Matt C. Abbott
'The Faithful Departed...'
By Matt C. Abbott
February 11, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Philip F. Lawler's book The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. It is reprinted from the Winter 2009 issue of Catholic Men's Quarterly. Thanks to Mr. Lawler and John Moorehouse, editor of CMQ, for granting me permission to reprint — technically, re-reprint — the excerpt.

The Faithful Departed:

The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture

Published by Encounter Books. Used with permission.

by Philip F. Lawler

...To understand the impact of the sex-abuse crisis, one must first understand the nature of the scandal — or rather, to be more accurate, of three scandals that emerged simultaneously. Yes, there are three scandals — closely intertwined, but easily distinguishable — that have combined to ravage American Catholicism at the dawn of the 21st century. For the sake of convenience we can conflate these three problems under the single rubric, the "sex-abuse crisis," as I do throughout this book. But at the outset it is important to distinguish among them.

The first scandal is the sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests. The depravity of their behavior, the betrayal of a fundamental trust that had been placed in them, the corruption of innocence: all these factors made their crime repellent, and the public exposure of their hypocrisy understandably caused a nationwide sensation. Still, as difficult as it is to overstate the harm done by these priests, it is necessary to keep their crimes in some perspective.

Although the absolute number of priests engaged in this vile activity was shocking, the predators composed only a very small percentage of the priests serving in the US. Their sins, loathsome as they were, are still understandable. Anyone who accepts the Christian understanding of Original Sin realizes that all of us are capable of the most degrading, vile transgressions. And while we expect priests to adhere to a higher code of ethical behavior, every Catholic moralist knows the principle, Corruptio optimi pessima est: the corruption of the best is the worst of all. Furthermore, Church leaders have finally recognized the scandal of clerical abuse and taken aggressive action to remove predators from the priesthood. From all available indications, the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is much less widespread today than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

The second scandal is the prevalence of homosexuality among Catholic priests. When the first stories about clerical misconduct began to emerge, ordinary Catholics began asking questions about the sexual predilections of American priests, and they naively continued to ask those questions, no matter how frequently they were told — not quite accurately — that the issue under discussion was pedophilia rather than homosexuality. The answers to their persistent questions suggested that the number of Catholic priests with homosexual inclinations was far out of proportion to the number of homosexuals in society at large. Moreover, there was circumstantial evidence that homosexual priests formed an influential clique that actively discouraged priests from exposing their colleagues' peccadilloes. The existence of such a "lavender mafia" could help to explain why Church officials failed to discipline priests who molested children.

When leaders of the US bishops' conference traveled to Rome in April 2002 to discuss the crisis with top Vatican officials, they acknowledged the importance of grappling with the influence of homosexuality, especially in the seminaries, where the habits and attitudes of future priests are formed. But even before they left Rome the American bishops were backing away from that recognition, retreating in the face of critics who would not countenance any criticism of homosexual priests. The question of homosexual influence soon was removed from the agenda of the American hierarchy, and in their later public statements the leaders of the US bishops' conference actually sought to deny what they had acknowledged during those talks in Rome, arguing, against all available evidence, that the sex-abuse crisis could not be attributed primarily to homosexual priests.

The third scandal is the abdication of authority — or worse, the complicity — of American bishops when they were first confronted with the evidence of clerical abuse. The bishops could have, and should have, ensured that a priest who molested children or traduced adolescents would not have the opportunity to commit that crime again. Instead, as the dreary public revelations of the last decade have shown, scores of American bishops chose to ignore complaints about abuse, to conceal the evidence that was brought to their attention, and to give predatory priests one opportunity after another.

The first aspect of the scandal, the sexual abuse of children, has been acknowledged and addressed. The second aspect, the rampant homosexuality among Catholic priests, has been acknowledged but not addressed, and later even denied. As a result the homosexual influence within the American clergy is even stronger today than it was before the sex-abuse scandal erupted. But the third aspect of the scandal has never even been acknowledged by American Church leaders.

While a small minority of American priests have been involved in sexual abuse, a clear majority of bishops were party to the cover-up. The priests who have been found guilty of sexual abuse have been removed from ministry, but bishops who betrayed their own sacred trust by countenancing sexual abuse remain in office. Whereas the misconduct by priests has been acknowledged and addressed, the administrative malfeasance of American bishops has still not been acknowledged — at least not by the bishops themselves — and not remedied. For all those reasons the third scandal, the scandal of episcopal misconduct, is today the most serious of all.

When they gathered in Dallas in June of 2002, to devise a nationwide response to the sex-abuse scandal, the American bishops devoted their attention exclusively to the first of these three interrelated scandals. Efforts by a few lonely bishops to recognize the other important dimensions of the scandal — the influence of homosexuality and the negligence of bishops — were quickly rejected. Consequently the policies that the bishops established, promising prompt suspension of any priest credibly accused of molesting a child, did nothing to restore public trust in the hierarchy itself. Bishops who showed an icy insensitivity to the suffering of young victims, and lied repeatedly to conceal their own guilt, remain in power today. Even those bishops who were themselves caught up in compromising sexual activity have been allowed to resign quietly, preserved from public criticism by their colleagues.

In short the US bishops have responded to these crises by protecting each other. But why have they done so? Why has there been no move — not even by a reforming minority — to root out the corruption that has been so clearly exposed in the American hierarchy?

For that matter, when they first encountered the evidence that priests were abusing children and corrupting adolescents, why did so many bishops fail to take prompt and decisive action? What possible incentive did they have to cover up the evidence of such appalling crimes?

Certainly there is nothing in the teaching or traditional discipline of the Catholic Church to justify such a lackadaisical response to clerical abuse. Catholic morality is notoriously strict in regard to sexual sins. And very few passages in the Gospels are as strongly worded as that one in which Jesus condemns those who corrupt innocent youth: "It would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea."

For centuries Church leaders acted on that understanding. St. Basil, a 4th-century pioneer of monasticism in the Eastern Church, ruled that any monk who molested young men should be monitored for the rest of his life to ensure that he never had the opportunity to repeat his crimes. St. Peter Damien wrote in his Book of Gomorra (1096): "We conclude that just as the sacrilegious violator of a virgin is deposed by law, so the prostitutor of a spiritual son must be barred from his ecclesiastical office by every means possible." The Code of Canon Law, the Church's internal legislation, reflects the wisdom that the Church has accumulated through 20 centuries of observing human frailty; the Code sets out a procedure to be followed when priests are accused of sexual abuse, and stipulates harsh penalties for those who are found guilty. But in practice the American bishops almost never invoked the provisions of canon law in recent years; they handled the priests' transgressions informally — even when the same priests were accused again and again.

In some ways it would seem easier, again, to explain this remarkable failure of leaders by starting with the premise that the American bishops were moral monsters: that they had no interest at all in the welfare of young people or the teaching of the faith. But even that extreme hypothesis does not afford a satisfactory explanation. If a bishop were motivated by nothing but the basest sort of cynical self-interest, he would still have every incentive to remove a priest who threatened to molest children. That priest was likely to create problems; a purely selfish bishop would want to be rid of him.

So the question persists: Why did Church leaders ignore the clear message of the Gospel, the undeniable thrust of Catholic moral teaching, and the institutional wisdom that had been collected over 2,000 years and codified in Church law?

The few prelates who have bothered to explain their conduct have said that they thought they were acting for the good of the Church. Now at first glance, that explanation is simply incredible. How could "the good of the Church" possibly be served by the exploitation of children, by betrayal and lies? The Catholic Church sees herself as the mystical Body of Christ; how could it be helpful to the body to ignore a cancerous growth within?

Clearly, any bishop who tolerated abusive priests, covering up the evidence of their crimes, was guided by a very strange, unhealthy understanding of his own pastoral responsibilities. These prelates were, at best, protecting the public reputation of Catholicism. But the engine of the Church runs on God's grace, not on public acclaim; the Church has been most vigorous at times when the faith was held in contempt and even openly persecuted. The Body of Christ does not need a clumsy public-relations campaign. As St. Augustine tersely put it, "God does not need my lie."

The effort to keep ugly secrets from public view would make more sense if the Church saw herself as a purely human institution, depending on public support for her strength. If some isolated scandal arose within a local branch of the Rotary Club we might all agree to keep the matter quiet, to preserve the club's image. Rotarians are good people, after all, and their clubs do a great deal of good work within the communities. If they ever lost their reputation for these good works, the Rotary Clubs would be doomed, because they have no other source of strength.

Not so with the Catholic Church. Anyone who embraces the faith — or even understands Catholicism from an outsider's perspective — knows that the Church relies on Christ, and models herself after a Savior who died in ignominy. Faithful Catholics should never allow superficial concerns about public perception to trump an unmistakably clear moral imperative. Yet scores of American bishops did exactly that.

Nor were they alone in doing it. Scores of the priests who have now been convicted as molesters were known to the police years ago, but never formally charged with any crime. Police and prosecutors sloughed off their own responsibilities many times, accepting a bishop's promise that the offending cleric would be "taken care of," and agreeing to keep the case quiet. These law-enforcement officials evidently believed, as the bishops believed, that pressing charges would not be good for the Church; and since the Church was a pillar of the community, it followed that prosecution would not be good for the community.

How did public officials come to such an understanding? They learned it, I will argue, from their pastors, and ultimately from their bishops. For more than a generation, the American hierarchy has done its best to convey the impression that the Church is a noble civic institution — that the demands of Catholicism will never clash with the claims of a democratic government. (You might say that this argument is the ecclesiastical equivalent of Charles Wilson's belief that "what was good for General Motors was good for the country, and vice versa.") When Church-state conflicts did arise, many Catholic leaders were quite willing to sacrifice the claims of their faith in order to minimize the conflict and preserve their privileged status as community leaders.

Yet again, the most conspicuous examples of this attitude have been shown in Massachusetts. In the 1950s, an Archbishop of Boston discouraged a priest from his energetic public preaching of a defined Catholic dogma, because some people found that dogma offensive. A decade later the same archbishop — now a cardinal — announced that Catholic legislators should feel free to vote in favor of legislation that violated the precepts of the Church. In 1974 his successor encouraged Catholic parents not to send their children to parochial schools. And in 1993 yet another Boston archbishop instructed the faithful that they should not pray outside abortion clinics. In each of these remarkable cases, the Archbishop of Boston obviously thought that he was serving the cause of community peace. But just as obviously, he was yielding ground, and encouraging the Catholic faithful to yield as well.

And to what end? Today the bill for the sex-abuse scandal(s) has come due, and the Church is paying a frightful cost — in public stature as well as in cash — for the bishops' pastoral failures. With their efforts to preserve the Church from criticism, they succeeded only in bringing down much greater obloquy upon the Church. If Church leaders had acted decisively and forthrightly to discipline the priests who molested young people, and remedy the defects in clerical discipline that had allowed this sort of aberrant behavior, the faithful might have been shocked, but at least the public revulsion would have been directed where it belonged: at the erring individuals. Instead, by becoming silent partners in the scandal, the bishops have jeopardized the credibility of the Catholic faith itself.

The bishops made a fool's bargain. They were prepared to sacrifice the essential elements of the Catholic faith: the moral teaching, the clerical discipline, even the loving care for the faithful. In return, they hoped to prop up the prestige of the institutional Church. But whatever prestige the Church enjoys is based on public respect for those essential elements of religious faith. When the disgraceful stories eventually hit the headlines, the bishops could no longer fall back on the conventional respect they had once taken for granted. They were willing to sacrifice their apostolic mission to preserve their prestige; in the end they were left with neither mission nor prestige.

...Again, in recent decades the rout of Catholic social thought has been most complete in Greater Boston. In the space of my lifetime, from 1950 to the present, Catholic influence in public life has plummeted, from a position of seemingly absolute dominance to one of near-universal contempt.

No, the collapse of Catholicism in Boston did not begin with the sex-abuse crisis of 2002. That crisis itself was the manifestation of corruption that had begun long, long ago. The corruption was evident decades ago, when Cardinal O'Connell — the same powerful prelate who could scuttle a popular legislative initiative with a single statement — learned that a prominent priest was engaged in gross sexual misconduct. The cardinal chose to leave that priest in office, and cover up the evidence of his transgressions. No doubt he told himself that he was acting "for the good of the Church."

(Philip F. Lawler is editor of Catholic World News. Born and raised in the Boston area, he studied at Harvard and the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. He has served as director of studies for the Heritage Foundation, and as editor of Crisis magazine, The Pilot, and Catholic World Report. He is the author of five other books on political and religious topics.)

© Matt C. Abbott


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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