In one day, in three Catholic jurisdictions, three separate media accounts shed light on the attitudes of some top Catholic officials – attitudes that are often unspoken, sometimes explicitly denied, but attitudes that are apparently still widely held by at least some in the Catholic hierarchy. Taken together, these three incidents show that the long-standing approach to abuse cases by bishops remains remarkably consistent from place to place and unchanged over decades and decades of horror. That approach or attitude can be summed up in a few words: “Minimize, attack others, and protect ourselves.”
1) MINIMIZE: A proposal was made in Portugal for a national commission to examine the church’s abuse and cover-up crisis (like the ones set up in Australia, France, and several English-speaking developed countries). In response, one Portuguese bishop said, ‘it made as much sense to form a commission to study sexual abuse as it did to study the possibility of being struck by a meteor.’ The prelate, Manuel da Silva Rodrigues Linda, later apologized. But none of his colleagues (Portugal’s 20+ bishops) or supervisors (dozens of Vatican officials) could bring themselves to publicly criticize him for essentially denying how widespread child sex crimes in the church are. The commission was finally set up, and it eventually issued its findings. Here’s how an Associated Press report about it begins:
“More than 4,800 individuals may have been victims of child sex abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church, and 512 alleged victims have already come forward with their stories, an expert panel looking into historical abuse in the church said Monday.
Senior Portuguese church officials had previously claimed that only a handful of cases had occurred.” This remains the hierarchy’s first line of defense: “Abuse by clergy is rare.”
2) ATTACK: On a recent Sunday morning, in his homily, a high-ranking Knoxville Catholic priest attacked the local newspaper for its coverage of abuse and cover-up cases. In his sermon on “sin and the choices we make,” among other false statements, the pastor of the diocesan cathedral, Fr. David Boettner, said, “You know, one of the things about the way the media reports about the Catholic Church is interesting because they don’t really have specialists on religion that report on the church.” They usually assign a sportswriter to cover the church. So, whenever they try to describe what Catholics believe and do, you should always be slightly skeptical. They often get it wrong about 99% of the time. The News Sentinel (is) not going to get it right.”
We at Horowitz Law have seen this tactic repeatedly used through the years. One of the first US Catholic prelates to use this ‘attack’ strategy was Boston’s now-deceased and widely-disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law. In 1992, Law famously called “God’s wrath down on the Boston Globe” for its coverage of one serial predator priest, Fr. James R. Porter. (The precise language he used from the pulpit is described here. Law’s plea apparently fell on deaf ears because the Globe wasn’t intimidated. A decade later, the newspaper’s investigative unit, the Spotlight Team, ran “the first of the Globe’s 800 articles on the scandal (which led to) “Cardinal Law’s resignation and 150 priests in Boston accused of sexual abuse.” Imagine how Cardinal Law felt when all that happened! There’s an adage: “A good offense is the best defense.” Sadly, no matter how hurtful and inappropriate that strategy is in cases of child sexual abuse, it’s still in the playbook of some US bishops.
3) PROTECT OURSELVES: A Baltimore newspaper recently delved into the history of a measure in the Maryland legislature that was designed to help child sex abuse victims. To the shock of the bill’s sponsor and supporters, just before being enacted, a short clause was added to the language, which ended up NOT helping abuse victims but instead hurting them. All signs point to a savvy insider, a Catholic lawyer, who church officials paid to sneak a vague provision into the measure, which essentially made matters worse, not better, for those who had been sexually assaulted as children in the state. Maryland Catholic officials had three choices. They could do nothing and support no new abuse legislation. They could push for good new abuse legislation. Or they could secretly gut new abuse legislation and make it tougher on victims, not easier. They picked the third option, so they could protect themselves instead of protecting kids.
So here you have it, in a few short words, a painfully commonplace but morally questionable pattern of behavior by the Catholic hierarchy in child sexual abuse cases: Minimize, attack others, and protect the institution. Keep this in mind the next time a soft-spoken, well-educated, seemingly decent bishop or cardinal, college president, or religious order official says, “Well, in the old days, we didn’t really understand abuse. But now we do, and now we’ve changed.” Their own actions show that this claim is bogus.
But here’s the good news…
1) At this point, It’s tough to minimize the extent of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups. It’s been in the public eye reasonably consistently for three decades now. (See Fr. Gilbert Gauthe of the Lafayette Louisiana diocese, whose crimes first made national headlines 30 years ago.) It’s tough to say or suggest that child sex crimes are relatively rare in the church when Vatican experts publicly announce that in the US alone, three are 100,000 victims.
2) At this point, church officials’ attacks on whistleblowers and journalists are less frequent and effective than ever. In our experience at Horowitz Law, we’ve often seen such attacks backfire and deepen the resolve of truth-tellers to continue speaking up, despite opposition by bishops, priests, and others in Catholic positions of power.
3) Finally, at this point, victims, witnesses, whistleblowers, and their supporters are getting smarter every day as we collectively gain more experience in combating the shrewd public relations and legislative lobbying campaigns by well-funded Catholic institutions. Help us here at Horowitz Law as we work harder and smarter than ever to bring child sex abuse – in the church and other institutions – to light AND to help those who this abuse has hurt.
Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, please contact our law firm at 888-283-9922 or email sexual abuse lawyer Adam Horowitz at [email protected]. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.