Remember the Survivors

SNAP - Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - Tennessee
The cover-up of clergy sexual abuse continues . . . how much longer?

The Sound of Rachel Weeping by Michael Wegs

Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted May 22 for a crime he committed in 1963.  Mr. Cherry’s crime:  the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.  Four African-American girls died in the blast: 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.

The significance of this stunning reversal in fortune for 71-year-old former member of the Ku Klux Klan is that the U.S. legal system reached out over four decades to bring about justice for these innocent children and their families.  Justice, finally, after 40 years of pain.

Anthony J. O’Connell, the disgraced bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., was forced to resign March 8 after he admitted to sexually assaulting one student during his 25-year tenure (1963-1988) at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo.  During a press conference following his resignation, he said he may have assaulted one other student at the Jefferson City, Mo., diocesan minor seminary.

Within days of Bishop O’Connell’s cavalier remark three lawsuits were filed against the clergyman and his former superiors by alumni.  And a retired Jefferson City priest announced to the public that a fourth student was savaged so severely by Bishop O’Connell that now he is afraid to step forward for fear of losing his wife and children.

Bishop O’Connell’s coyness about his crimes reveals the true character of this man and most of his fellow bishops in the United States.  And like the men who run Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, those in Jefferson City have employed the same gamesmanship to obfuscate the true nature of these crimes against children with plausible deniable. 

The bishop who supervised O’Connell prior to his promotion – Michael F. McAuliffe (1969-1997) – successfully contained the facts of the crime, apparently without remorse.  After McAuliffe retired, his successor, John R. Gaydos kept the secret too.

We now know that these spiritual authorities allowed pedophile priests to sexually abuse their own seminarians without concern.  Both Bishops knew that the dean of students at St. Thomas (Fr. Manus Daly) and a priest from the local parish (Fr. John Fisher) were named as child molesters in the same case.  The good son of the Church who told, Christopher Dixon, was paid the $125,000 after he was ordained to keep the secret, now 25 years old.

According to media accounts, Bishop McAuliffe was made aware of the criminal activities of this role model and educator by employees of the diocese.  He fired them.  Bishop Gaydos enabled his colleague’s escape when he was transferred to Palm Beach (1999) from Knoxville, Tenn. (1988), his first post as a bishop.

As with most small towns the power structure comprises a close-knit group of brokers.  The bishop of Jefferson City is an integral part of the organizational framework of this small community on the banks of the Missouri River. 

Consequently, the bishop can take advantage of the situation to advance his personal agenda with the local establishment, usually conducting business while playing a foursome with the mayor, the banker, and the newspaper publisher every Wednesday afternoon at the country club.  And when scandal erupts, he can rely on these cronies to keep mum.  It’s the same in Amarillo, Texas, Tulsa, Okla., Lincoln, Neb., and St. Cloud, Minn.

As an alumnus of St. Thomas, the admission of guilt by Fr. O’Connell (as I knew him) is disturbing and unsettling.  It’s like finding out your father is a serial killer, particularly when you have a link, no matter how tenuous, with the victim as I do with Mr. Dixon.

O.C., as we called him, was a man to be trusted, an admirable figure, an extremely fine educator, a sterling role model, an insightful counselor, a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry upon, and a playful jester.  He was the friend of oh so many boys who passed through his care.  He was beloved.

But now we know that O.C. had forsaken his calling and denied the teachings of Christ at the outset of his career.  Nor is he the fabulous Mr. Chips that we thought him to be.  He has failed all the boys he has touched. 

For many of us who loved this man, his admission of guilt also has forced us to re-evaluate the Church and its mission to educate our children.  It also leads us to reconsider moments from childhood.  As we start to connect the dots and consider certain events from our high school days we must balance the weight of our experiences between coincidence and probability. 

A singular point of interest in this case is connecting the dots in the relationship of O.C. and Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston.  Law was the bishop of Springfield, Mo., when O.C. was rector of St. Thomas.  Law sent boys to St. Thomas to begin their studies for the priesthood. 

After Law moved on to Boston, O.C. was installed as the bishop of Knoxville, Tenn.  O.C. was then transferred to Palm Beach to restore the reputation of the Church, soiled by Bishop J. Keith Symmonds, who also has a penchant for man-boy sex. 

Without Law, would O.C. have become a bishop?  The fact that Jefferson City and Springfield are separated by only 140 miles appears to have been kismet for both men.

The crimes of Mr. Cherry and O.C. are similar in nature:  the former is guilty of cold-blooded murder; the later is a killer of souls.  And yet, Mr. Cherry is serving a life sentence while the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops coddles O.C.

The Church’s response to the pedophile crimes of its clergymen illustrates the divide between civil jurisprudence and ecclesiastical justice.  Church leaders continue to demure and minimize the facts.  The hierarchy even now is encouraging the accused to file SLAPP suits against anyone steps forward.  The level of duplicity and disingenuousness of these elders of the faith knows no bounds; so much so that the great Roman Catholic Victorian diarist, Lord Acton, was correct in his assessment of the hierarchy when Pius IX sanctioned the Doctrine of Infallibility after all:

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But what really has happened with this national disgrace is that prosecutors, judges, legislators, and the police also have taken extreme pains to avoid the obvious.  In essence, the civil authorities have allowed American bishops to draw a line of demarcation through our legal system.

Alexander VI, the notorious Borgia Pope and father of Lucrezia and Cesar (the idol of Machiavelli), established this principle on 13 May 1494 by issuing a papal bull, called Inter Caetera.  The decree was the result of the discovery of Columbus, which drew Spain and Portugal toward calamitous brinkmanship in their attempts to colonize the Western Hemisphere.  In order to avoid war, the Catholic monarchs of each country appealed to Alexander to settle the dispute.  Consequently, the Pontiff declared the 31st Parallel as the Line of Demarcation to divide the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal.  Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain took possession the New World; John II of the Royal House of Braganza received Africa and India.

When the civil authorities balk at holding churchmen accountable for their actions, they not only confirm this line of demarcation but also enable the cycle of violence to rage unabated. Organizations like the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) have stepped forward to expose these facts, the perpetrators, and those who have aided and abetted this criminal behavior. 

In the course of ten years, SNAP has shown that the Roman Catholic Family in the United States is a house divided. Our parents – the hierarchy and clergy – have nurtured the dysfunction that now tears at the moral fabric of the institution and rips all sense of hope from our souls.

For many this tragedy is nothing less than epic.  Oedipus Rex, perhaps.  But in reality, what the crisis borders on biblical proportions.  The story is found in the refrain of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament citations (Jer. 31:15 and Matt. 2:18) we hear at Passiontide each year during Holy Week services:

Thus saith the Lord: A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation
and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children, refused
to be comforted for her children, because they were not.

                                                                        Jeremiah 31:15 (KJV)

This is where the Church is today.  Simply stated, we are trapped in a cycle of violence created by a few and unable to exorcise the demon.  We prefer to live with mendacity, avoid healing, and reject spiritual renewal.  No member of the hierarchy weeps for the children Rachel, who foreshadow Mary and the coming of Christ.

Nonetheless, SNAP believes that we have the solution to this situation however we choose to view the crisis:  Follow the lead of John Paul II:

Mehmet Ali Agca fired a gun point blank at the Holy Father on May 13, 1981.  The Pope recovered from his wounds.  Mr. Agca served a 19-year prison sentence 

John Paul, though, publicly forgave his perpetrator in 1983 during a visit to the Turkish national’s prison cell.  But Mr. Agca remained incarcerated and our Holy Father continued to pray for him.  The Pope also supported a pardon for the would-be killer near the end of his prison term.

Our Holy Father understands, clearly, the theology of crime and punishment.  When will the American Cardinals, Bishops, and Abbots take note? 

The hierarchy, instead, prefers to chant the refrain of canon law in an attempt to convince the faithful that civil law does not apply to the Church.  Consequently, they fail to understand that canon law has played no role in Western jurisprudence since  .  .  .  well since Henry VIII expelled the Church from England so that he could divorce Catherine of Aragon, marry Anne Boleyn and disenfranchise the monasteries.  The sale of indulgences ceased about this time, 500 years ago.

Likewise, the leaders of the 168 religious orders operating in the U.S. have denied that sexual abuse of a minor by priests falls within the prevue of civil authorities.  At the 2002 Conference of Major Superiors of Men last month in Philadelphia they even refused to accept the zero-tolerance policy that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops drafted in June in Dallas. The Benedictines, Franciscans, Carmelites, Jesuits, Salesians, each chose to toss logic out the window in dealing with clerical child molesters.

This cavalier approach toward accountability and trust is astonishing for those who claim allegiance to Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, Francis Xavier and Francis de Sales.  The USCCB Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is not a legitimate directive for these groups.

 The Rev. Canice Connors, president of the Conference and a licensed psychologist, likes to present this criminal behavior as the internal moral failure of religious communities with the public.  He prefers to compare religious orders to the family unit of the laity, saying families are best equipped to take care of their own.

But Rev. Connors’ family values are an aberration; twisted, cynical logic that taunts victims, deceives the laity, and ignores message and mission of the Church.

The magnitude of this crisis is no different than discovering child molestation within the secular family unit:  some accept the truth, most doubt it, others ignore it, and many attack the victim.  The healing process is a heartbreaking undertaking that may find peace of mind.

Unlike Fr. Connors’ family, the secular family intervenes during crises.  The secular family is law abiding; they report crimes to the police. 

Secular families continue love one another even when a member is incarcerated for criminal activity.  They also recognize the fact justice demands punishment.  And so they visit their loved ones in prison and sustain the ex-con upon release.  Real families understand that they are accountable to each other and the community-at-large as they comply with legal codes and social mores.

The American hierarchy is at the crossroad of basic Catholic theology: acknowledge the sin, do penance, and make restitution to those they have harmed.  Only when they adhere to the tenets of our faith will they be able to reclaim the moral compass of the Church:

You have been told, O man, what is good
and what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do right and to love goodness,
and to walk humbly with your God.

                                                      Micah 6:8

Michael Wegs graduated in 1971 from St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary and as affiliated with the Diocese of Jefferson City until 1979.  His career since then is dotted with awards for journalism and public relations.  He also is a policy advisor to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).