Over the past two decades, the vast clergy sex abuse scandal has left the Catholic Church morally and economically devastated. It left my family devastated as well and caused more pain than I ever could have imagined.
In the 1960s, my brother went off to a high school run by the Christian Brothers. He emerged four years later terribly damaged and depressed. Along with dozens of other boys in the school, he was abused over the entire course of his time there by one of the priests, and he was warned not to tell anyone about it.
For years, he did not. Then, in his early 20s, he had a major mental breakdown from which he never recovered. A psychiatrist told my mother “I have never seen such ego destruction as what happened to your son in that school.”
A bright, caring, handsome young man, my brother struggled mightily to overcome his abuse, but he did not succeed. Although he married and had a child, his demons ultimately got the best of him. In 1983, at the age of 38, he hanged himself with his belt in a hospital ward and his once promising life was over, stolen away by years of abuse at a Catholic school.
As a journalist and as the family member of a victim, I have been astonished by the sheer scope of the scandal. I have interviewed countless clergy abuse victims, many of whom suffer from depression, alcoholism and other addictions. Many are not able to maintain close relationships or marriages. And some, like my brother, took their own lives.
As Joanna Moorhead wrote recently in The Guardian, “How could an organization that professes a direct link to Christ … have gone so far off the rails that it now seems a power-crazed, untrustworthy and corrupt institution, out to save its own skin at almost any cost?”
During the 60s and 70s, Rev. James P. Porter, a priest in Fall River, molested scores of children.
In spite of this, Catholic Church officials continued to move Porter from parish to parish before he left the priesthood in 1974. In 1993, he pleaded guilty to molesting 28 children, but he had previously admitted to abusing at least 100 boys and girls.
Porter is merely one example. But he represents many other abusive priests who were handled in the same way.
Cardinal Bernard Law, who was archbishop of Boston when the allegations against Porter began to gain momentum in the early 90s, was not only aware of rampant sexual misconduct in the priesthood but also apparently attempted to sweep the abuse under the rug.
Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wrote in 2002:
“Law was apparently engaged in elaborate efforts to cover up incident after incident of child rape. Worse yet, he breezily reassigned clergy known for sexually abusing children to work with more children — conduct not all that distinguishable from leaving a loaded gun in a playground.”
When the Boston media began to write stories about Porter, Law thundered, “By all means we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the [Boston] Globe.”
The wrath of God, I suspect, was moving in another direction entirely, but Law was hardly reprimanded by Rome. In fact, he was given a cushy job in the Vatican, where he remains to this day.
Of course I got to thinking about all this — my brother, the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and Bernard Law — because soon the leaders of the Catholic Church will gather together to elect a new pope.
During the last conclave, protesters objected to Cardinal Law’s participation. He took his place anyway. Though at age 81, he is too old to vote in the coming conclave, he is eligible to participate in the general congregation meetings that precede it.
Vote or no vote, it is a travesty that Law should have any involvement in any of the ceremonies associated with selecting a new pope.
It is time to ring down the curtain on the old men who cared more for the institution they ran and for the perks and privileges they enjoyed, than for the children under their care. Their tender mercies turned out to be a holocaust of abuse.
It is not a time for old crimes to be forgotten. Let them be remembered, always. And let a new wind blow through the church.