What John Paul II knew in 1985: Catholic Sex Abuse
17 Years Ago, A Report on Clergy Sex Abuse Warned U.S. Bishops of Trouble Ahead
By Thomas C. Fox
National Catholic ReporterMay 17, 2002
As attorneys across the nation press countless clergy sex abuse cases against the church, two critical questions they most often ask are: “What did the bishop know?” and “When did he know it?” At stake is episcopal culpability. Also at stake in thousands of lawsuits, many filed and many others still being planned, is potentially billions of dollars in payments to victims.
In light of these developments, a 92-page report on clergy sex abuse, distributed to the U.S. bishops in May 1985, warning them of the trouble ahead, has been repeatedly cited by victims’ attorneys as a hard measure of episcopal negligence. The document, reportedly referred to in more than 100 lawsuits, is well known to the bishops.
Among the insights in this document are clear statements that while help can be provided for abusive priests, there is “no hope” for a cure for some of them, that a bishop “should suspend immediately” a priest accused of sexual abuse when “the allegation has any possible merit or truth,” and that “In this sophisticated society a media policy of silence implies either necessary secrecy or cover-up.” It said, “clichés such as ‘no comment’ must be cast away.” [Note that the first two quotations are not from the report, but from an essay by one of its authors, Rev. Michael R. Peterson, written in December 1985 to accompany the report when he sent it to the bishops.]
In some ways this is a story of what might have been or, perhaps, what might have been avoided.
As the bishops prepare for their June meeting in Dallas at which they are expected to formulate their responses to the clergy sex abuse scandal, the names of two priests and an attorney, Fr. Michael Peterson, Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle and Ray Mouton, are likely to haunt them. These are the names of the men who attempted to warn the bishops in 1985, pleading with them to take firm actions on the sex abuse cases.
The authors maintained that the bishops ignored their recommendations. For their part, the bishops deny that claim.
It was in January 1985 that Peterson, then director of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md.; Doyle, a canonist at the office of the papal nuncio, or pope’s representative, in Washington D.C.; and Mouton, a civil attorney representing a priest, Fr. Gilbert Gauthe, then charged with pedophilia, began their collaboration. The collaboration continued over five months and resulted in the report, backed with more than 100 pages of supporting evidence. The report covered the civil, canonical, and psychological aspects of priest sexual involvement with children.
When the men turned over their findings to the bishops, it might have seemed extreme to some; today it reads as a prophetic document.
The Catholic church, the three men wrote, faces “extremely serious financial consequences” and “significant injury” to its image as a result of the “sexual molestation of children by clerics, priests, permanent deacons and transient deacons, nonordained religious, lay employees and seminarians.”
At the time the men finished the final draft of the report in June 1985, they noted, more than $100 million in claims had been made against just one diocese as a result of sexual contact between a priest “and a number of minor children.” The report said the settlement for seven cases, including fees and expenses, had exceeded $5 million, and that “the average settlement for each case was nearly $500,000.” It estimated that “total projected losses for the decade” could rise to $1 billion.
The men also warned that television and newspaper reporters — NCR was cited by name — were already on to the story and that the American Bar Association and plaintiff lawyers were “conducting studies ... about this new, developing area of law.”
“The potential exposure to the Catholic church ... is very great,” the report added, recommending that clerics accused of abuse should not be permitted to function “in any priestly capacity.”
While the report stated that treatment could “help rehabilitate clerics so that they may return to active ministry,” the authors conditioned that optimism with a warning that strict conditions and lifelong treatment be imposed. Such treatment, the report said, should include a minimum six-month stay in a treatment facility, six-to-12 months of residence in a halfway house, and continuing treatment in an outpatient setting. “Recidivism is so high with pedophilia ... that all controlled studies have shown that traditional outpatient psychiatric or psychological models alone do not work,” the report said.
The men tried to cajole the bishops into taking action, begging them not to be defensive. “The purpose of this document ... is to educate you as much as we can in our professional capacities and help keep you abreast of developments in this sensitive and devastating area of human behavior,” the report stated. It urged the bishops to abandon their strategy of staying away from the media, warning, “in this sophisticated society, a media policy of silence implies either necessary secrecy or cover up.”
Kristen Lombardi, writing in the Boston Phoenix, quoted Doyle as saying he had high hopes that the U.S. bishops would receive the report well. Doyle thought Boston Cardinal Bernard Law would play a key role. Law at the time headed the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Research and Pastoral Practices. He would be the person to lobby the other bishops to bring the report to life. Doyle had known Law since the late 1960s, Lombardi reported, since the time Law served as bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese in Missouri.
The Boston archbishop, Doyle believed, could be counted on as a sympathetic ear. “I told Bernie, ‘This is our report,’ ” Doyle told Lombardi. “ ‘These are our recommendations. We need to get the conference to study this.’ ” Law “was very supportive,” Doyle said. He pledged to call for a special ad hoc committee to study the problem.
At the June 1985 meeting of the U.S. bishops at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., the bishops were quietly briefed on the report’s contents. But, according to Doyle, the committee headed by Law never followed through on the promise to create the ad hoc committee.
On May 8 of this year, Law appeared in Suffolk County Superior Court to begin a deposition requested by an attorney for 86 people who have brought a civil suit accusing Law of negligence as supervisor of defrocked priest John Geoghan, now serving a 10-year prison sentence for sexual abuse of a child (NCR, Feb. 1).
The deposition proceeding on May 8 included some questions about Law’s relationship with Doyle, but no mention of Doyle’s 1985 report to the bishops. Scheduled to last three days, the deposition was expected to continue May 9, after NCR went to press.
While on May 8 Law admitted to speaking with Doyle during the time the report was being written and distributed to the bishops, he only recalled “in a vague way” Doyle’s concerns about the effectiveness of treatment centers. Furthermore, Law said he did not recall Doyle asking for a committee to help the bishops focus more directly on the clergy sex abuse issue.
Law said that sometime after his conversations with Doyle about issues of clergy sex abuse he put in place a team of psychiatrists to advise the archdiocese on the issue, though he said it was “not because of conversations with Fr. Doyle” that he created the team.
In 1992, Doyle lamented the failure of the bishops to take action on the abuse crisis. “Nothing happened,” he told a group of abuse victims at a gathering in October outside of Chicago. “Why the inaction? Why the denial?”
Doyle responded to his own questions. “To acknowledge the problem in its fullness would open the whole [clerical] system to critique,” he said. “It would weaken the presumed power base and strength of the hierarchy.” That day he characterized the church as having a “closed-in, clerical culture” that attempts to maintain deep distinctions between clergy and laity. “We are somehow different, apart and above the laity,” he added, claiming that this separation had added to the crisis by keeping the clergy aloof from the consequences of their actions on victims and others.
To many of the survivors at the gathering Doyle was one of their last links to the Catholic church. His calls for church reform that year led him to be chosen as recipient of the $10,000 Cavallo Prize for Moral Courage. The award, given by the Cavallo Foundation since 1988, goes to someone who “has chosen to speak out when it would have been far easier to remain silent.” Doyle described the gathering that weekend as “part of a momentous movement,” an awakening to the recognition of a need for “massive reform.”
Jason Berry, a Louisiana-based freelance reporter, first started writing about clergy sex abuse after Fr. Gilbert Gauthe in Lafayette, La., was indicted on charges of having molested 35 children. He covered the Gauthe trial for the National Catholic Reporter, contributed to other NCR investigations on the widening crisis, and wrote a book on the sex abuse issue, Lead Us Not Into Temptation. Along with Doyle, Berry was also at the 1992 conference sponsored by VOCAL (Victims of Clergy Abuse Linkup), a lay network that claimed to be in touch with about 3,000 clergy sexual-abuse victims and their supporters.
In his book, Berry recalled how Doyle first entered the Gauthe case. In the 1970s, Doyle had earned a master’s in theology from Aquinas Institute in Dubuque, Iowa, and a canon law degree from The Catholic University of America in Washington. He was working in the Chicago archdiocese, assisting couples with marriage annulments when, in September 1981, Archbishop Pio Laghi, then the papal representative to the United States, asked him to join the embassy staff in Washington as secretary-canonist.
A few years later, in 1984, several attorneys filed civil suits against the Lafayette diocese on behalf of abused children. One, filed by J. Minos Simon, caught Doyle’s attention because Simon named Pope John Paul II as a defendant. Doyle became disturbed that the U.S. bishops seemed to have little understanding of the magnitude of the matter. So he turned to Peterson for help. Peterson was a psychiatrist and founder of St. Luke Institute, a facility originally designed to assist religious and clergy with alcoholic and chemical dependencies. However, in the years that followed its opening in 1981, St. Luke began to treat clergy involved in sex abuse cases.
It was during the same period that Lafayette attorney F. Ray Mouton Jr. was defending Gauthe. He also sought out Peterson’s assistance, planning a possible insanity defense. Although Mouton eventually discarded that part of his strategy, according to Berry, Peterson felt it beneficial to introduce Mouton to Doyle.“
When I first met Tom Doyle in the Vatican Embassy he knew nothing about pedophilia,” Berry quoted Mouton as saying. “Within a short time he was one of the leading authorities and one of the only two priests I encountered in the country who were unafraid to acknowledge the problem and deal with it honestly. … Tom Doyle always did the right thing. He has never hesitated. And it cost him dearly.”
Trying to ward off the growing catastrophe they saw coming, Doyle, Mouton and Peterson collaborated quietly for months on the report before taking it to the bishops.
Knowing the bishops were taking up the report, Eugene Kennedy, a psychologist and longtime chronicler of the American church, and I attended the Collegeville meeting. When it became apparent that the bishops were only going to deal with the matter in executive session and after they played down the significance of the report, Kennedy became gloomy. He said at the time that the bishops were missing an historic opportunity. He predicted that the teaching authority of the U.S. bishops was now certain to decline.
No concrete actions
No concrete actions came out of that meeting. Yet the bishops have maintained that they did listen attentively to the report. A recent staff review found that, “with few exceptions,” the issues identified in the report were analyzed for the bishops by their staff and other experts, especially at the Collegeville meeting.
The bishops, however, noted that they turned down the report’s suggestion of a national intervention team (a doctor, a canonist and a lawyer) to respond to complaints in individual dioceses. “Dioceses prefer to respond through their own expert personnel, rather than a national team, due to factual and legal uniqueness of each accusation,” the bishops’ staff report stated. “Media characterizations of the report as a proposal either ignored or summarily rejected by the conference are inaccurate,” they said.
In the months and years that followed Collegeville, Doyle persisted in sounding the alarm. He clearly paid a price. In 1986 he was removed from the embassy; he also lost his teaching position in canon law at Catholic University. By several accounts he became ostracized by the bishops. That’s when he decided to take his ministry into the military where, on the side, he counseled abuse victims.
While Doyle lost favor with the church hierarchy, his former boss, Laghi, did not. He had served as Vatican representative to the United States from 1980 to 1990, the period during which the clergy abuse issue went largely unattended by the church hierarchy. After the completion of that diplomatic tour, he returned to Rome, and Pope John Paul II named him a cardinal in June 1991.
Peterson was another major author of the report. He was a psychiatrist before he entered the priesthood. I first ran into Peterson when I was a freshman at Stanford University in 1963. We frequently bicycled together to St. Ann Chapel, adjacent to the Newman Center in Palo Alto, Calif., several miles from the university campus.
Peterson had grown up as a Mormon and had converted to Catholicism at the age of 19. For years at college he went to daily Mass. He was an intelligent student with a sensitive nature and an irreverent sense of humor, attributes that accompanied him through life.Years passed before I encountered him again, after he had finished his psychiatric degree and entered the priesthood. In the early 1980s he represented a new breed of priests, active in new professional ministries.
On numerous occasions following Collegeville, Peterson shared with me his disappointment that the bishops had not responded forcefully to their report. He, too, saw a dark cloud on the horizon. During those years as director of St. Luke Institute, Peterson also became a controversial figure. He shared with a close circle of friends that he was gay and later that he had contracted the AIDS virus. Peterson died in April 1987 and was buried at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. The burial Mass drew scores of priests and a half-dozen bishops.
By the time of Peterson’s death, Cardinal James Hickey of Washington had come to rely on Peterson, along with a number of bishops, for advice in handling sex-offending members of the clergy. During the Mass, Hickey praised Peterson’s work at St. Luke Institute, calling him a “brilliant and hard-working priest.”
While Hickey had grown close to Peterson, others in the Catholic hierarchy, including members of the Roman curia, kept their distance. This ambivalence among the church leadership toward St. Luke and Peterson’s work surfaced publicly in 1993 after Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl tried to oust from his diocese Fr. Anthony Cipolla, who had been accused by a teenage boy of molestation. Cipolla had ties to Mother Angelica’s television ministry.
Following the accusation charges, Wuerl had Cipolla evaluated at St. Luke, where staff found no evidence Cipolla was a pedophile but nevertheless recommended he be kept away from children.
Cipolla appealed to the Vatican Signatura, the church’s highest court. Blasting the St. Luke evaluation, it ruled against Wuerl, telling him to reinstate Cipolla.
The Signatura’s brief, later published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, stated: “St. Luke Institute, a clinic founded by a priest who is openly homosexual and based on a mixed doctrine of Freudian pan-sexualism and behaviorism, is surely not a suitable institution apt to judge rightly about the beliefs and the lifestyle of a Catholic priest.”
Fr. Canice Connors, then president of St. Luke, responded: “Since its foundation in 1981, St. Luke Institute has been grounded in the Christian principles enunciated by Jesus Christ. ... To say that St. Luke Institute is not Christian is like saying a flower can exist without sunlight. At no point in the process of reaching its verdict about Cipolla was the Signatura in touch with any of the members of the staff of St. Luke Institute. Because of that lack of contact, I am deeply disappointed in the process leading to the Signatura’s decision.”
Wuerl persisted, and two years later the Vatican court reversed itself and supported the decision to remove the priest.
It was not until 1993, when they formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, that the U.S. bishops first tackled the clergy sex abuse issue as a national conference. In the years that followed, the committee developed and discussed with the bishops diocesan resources for assisting victims and families. The committee also issued guidelines for removing priests and for abuse prevention programs.
Pope John Paul II issued his first condemnation of clergy sex abuse in 1993. At the time he announced the formation of a joint study commission to address U.S. bishops’ concerns about canonical problems in dealing with priest abusers. Late in the year, a joint Vatican-U.S. bishops’ study commission issued revised guidelines for removing wayward priests. The pope approved the guidelines, on an experimental basis, in April 1994.
In 1994, according to a bishop’s spokesperson, when the committee asked dioceses to send in their existing policies, 178 of the 188 dioceses responded. Of those, 157 submitted policies, 13 said they did not have a written policy, and eight said they were working on a policy.
The Ad Hoc committee received unwanted attention in early April this year, when its head, Bishop John B. McCormack of Concord, N.H., stepped down from his post after his own handling of priests accused of sex abuse had been called into question. McCormack said his decision was not prompted by the scandal but by his desire to focus on work in New Hampshire. McCormack was replaced by Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The committee’s credibility had earlier been called into question by reports that two of its members had been accused in lawsuits of helping protect priests who molested children.
McCormack was accused in Massachusetts lawsuits of knowing priests were abusing boys and failing to intervene, and of playing a role in shuffling offenders among parishes. Another committee member, Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City, Mo., has been accused in a suit of conspiring to cover up molestation by then-Fr. Anthony O’Connell, who resigned in February as bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., after admitting he abused a seminary student in Missouri more than 25 years ago. Gaydos has denied the allegations.
A third bishop on the ad hoc committee, Auxiliary Bishop A. James Quinn of Cleveland, suggested in a 1990 speech that church leaders hide records of abusive priests in the Vatican embassy, which has diplomatic immunity. His comments are being used in a sex abuse lawsuit that names all U.S. bishops as defendants.
(BOLD EMPHASES ADDED)
Tom Fox is NCR publisher (2002).