Generations Betrayed

PHIL LAWLER

A genuine reform of the Catholic Church in America might have begun in Dallas with a frank admission of the corruption that had allowed the sex-abuse scandal to fester. Instead, by instituting a series of policy norms, the bishops deflected attention from their own appalling failures.

Chapter 15: Generations Betrayed (pages 191-195)

A bit more than six months passed between the resignation of Cardinal Law and the naming of his successor, Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Sean O'Malley. In the interim the Boston archdiocese, along with every other diocese in the country, began the implementation of the Dallas Charter.

A genuine reform of the Catholic Church in America might have begun in Dallas with a frank admission of the corruption that had allowed the sex-abuse scandal to fester. Instead, by instituting a series of policy norms, the bishops had sought to deflect attention from their own appalling failures. Only a small minority of American priests – 2-3 percent, by most calculations – were ever accused of sexual abuse, whereas the vast majority of bishops were involved in the cover-up effort. Nevertheless all priests were now treated like members of a suspect class, while bishops preserved all their dignity and privileges.

All across America, priests were required to submit to fingerprinting and criminal background checks. They were ordered to attend programs on recognizing and reporting sexual abuse. They were told that all members of their parish staffs – all schoolteachers, all janitors, all Sunday-school volunteers – should be expected to go through the same tests and training. One of the priests who resented this treatment, Father Jerry Pokorsky, wrote in Catholic World Report in August 2005: "If Martin Luther taught 'salvation by faith alone,' it might be said that the bishops' approach is 'salvation by policies, procedures, and protocols alone.'''

If these new policies had been in place ten or twenty years earlier, would they have stopped the sexual abuse that led the USCCB to produce the Dallas Charter? Obviously not. The Boston archdiocese did not need background checks to identify John Geoghan and Paul Shanley as abusers; the evidence in the priests' personnel files was more than enough to warn the hierarchy. Parents and parishioners did not need much instruction in reporting sexual abuse. They had reported it, and their reports had been brushed aside.

Before the Dallas meeting American bishops had ample authority to discipline priests who were guilty of sexual abuse. They could have suspending misbehaving priests, limited their assignments, turned them over to the police for prosecution, required them to spend time in seclusion and penance, or even recommended their removal from the priesthood. They chose not to use that authority. Now, rather than resolving to carry out their duties conscientiously, the bishops had voluntarily stripped themselves of their own individual prerogative and bound themselves with absolute and unswerving rules. With the Charter in place, the bishops could and did answer all questions by saying that they were following the policies set by the USCCB. The Dallas norms were designed not so much to deter abuse of children as to deflect criticism from bishops.

Before the Dallas meeting American bishops had ample authority to discipline priests who were guilty of sexual abuse. They could have suspending misbehaving priests, limited their assignments, turned them over to the police for prosecution, required them to spend time in seclusion and penance, or even recommended their removal from the priesthood. They chose not to use that authority.

For ordinary priests the Dallas norms created nightmarish uncertainties. At any time, a priest could be suspended without notice on the basis of a single accusation. There was no statute of limitations on accusations. A middle-aged priest could look back to his high-school days and realize that a former girlfriend, if she harbored a grudge against him, could end his priestly ministry by mentioning some liberty that he had taken prior to her eighteenth birthday. The accusation might even be false; if it was plausible, that was enough.

Bishops began listing the names of priests accused of abuse, exposing them to public humiliation whether or not they were guilty. Hundreds of accused priests protested their innocence, but they were forced to wait weeks, months, or even years for an opportunity to present their case. Many priests complained that they were not even informed about the allegations against them. Elderly priests, living in retirement, were curtly informed that their faculties had been removed and they could not celebrate Mass or wear clerical garb. Some priests, having grown forgetful with old age, were unable to understand the reason for their suspension; a few died, disconsolate, before receiving any explanation. Priests became convinced – not without reason – that their bishops would readily trample on their rights if necessary to preserve themselves from embarrassing questions. It was a reign of terror – and it still is.

If the Dallas norms caused heartache and anxiety for parish priests, they also imposed new burdens even on the children for whose benefit the Dallas Charter had (at least theoretically) been written. Each diocese was expected to adopt a "personal safety" course approved by the USCCB, to be become a standard part of the curriculum for all students in Catholic schools or religious-education programs. Beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school, all Catholic students were to be instructed about the dangers of sexual abuse and trained in proper reporting of any adult misconduct.

 

The arrogance of the USCCB in presuming to instruct students about sexual abuse was breathtaking. For years, trusting parents had sent their children into Catholic parishes and schools, confidently assuming that Church leaders would protect them. Now the same church leaders who had betrayed that trust presumed to instruct the parents and their innocent children about the dangers that children might face. Rather than ensuring the innocence of young students, these programs were designed to put the burden of reporting on the children, making them more effective witnesses if and when they were molested.

Still worse, these programs themselves deprived little children of their innocence, leading them into explicit and uncomfortable discussions of sexual topics. In Boston, archdiocesan officials chose a program called "Talking about Touching." In this curriculum, first-grade students practice giving the proper names to male and female genitalia. The second grade brings classroom discussion of various types of abuse; children are asked how they would respond if a relative suggested a "touching game." When they heard about the curriculum, some outraged parents charged that the program itself was a form of sexual abuse.

In Norwood, Massachusetts, a group of young parents formed in opposition to the Talking about Touching curriculum. They argued that the program violated their rights and the rights of their children, citing authoritative Vatican documents to back up their arguments. First, the parents argued, the curriculum was a form of sex education. In his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortia, Pope John Paul II had written: "Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance .... " In this case the parents had no control over the instruction.

Next the parents noted that Talking about Touching discussed sexuality without giving children any clear moral framework for that discussion. "The Church is firmly opposed to an often widespread form of imparting sex information disassociated from moral principles," noted a 1995 document from the Pontifical Council for the Family. And that same document said that even parents should educate children about sexuality "without going into details and particulars that might upset or frighten them." The Talking about Touching program, with its repeated warnings to children about the potential danger posed by relatives and neighbors, violated that principle as well.

Rather than ensuring the innocence of young students, these programs were designed to put the burden of reporting on the children, making them more effective witnesses if and when they were molested. Still worse, these programs themselves deprived little children of their innocence, leading them into explicit and uncomfortable discussions of sexual topics.

But when the Norwood parents brought these concerns to the attention of the Boston archdiocese, they ran into a stone wall. Deacon Anthony Rizzuto, the official responsible for implementing this "personal safety" curriculum, admitted that he had not read the Vatican documents that the parents cited. (Rizzuto actually had no background at all in education or family affairs. A retired Air Force officer, he had supervised the archdiocesan cemeteries before being appointed head of the newly created Office of Child Advocacy, Implementation, and Oversight.) Deacon Rizzuto asked the parents why they would not trust the archdiocese to educate their children properly.

Recent history had given parents ample reason to mistrust the archdiocese. But as they investigated the origins of the Talking about Touching curriculum, the Norwood parents found entirely new reasons for suspicion. The program had been developed in Seattle, by the Committee for Children. That group was an offshoot of an organization originally known as COYOTE (an acronym for "Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics"), which was founded by a self-described Wiccan priestess to work for the repeal of laws banning prostitution. To be sure, the organization had changed radically since its inception in the early 1970s. But the bizarre history of the Committee for Children certainly gave Catholic parents no reason to assume that the Talking about Touching program would reflect Christian moral principles.

A few Boston pastors joined the Norwood parents in opposition to Talking about Touching. Arguing that the program violated the innocence of children and the rights of parents, Father David Mullen informed the newly installed Archbishop O'Malley that he could not in conscience allow Talking about Touching in his parish. Rejecting the criticism, archdiocesan officials plowed ahead with their plans, announcing that Talking about Touching was to be a required part of the curriculum for every Catholic school and religious-education program. Father Mullen continued to lead public protests for a few weeks, until a rumor circulated that he had received orders from the chancery to be silent on the issue. When I called to check that rumor, Father Mullen replied simply: "I can't talk to you."

Talking about Touching has now been implemented in hundreds of American parishes. If they do not use that particular curriculum, bishops must choose from a short list of similar "safe environment" programs approved by the USCCB, and require their use in every Catholic school. A bishop who fails to carry out this mandate will be identified as "not in compliance" with the Dallas Charter. Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, opted to accept that designation, explaining in October 2005 that he had a number of serious questions about the approved curricula:

Are such programs effective? Do such programs impose an unduly burdensome responsibility on very young children to protect themselves rather than insisting that parents take such training and take on the primary responsibility for protecting their children? Where do these programs come from? Is it true that Planned Parenthood has a hand or at least huge influence on many of them? Is it true that other groups, actively promoting early sexual activity for children, promote these programs in association with their own perverse agendas? Do such programs involve, even tangential1y, the sexualization of children, which is precisely a part of the societal evil we are striving to combat? Does such a program invade the Church-guaranteed right of parents over the education of their children in sexual matters? Do I have the right to mandate such programs and demand that parents sign a document proving that they choose to exercise their right not to have their child involved? Do such programs introduce children to sex-related issues at age-inappropriate times? Would such programs generate a fruitful spiritual harvest? Would unsatisfactory answers to any of the questions above give sufficient reason to resist such programs?

In May 2007, Bishop Vasa revealed that he had not yet received answers to all of those questions. On some points he had found a clear answer, and that answer redoubled his suspicions about the USCCB-approved curricula. In October 2006, the Catholic Medical Association released a fifty-five-page report on the "safe environment" programs, finding them all defective. The group said that the curricula were ineffective, inconsistent with the best contemporary work on the emotional and moral development of children, and in conflict with Church teaching on education in sexuality. Bishop Vasa – still carrying the dreaded "not in compliance" label – announced that he planned to develop a new curriculum, guided by the moral principles that the existing programs ignore. . . .

 

Editor's note: Information about Bishop Vasa's program, "Healthy Families: Safe Children", is available here.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Philip F. Lawler. "Generations Betrayed." excerpted from chapter 15 of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. (New York: Encounter Books, 2008), 191-195.

Excerpted by permission of Encounter Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

| Encounter Books | Hardcover | 2008 | $25.95 | ISBN-1594032114

THE AUTHOR

Phil Lawler is Director of the Catholic Culture Project. Born and raised in the Boston area, Phil Lawler attended Harvard College, graduating with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. Phil Lawler has been active in politics as well as journalism. He has been Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank based in Washington), a member of two presidential inaugural committees; and a candidate for the US Senate.

As a journalist, Phil has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. From 1993 through 2005, Phil Lawler was the editor of Catholic World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996, recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic World News: the first online Catholic news service.

Phil Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics most recently The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.

Phil lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven children.

Copyright © 2008 Philip F. Lawler




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