truly is history, at least in part, change the statutes of limitations and open the archives so that we can learn that history.

SINGH: I'm curious, Terry, what do you think is different about the Pennsylvania report? Is it the vast number of cases that we now know about, the explicit details? What's different about this one?

MCKIERNAN: There are a number of things. It's the largest. It's the report that names the most accused priests. But I think probably more significantly, I think it's the report that focuses particularly on the second crime. There are always two crimes going on here. There's the crime of abusing a child, and then there's the crime of your superior allowing this to happen, transferring you to a place where you can continue to do this sort of thing. And that second crime has always been neglected.

SINGH: Kurt Martens, we've just heard two crimes - abuse against a girl or boy, and the second crime, the cover up. I'm turning to you because you're a canon lawyer, an expert in the religious law that basically governs the Roman Catholic Church. The Pennsylvania report blames bishops for failing to report sex abuse for sending accused priests off to different parishes. What does canon law say generally about reporting priests to secular authorities, and in your opinion, how has that changed in recent years?

MARTENS: Well, canon law is silent about reporting to secular authorities save then for the instructions from the Holy See saying that bishops should follow the civil laws of the country when it comes to reporting. But that said, canon law itself considers child abuse a crime that is punishable including dismissal from the clerical state. The other thing is abuse of office, which is also a crime under canon law. And that is something that bishops could be accused of by not executing their office faithfully, as they should. Way too often these crimes were considered as sins that could be forgiven. And it's true, they're sins. But they're also crimes, and that aspect was forgotten.

MCKIERNAN: I must voice a certain amount of skepticism about any focus on canon law here because, fundamentally, change in these situations has come from the outside, not from the inside. I absolutely agree that church procedures need to be aggressive and appropriate in these matters. But so often, regrettably, it's grand juries, attorneys general, lawyers representing survivors, legislators who are forcing the change that the church is apparently unwilling to engage in.

SINGH: I want to bring in Rod Dreher. You converted to Catholicism and covered the sex abuse scandal as a journalist. You wrote in The New York Times this week about your decision to leave the church. I want to quote you here - "leaving Catholicism was the spiritual equivalent of a trapped animal gnawing off his own leg to save its life." Tell me, what specifically prompted you to leave?

DREHER: Well, when I first started covering the scandal, it was 2001 for the New York Post. I was warned at the time by Father Tom Doyle, heroic Catholic priest who destroyed his clerical career by standing up for victims. Father Doyle said, listen, I can tell that you're a really serious Catholic. If you continue down this path of investigation, you're going to go to places darker than you can even imagine. And he was right. After four years of writing about this story and having to hold on to things like the guilt of Cardinal McCarrick, for example. I've known about McCarrick since 2002 but couldn't report it because nobody who was telling me about McCarrick molesting seminarians would go on the record.

SINGH: And again, reminding people who Cardinal McCarrick was.

DREHER: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and before that, the archbishop of Newark. And he recently was exposed for having not only molested seminarians in his time in Newark, but also having molested children over the course of his ministry. Anyway, I was in Dallas, Texas, at the time when I left the Catholic Church. It got to the point where I couldn't carry this anymore without losing my mind spiritually. I was in a deep crisis. My wife and I had taken our children to a particular parish thinking it would be a safe place. And it turned out that one of the priests we trusted there was, in fact, suspended by his bishop back in Scranton, Pa., and had come down to Dallas and been put in ministry by the pastor of this parish who deceived his own bishop. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. My wife and I knew that we couldn't trust any of them anymore.

SINGH: Roman Catholic priests are not allowed to marry. They're not allowed to have sexual relations. Might a priest be reluctant to report another priest suspected of child abuse because that first priest that we're talking about had an affair at some point?

MARTENS: That is perfectly possible.

DREHER: Well, in fact, back in 2002, Richard Sipe told me that he did not think that gay men should go into the priesthood at that time, not because he was against gay priests. He was very much on - a progressive on these matters within the Catholic Church, but because...

SINGH: If you will, just remind people who Richard Sipe was.

DREHER: Richard Sipe was a Catholic sociologist who studied clerical sexual behavior, and he died just last week. And I think he knew more than just about anybody about celibacy and its breachers within the Catholic church. Anyway, Richard Sipe told me back in 2002 he would advise gay men who felt a call to the priesthood not to accept it at that point not because he was opposed to gay men being priests. He was a progressive. But because he said the culture of sexual exploitation within seminaries, and more generally within the Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic clergy, was such that even a young man, a young gay man who went into the seminary intending to be faithful to chastity and to celibacy, he would face so much exploitive pressure from the networks within the seminaries that if he felt just once he would be compromised, and they would use that against him over the course of his priesthood. But what this system does mean is that those who are sexually compromised by having had affairs with women or men turn a blind eye when they see it happening with minors because they themselves are blackmailable.

SINGH: How does it get to a point where you have a Boston or a Pennsylvania? Kurt Martens.

MARTENS: Because I think there is another issue that we haven't touched upon yet, and that is the issue of power in the church. Why could McCarrick do what he did? Because he had the power to make or break a career. He had the power to decide about seminarians, whether or not they were ordained or not.

SINGH: But these are men of the cloth. Why would those who really do take this seriously and their duty on this planet seriously - why would they worry about their quote, unquote, "career?"

MARTENS: Look at the reporting that has happened in the past few days about certain dioceses where some priests have witnessed anonymously about things that were happening, why do they do that? Because they're afraid of retaliation.

DREHER: That's true, but that's moral cowardice. How is it that somebody who feels called to be a servant of God trains himself to numb his conscience to the point where they remain indifferent, for whatever reason, functionally indifferent to the abuse of children? It's a mystery that I don't know that we'll ever be able to get fully to the bottom of.

SINGH: We've got to leave it there, gentlemen. Editor Rod Dreher of The American Conservative just joined us. Terry McKiernan of Bishops Accountability also taking part in this roundtable. And Kurt Martens, a canon lawyer who teaches at Catholic University, joined us via Skype from Belgium. Thank you all, gentlemen.

MCKIERNAN: Thank you.

DREHER: Thank you so much.

MARTENS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.