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Conscience Magazine

‘A Tragedy in Three Parts’: The Sex Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church

By Bill Williams September 16, 2013

Michael D’Antonio has written a compelling account of the scandal involving Catholic priests who sexually abused children. Mortal Sins is a crisply written history of allegations, denials and cover-ups. An author and former newspaper reporter, D’Antonio recalls that when victims first came forward in the 1980s, no one wanted to believe that a Catholic priest would sexually molest a child. Ordination had established priests “as a class above regular human beings.” This book details the facts that became undeniable and finally changed the public’s perception of the church itself.

Mortal Sins Book CoverThe raw numbers are depressing. The church concedes that more than 6,000 priests have been accused in recent decades of sexually abusing 16,000 minors in the United States alone. More than 500 priests have been arrested and prosecuted. And the church in America has paid out more than $1 billion to victims. D’Antonio paints a convincing picture of a church far more interested in avoiding scandal than in protecting children. Bishops routinely moved accused priests from parish to parish, where the abuse continued.

One of the first complaints involved a Louisiana priest whose “entire life seemed to be built around winning the trust of parents so he could sexually violate their children.” At about the same time, a man in Minnesota said that when he was a 13-year-old altar boy, a priest had begun sexually abusing him. The author describes the process by which the victim was “quietly overwhelmed with a toxic mixture of fear, shame, anger, physical pleasure, and profound confusion” and thus initially did not tell anyone about the abuse.

A charistmatic lawyer named Jeffrey Anderson agreed to handle the Minnesota case, even though “he had never contemplated the idea that a priest might abuse a boy … or that the Church hierarchy would hide the crime and protect the perpetrator.”

Following the Louisiana and Minnesota revelations, a committee consisting of two priests and a lawyer met in 1985 to draft an urgent report for American bishops titled The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy, which sounded alarm bells about a growing crisis that could eventually cost the church $1 billion, an estimate that turned out to be prescient.

The bishops responded by ignoring the report.

The credibility of Mortal Sins is enhanced by the fact that the author never comes across as anti-Catholic. He scrupulously avoids judging, preaching or belittling. Rather, the text is a rigorous historical examination of an ongoing crisis.

D’Antonio includes many case histories. Nearly 200 victims in the diocese of Fall River, Mass., said they had been sexually assaulted by Fr. James R. Porter, who admitted to molesting 28 children, but said he had lost track of the actual number of minors he had raped or molested.

A Dallas priest named Rudy Kos was sentenced to 15 years in prison after he was convicted on criminal charges involving the rape and abuse of boys as young as nine. He plied children with alcohol and drugs. After one victim committed suicide, Kos officiated at the funeral.

A California priest named Oliver O’Grady described his methods of seducing children. He gave this example of his technique: “Hi, Sally, how are you doing? Come here. I want to give you a hug. You’re a sweetheart, you know that? You’re very special to me.” He might start by rubbing a child’s shoulders to win the child’s trust.

Some people have challenged the reliability of so-called recovered memory, where adults claim to remember decades-ago abuse, but experts say that some victims are filled with so much anger, shame and regret that they suppress the memories to get on with their lives. In many cases, these memories would surface years later in therapy. Some victims suffered from depression and dozens committed suicide.

At first, few thought of suing the Catholic church, but once the initial cases went to trial and received wide news media coverage, more victims began calling lawyers. Civil cases often ended in settlements that required payments of millions of dollars from church coffers.

Mortal Sins is tough reading. One wants to turn away in revulsion at some of the details about sex acts and other crimes against children. For instance, a female victim in Chicago recalled that when she was 13, a priest told her that she was “too beautiful” to resist. He said they had become spiritually “engaged” through sex and would be married in heaven.

Still, what may be the most disturbing parts of the book involve the excuses and justifications offered by priests and bishops. Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland contended that some adolescent victims were not completely innocent. “Some can be sexually very active and aggressive,” he said.

Bishops would send offending priests away for treatment, but it rarely worked. Abusers are known to have returned from therapy and resumed their assaults on children. There is also the issue of the priesthood attracting men with sexual problems because it provided a cover that enabled priests to pursue their sexual fantasies without raising suspicion.

Much of the material in Mortal Sins has been previously reported in news stories, books and documentaries. D’Antonio’s contribution is to bring the ugly details, history and underlying issues together in one volume.

Church leaders accused the news media of picking on Catholic priests, but researchers say there is no parallel of clergy sexual abuse in other religions. D’Antonio also rebuts the popular canard that abusers are predominately homosexual. Experts have shown that gays are no more likely to abuse minors than heterosexuals.

D’Antonio credits Minnesota attorney Jeffrey Anderson for his devotion to fighting for justice on the legal front. Anderson pried open secret church files to build strong cases against priests who abused children.

In the final pages of Mortal Sins D’Antonio describes the church’s response to sexual abuse as “a tragedy in three parts.” Victims, he writes, will forever live with the “betrayal experienced in childhood.” Second, the church’s defensive response “demoralized and divided the Catholic community.” Finally, the larger society has suffered from the church’s moral beacon being dimmed because the institution met the crisis with “angry inflexibility.”

“In failing to grow out of its monarchical structure and into a more humane perspective,” D’Antonio concludes, “the Church impoverishes the world as well as itself.”

Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal
Michael D’Antonio
(St. Martin’s Press, 2013, 400 pp)
978-0-312-59489-3, $26.99

Bill Williams
Bill Williams

is a freelance writer and former editorial writer for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.