An alleged clergy sex-abuse coverup case unfolding this week at one of the Washington region’s most prominent Latino parishes is putting a spotlight on a segment of the Catholic Church seen as uniquely opaque when it comes to misconduct: religious orders.
Three parish leaders at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, a bustling, heavily Salvadoran church in Columbia Heights, were removed this week following reports that three teenage girls were groped or kissed by the Rev. Urbano Vazquez, a gregarious and popular priest.
The arrest and child sex-abuse charge against Vazquez and removal of the lead priest and the chief child-protection coordinator have stunned Sacred Heart parishioners, with many circling the church protectively or taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the charges. Sacred Heart is large and central to the area’s Hispanic community, with many ministries — a school, English literacy classes and an immigration resource center, among other services.
“Maybe it wouldn’t have had such an impact if it had been in a different church,” Carlos Enrique, 53, a longtime parishioner, said Thursday evening. Parish leaders informed the congregation of the scandal via an email Wednesday, describing it as “upsetting news.”
“I don’t go for the priests, I go for Christ. … Whatever happens, I won’t leave,” Enrique said.
Vazquez, an assistant priest, and the Rev. Moises Villalta, the parish’s lead priest, are Capuchins, an order, or religious community, within the Catholic Church. The Capuchins staff Sacred Heart, which is owned and operated by the Archdiocese of Washington. While the archdiocese can remove the order’s priests from its own institutions if problems come to its attention, it does not otherwise manage them or participate in disciplinary action.
Questions linger as to whether the Capuchins’ independent leadership of the church played a role in the parish’s mishandling of the allegations against Vazquez. (Vazquez could not be reached, and his public defender declined comment. Villalta also could not be reached for comment.)
The email the parish sent to congregants said Villalta and Sonia Marlene Aquino, the child-protection coordinator, “did not follow the correct reporting protocol.” A police report Thursday said parents of at least two of the three girls had reported the abuse to parish leadership as early as 2015, but it had not been reported to civil authorities or the archdiocese until late last month. It is unclear why the allegations resurfaced.
Advocates for survivors and experts on church governance said lack of transparency is a major problem with religious orders, all of which are run separately and independently from dioceses and archdioceses.
Victims groups wrote just this week to Callista Gingrich, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, urging her to press U.S. bishops on various abuse topics, including the lack of transparency of religious orders, such as the Capuchins, Jesuits, Dominicans and Crosiers.
And on Oct. 26, amid the mounting national pressure on the church around transparency, the major umbrella group for male orders — the Conference of Major Superiors of Men — wrote to its dozens of member groups to encourage them to release the names of priests who have faced credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors and to alert local bishops where accused men have lived.
Peter Isley, a survivor of abuse by a Capuchin who is now a spokesman for the global group Ending Clergy Abuse, said his group and other survivor groups wrote to Gingrich as part of a long-term effort to bring more accountability to the orders.
Isley said leaders of religious orders disagree about whether they are required to follow the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the key document passed by the U.S. bishops in 2002 that governs bishops’ procedures around abuse. The charter requires, among other things, dioceses to report allegations of abuse and to file reports on a variety of preventive measures.
“Some say yes; some say no,” Isley said. He and other abuse-prevention advocates said orders permanently remove from ministry, or laicize, accused priests much less frequently than dioceses. Orders are also organized into regional provinces that span states and sometimes national borders, while dioceses (and archdioceses) are within U.S. states, which can make it harder for civil officials to keep track of accused individuals.
Of about 48,500 priests nationwide, about 31 percent are from religious orders, and the other 69 percent are from dioceses, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a research center about church life, at Georgetown University.
The fact that Sacred Heart was run by a religious order hasn’t been raised formally as an issue by parishioners or anyone in the archdiocese. However the case is the first new claim of abuse within an archdiocesan parish in almost 20 years, and the D.C. archdiocese has been at the center of an explosion of concern about clergy child abuse since the suspension in June of former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick, an accused abuser who has since resigned from the College of Cardinals, and the stepping down last month of his successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, over allegations that he mishandled abuse complaints while he was bishop in Pittsburgh. To have a new allegation of abuse and coverup is a blow to an archdiocese trying to shore up its reputation.
The Rev. Tom Betz, provincial — or regional leader — for Vazquez’s region, said in a statement Friday night that Capuchins receive regular training to prevent abuse and are accredited by Praesidium, an independent firm that consults and assesses abuse-prevention programs.
“Obviously our procedures for the protection of minors failed and we must now redouble our efforts to train our friars and improve our procedures,” Betz said in a statement.
The archdiocese, when asked about the oversight of the order-staffed parish, said Sacred Heart “receives the same, full support and engagement as the other parishes of the archdiocese,” spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi wrote in an email. But while the archdiocese had the power to remove the priests from the parish itself, she wrote, “beyond that, regarding discipline for the Capuchins, that’s a question to ask the religious order.”
The removal of the two men appears to cut in half the full-time clerical staff at Sacred Heart. The archdiocese will send staff to the parish Sunday and offer resources to the families of the survivors. The parish planned a prayer vigil Friday in response to the arrest.
Parishioners said they were stunned at the scandal unfolding at the church.
The parish’s priests are “the pillars of the parish … the voice of the community, the face of the community,” Gilber Canales said Thursday night outside Mass. They are vocal advocates on immigration issues, both in their homilies and in attending community marches and rallies protesting the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.
Canales, 38, who has been a member of the church for 22 years, was married in the church, and his daughter was baptized there. He teaches Catechism classes to children and lives nearby. “It’s like a bucket of cold water,” he said. “It’s chilling. … We didn’t know anything.”
He was used to hearing about the ongoing sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church worldwide, but he never thought it would hit his own community. “It’s like we’re in the eye of the hurricane.”
Some said the reports could have been made as a result a series of listening sessions held in the archdiocese this summer and fall about the crisis.
Katlyn Toelle said the community has prayed for victims of sexual abuse at Mass every week since an explosive grand jury report came out of Pennsylvania this summer. They pray “for those survivors of abuse, whether by power or violence, especially by the clergy who have not lived up to their call to holiness,” Toelle said in an email. Toelle, who coordinates music for the English-speaking Mass, said Sacred Heart is a warm and welcoming parish that openly discusses difficult issues and tries to fight injustice.
“We have been harmed and we have been deceived, but we will not be defined by it,” Toelle said.
At Mass on Thursday night, a new priest read in Spanish from the day’s Gospel, about the Parable of the Lost Sheep. He didn’t mention the scandal.
“With human weakness, we can fail … we can become dirty with sin. … But Jesus Christ is looking for each of us. Why? To heal us,” the priest said later during the homily.
Many parishioners voiced a desire to protect the parish and declined to comment on the abuse allegations.
Outside, Marco Antonio, 50, a parishioner for 13 years, questioned the intentions and credibility of the accusations, claiming the families “want to take advantage of the situation.”
“The truth is, here the Hispanic community is very friendly,” he said, saying that kissing and hugging are common forms of affection.
But Canelas didn’t dismiss the allegations outright. He placed the blame on Villalta for not reporting the allegations sooner. “If this happened, why did they wait?”
Vazquez had been at the parish since 2014. He was born in 1972 in Mexico, and made his first vows to the Capuchins in 2003. He studied in Washington while living in a Capuchin community, and recieved a Masters of Divinity from the Centro de Estudios de los Dominicos de Caribe in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
He was ordained as a deacon in Puerto Rico in 2013 and served as a deacon-intern for a year at Our Lady of the Mountains Parish in Cumberland, Md., before going to Sacred Heart.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore said there were no complaints to the archdiocese about Vazquez during the year at Our Lady, and Noguchi said there were no allegations against Vazquez made to the D.C. archdiocese until last month.
Religious order priests like Vazquez have “a completely different way of life” in terms of the willingness of the institution to remove or discipline them compared with dioceses, said Patrick Wall, a canon lawyer and former priest who became a researcher and watchdog against clergy abuse.
Of the handling of sex abuse by clergy within Catholic orders, Wall said, “This is a long-standing problem the bishops have never solved.”
On the eve of a speaking tour in the U.S., the outspoken Redemptorist cleric said he wants to see legislation introduced in Ireland which would require priests here to break the confessional seal if someone admits to child abuse.
At present, the Vatican’s rules surrounding confessional secrecy mean there are no legal obligations under canon law to report concerns or allegations of abuse of a minor.
But moves have already been made in Australia to ensure that allegations of clerical sexual abuse that are made in the sacrament are immediately reported to the authorities.
Following the country’s extensive Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, two states, South Australia and Australian Capital Territory, have begun fast-tracking mandatory legislation to compel practicing churchmen to break the seal of confession if someone admits to child abuse.
And now Flannery, who had previously supported the ancient ruling that a priest should never reveal what he hears in confession, said his opinions have changed and that he now thinks Ireland should follow the Australian lead.
The 71-year-old Co. Galway native, who was censured by the Vatican over six years ago for his liberal views, said, “The debate has been going on for some time about the seal of Confession in the Catholic Church. There have been calls to make it obligatory for priests if they are told in the sacrament that the penitent is sexually abusing a minor, they must inform the authorities.
“This is a difficult one since the seal of Confession – the requirement that a priest can never reveal what he hears in Confession — is one of the most serious obligations for any priest, and if that is compromised in any way, it undermines the sacrament as we have known it.
“Over recent years I have always argued that this cannot change, but now I am beginning to think differently. The situation within the church over clerical sexual abuse is so serious, and the church’s credibility so damaged, that I am not sure we can hold to this position anymore.”
Flannery, a founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, also called for individual confessions to be replaced by “general absolution,” which would involve a gathering of believers being granted absolution for their sins without prior individual Confession to a priest.
He added, “The reality is that very few people in Ireland go to Confession any more, but in the event of a person admitting child abuse, this needs to be reported. I also think other serious crimes need to be reported too, for example, what happens if someone tells a priest they have murdered their wife.
“If the seal of Confession is broken in any way, then Confession as we now know it will cease to exist. But I think the time has come for change, and general absolution would be a better way to celebrate the sacrament.”
Flannery is in the U.S. this week, where he is due to give talks in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. on church reform. He was suspended from public ministry in 2012 for his liberal views on women priests, homosexuality and contraception, and has since conceded that there is little hope of his censorship being lifted.
This past March, a small Catholic magazine called Women Church World ran an article titled “The (almost) free work of sisters.” In it, the journalist Marie-Lucile Kubacki described nuns who, among other menial tasks, serve meals to bishops and then eat in the kitchen, and who are paid little or nothing for the work they do. That institutional sexism pertains in the Catholic Church was not a shock, but the messenger was a surprise: Women Church World is published by the Vatican. The Associated Press ran a piece about the exposé, which was subsequently covered by the Times, PBS, and other outlets. The A.P. and the Times both illustrated their pieces with portraits of the magazine’s founder and editor, Lucetta Scaraffia, a seventy-year-old history professor who wears her white-blond hair chopped short, like a monk with a chic hairdresser, and identifies as a feminist.
Scaraffia lives in Rome, but she spends summers in Todi, about an hour’s drive from the birthplace of St. Francis. In June, I went to see her there. Scaraffia founded Women Church World in 2012. The magazine circulates, once a month, with L’Osservatore Romano, a daily broadsheet that was created more than a hundred and fifty years ago and that has a fuzzy sort of editorial independence from Church leadership. There are boundaries to what Women Church World can publish, too, Scaraffia told me, sitting in her summer home’s living room, decorated with old advertisements for Napoleon, who kept Pope Pius VII in prison for several years.
Scaraffia does not regularly see the Pope, but he has her cell-phone number. He once called it, she told me, to say that he liked a book of hers that criticized the Church for not listening to women. Scaraffia is, by and large, quite conservative: she does not want women to be priests, nor does she want the Pope to upend the Church’s positions on sexual mores, she told me. But she thinks that abortion should be legal, and she believes in a merciful Church, with doctrinal walls porous enough to welcome believers who do not conform to teachings on sex and romantic love.
She also believes that Catholic women can and should take on a larger role in Church decisions—they need to make “concrete political moves,” she told me, and to ask “for things we can actually obtain.” The Vatican is a mostly breezeless state, faithful to a heavy inheritance bequeathed by the Gospels, but Scaraffia is attentive to whatever wind there might be. The magazine’s exposé about nuns was inspired in part by comments that Francis made two years ago to a group of sisters. He said that he was troubled to see them assigned to “a labor of servitude and not of service.” “So we wrote the article,” Scaraffia said. After it was published, she heard from nuns who were relieved to see the Church acknowledge that women’s subservience was a violation of divine prescription. (“The priests said nothing,” she said.)
Acknowledgement, of course, is not the same as change. This past summer brought new disclosures that clerics had molested and raped thousands of children, from Germany to Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, cardinals from four continents were summoned to answer either to the Pope or to the courts for abusing minors or for protecting those who did. One archbishop has accused Pope Francis of knowing about sexual-abuse accusations against Theodore E. McCarrick and elevating him regardless. (McCarrick resigned as the archbishop of Washington in July.) The revelations have led to additional calls for women to take on greater authority in the Church: perhaps if women occupied more positions of power, the argument goes, these men would not have been able to act with impunity for so long.
A few days after our first meeting, I met Scaraffia for dinner on her porch, along with her husband, who is also a historian, and a translator. The lights of the region’s medieval castles, both authentic and faux, were bright in the evening. At one point in our conversation, over pasta and a plate of mozzarella, Scaraffia said, “I would like for women to become cardinals.” After the comment was relayed in English, I paused. A woman who doesn’t think that women should be priests, or take birth-control pills, believes that women should be cardinals, and occupy the rank just beneath the Pope, whom cardinals elect and advise?
Yes, Scaraffia said. It’s true that the Vatican prohibits women from ordination into the clerical hierarchy—though nuns take vows, they are not ordained, and so they are laypeople, not clerics. Priests, who consecrate the host at Mass, must be ordained to do so, but Catholic theology does not mandate that cardinals be ordained. So, theologically speaking, laypeople, including laywomen, can be cardinals. Pope Francis “would have everyone against him” if he named a female cardinal, Scaraffia said. “Everyone.” She laughed. “He might do it just before he dies, or renounces his papacy,” she went on. But “he could do it,” she added. “He might.”
Growing up, in Turin, Scaraffia went to mass with her mother, who took her less out of piety than out of concern for her daughter’s social well-being, Scaraffia told me. Her mother was beautiful, she said. “It became a weakness for her, not a strength. Working outside of the household was a nightmare for her.” She married at twenty years old and resigned herself to a quiet life. Scaraffia would later come to feel that her work, as a feminist, and then as a Catholic, was, in part, “to spare other women of what my mother had endured.”
Scaraffia stopped going to mass during her first year at college. She got married at twenty-three and divorced two years later. While studying women’s history, she met a professor who was separated from his wife; they had a daughter together but never married. When they broke up, six years later, Scaraffia became a single mother. She taught at Sapienza University of Rome and lived behind Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria, in Trastevere. One day, in her late thirties, she saw worshippers carrying an icon of the Madonna into the church. She was struck, she said, by “a very powerful physical feeling of awe.” She went back to Mass.
She began contributing to L’Osservatore Romano in 2007, after Pope Benedict XVI asked its incoming editor, Giovanni Maria Vian, a philologist, to give women more space in the paper, which had no female reporters. “I wouldn’t dare call myself a feminist,” Vian told me, but, he said, in the church, “there has to be more space for women.” When Scaraffia asked Vian for a magazine of her own, for women, he relayed the request to Benedict, who gave his approval. (Scaraffia sees Benedict, who is now the first-ever Pope emeritus, rarely, but more often than she sees Francis, she told me. “As a woman, you really feel like he’s treating you just like a colleague,” she said, of the former pontiff.)
After meeting Scaraffia, I went to a gathering of Catholic women in Rome that was organized by Paola Lazzarini, a sociologist based in Sardinia, who described Scaraffia to me as “a point of reference for all of us.” Lazzarini, together with about thirty other women, co-authored a document called “Manifesto of Women for the Church.” (The authors originally connected on Facebook.) She e-mailed it to Scaraffia, who published it in the March issue of Women Church World, opposite the report on the servitude of nuns. Lazzarini has since begun setting up public forums across Italy, at which she hoped that women, especially in more socially conservative regions like Calabria, where she hosted the first meeting, would become “conscious of their condition in the Church.”
This particular gathering was held in a parochial room behind the Basilica of Santa Maria, the church where Scaraffia had returned to Catholicism three decades before. About a dozen women, and a few men, gathered in a semicircle. A woman in her fifties told the group that she had taught religion in a school until she got divorced, at which point the local bishop ordered her to be fired. A schoolteacher told the group how frustrating it was that Catholic parishes don’t seem to know what to do with women who aren’t sweet.
Lazzarini and I had coffee the next morning. A former nun, she is now married and has a young daughter. She wore pearls, and her hair was buoyantly arranged. She left her congregation after five years, she said, frustrated by how often women were underestimated by the Church’s male leaders. While patriarchal attitudes persist in the secular world, she said, in the Church, women’s obedience “is presented as if it was God’s will.” But what if women felt “strong enough to give the Church what they know?” she said. “What they can do? And not submit themselves in order to please men?” She finished her espresso, then added, “It’s our turn to speak not only for ourselves but to speak for the Church.”
Two years ago, Pope Francis convened a commission to study the possibility of female deacons. A deacon can perform many of a priest’s tasks, including baptisms, but can’t consecrate the host. In October, Women Church World published an op-ed, by the editor of the prominent Jesuit magazine America, reporting that a majority of Catholic women in the U.S. want the Church to ordain female deacons. But Scaraffia told me that she believes Francis will not accept female deacons—that he does not want women to be ordained as clerics of any rank. (This past summer, not for the first time, Francis explicitly ruled out the possibility of female priests: only men can be priests, according to the Holy See, because Jesus chose only men as his apostles.) Other Catholic activists are more optimistic. Kate McElwee, the executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, told me that she finds Pope Francis’s “openness to dialogue” encouraging. “We know there are women who are called by God,” she said.
Cardinals, in any case, need not be called by God—only man. “Cardinals are an invention of the Church, to govern itself,” Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova, told me. In the first millennium, the title was an honorific for respected men, without specific duties or power. In 1059, the Church gave cardinals the exclusive right to elect the pontiff. Fourteen years later, Pope Gregory VII began to reduce the number of laymen in favor of clerics. (The idea was to excise corruption by replacing ethically suspicious laymen with good, and loyal, holy men.)
Still, there was no prohibition, earthly or empyrean, on laymen entering the ranks, and, here and there, they did. But, after the Italian kingdom fully conquered the Papal States, in the nineteenth century, the church became “more priestly,” as Faggioli put it. Cardinals had lost much of their temporal power, so they were increasingly seen less as secular diplomats and more as religious men. Pope Pius IX selected the last unordained cardinal, in 1858, an Italian lawyer named Teodolfo Mertel. In 1917, the Holy See changed canon law, restricting the cardinalate to the ordained. (In the nineteen-eighties, the law was updated to restrict candidacies to bishops alone.) Canon law, however, is not gospel. If the Pope wants to change it, Faggioli said, “he can do that with a stroke of the pen.”
Scaraffia says that the Catholic anthropologist Mary Douglas gave her the idea that women could be made cardinals. The Spanish newspaper El País revived the notion shortly after Francis was elected, speculating that the new pontiff might include a woman’s name in his first selections for the College of Cardinals. Francis’s spokesman at the time, Federico Lombardi, told that press that it was “not remotely realistic.” But, he conceded, “theologically and theoretically, it is possible.” Francis is the first Jesuit Pope and the first Latin American Pope; he has alarmed conservative clerics by suggesting that people who are divorced, and women who have had abortions, might be welcomed back to take communion.
Yet women still hold none of the highest or second-highest positions in the Vatican’s government, the Roman Curia. Pope Francis “is not a feminist,” Scaraffia told me, in June. But he is, she believes, a “good politician,” an adaptive realist who can see that the Church, in its present form, is disappointing and wounding many of its members. In September, Francis’s council of cardinal advisers issued a statement announcing that it would ask the Pope to evaluate “the work, structure and composition of the Council itself.” As Chantal Götz, the managing director of Voices of Faith, another group advocating for women’s rights in the Church, put it to me, when I asked her about Scaraffia’s suggestion, “What a symbolic gesture it would be if the Pope named women to the cardinal slots emptied by cardinals implicated in the coverup of sexual abuse.”
In August, I wrote to Pope Francis’s spokesman, Greg Burke, to ask him if his boss would name a woman to the rank of cardinal. “It is an interesting debate,” Burke replied. “But the Pope is not going to name women cardinals.” I e-mailed Scaraffia and reported his reply. Was Pope Francis’s answer definitive, in her eyes? And what did she make of the summer’s clerical meltdown? She did not regard Burke’s reply as final—and my two questions, she added, are related. “I think we are experiencing a serious and profound crisis of the Church,” she wrote, adding that it would result in real change. Perhaps, she continued, such change might include, “who knows, maybe even women Cardinals!”
On October 3rd, Pope Francis delivered a homily at the opening of the Synod of Bishops, a month-long conference on Church matters. (This one was focussed on the Church’s relationship with its younger members.) “A church that does not listen . . . cannot be credible,” he told the assembled clerics, which included fifty cardinals. At the synod, participants vote on proposals for Pope Francis; this time, the Vatican invited a few dozen women, but they did not have voting rights. Eleven advocacy groups, including Lazzarini’s organization, created a petition insisting that women vote at the synod, which was delivered to the synod’s office with more than nine thousand signatures. The rules were not amended. On Saturday, the synod adopted a sixty-page final document that highlighted “the absence of women’s voices and points of view” and recommended “making everyone more aware of the urgency of an inescapable change.”
Meanwhile, the latest issue of Women Church World includes an article under Scaraffia’s byline. There are those who think that a “ ‘good’ Pope” will eventually “open the doors to women,” appointing them to top positions in church government, she writes. But, she goes on, women can’t wait for that Pope. Women, too, were complicit in the church’s sexual-abuse crisis: made to play the role of “obedient daughters,” they served the clerics who protected one another. “The condition of women in the Church will only change if women have the courage to begin to change it from below,” she writes. Two days before the Synod of Bishops began, a symposium, put on by the group Catholic Women Speak, was held in Rome. There, Scaraffia was even more explicit. “Why don’t we become a nuisance in every place where women are not present?” she said. “I am leading a war against the patriarchy of the Church.”
When Dan McNevin was nine years old, he served as an altar boy to Father James Clark in Corpus Christi Church in Fremont, California. There he worshipped alongside generations of his Irish Catholic family, attending mass and answering phones for the parish office. At first, says McNevin, now 60, Clark was “grooming him.” But soon the priest began to abuse him both physically and emotionally, undressing, touching, and assaulting him. He didn’t tell anyone, including his parents, for more than a decade. After three years, McNevin left the church forever; Clark did not.
Decades later, McNevin, then in his forties, confronted Clark’s superiors in the Oakland diocese, which governs all Catholic churches in the Alameda and Contra Costa counties, including Fremont. He says the area bishop told him the priest did not have a history of abuse, although he was a convicted sex offender, and denied shuffling him between posts (one way the Catholic church protects alleged abusers). McNevin believed the diocese—until he learned that the leaders of the same diocese had transferred a different offender 11 times. Then, in 2002, he met a survivor who had been molested by Clark five years after his own abuse. “I knew I got lied to,” he says. McNevin sued the Oakland diocese alongside several other victims, settling in 2005.
He works now as an area leader for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a grassroots non-profit organization dedicated to helping victims of clergy abuse deal with their trauma. For survivors who’ve kept their abuse secret, media coverage publicizing the offender’s crimes can be both triggering and validating. It’s a duality McNevin is himself familiar with: He still remembers the first time he saw his abuser’s name in print—once when he sued the church, later when he was quoted in an article detailing the church’s complicity in Clark’s crimes. The most recent of these came earlier this week, when the law firm Anderson & Associates published a report identifying 212 priests accused of sexual abuse in the Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose dioceses.
“It’s validating to see his name yet again in lights,” McNevin says. This time, Clark’s name was included in a list of hundreds of alleged abusers, published for all of California to see. Advocates say compiling names—even those previously known—can help identify patterns of clergy sex abuse and cover-up. “It is believed that the Bay Area Dioceses do not make available to the public the full history, knowledge, and context of the sexually abusive clerics,” the firm wrote in the report. “This report is intended to raise awareness.”
The work histories compiled in the firm’s report show that, after Clark’s felony charge in 1963, the priest was reassigned three times. This is how he ended up at McNevin’s Fremont church, where he “allegedly sexually, mentally, and emotionally abused numerous children,” the report says. Between 1948 and his death in 1989, he had been moved to seven different posts across the state.
In the months after the Pennsylvania grand jury report put clergy abuse back in the national spotlight, Anderson & Associates has been leading the effort to name names in California, home to more than 10 million Catholics. The Minnesota-based firm published another report in early October, accusing 307 priests of abuse in Los Angeles. It’s also representing survivor Tom Emens, who filed a civil lawsuit this month against 11 dioceses, naming every single bishop in the state of California.
“This lawsuit is designed to require each of them to come clean, to actually tell the truth about what they know,” attorney Jeff Anderson said in a press conference on Tuesday. He called the cover-up of clergy sex abuse in California, where parishes relocated some abusers more than 20 times, “a conspiracy of silence and secrecy.”
The inner workings of this conspiracy are extensive, Anderson says: Some bishops have chosen to believe priests over their victims; work histories show the movement of abusers across the state, many with prior convictions; and the Vatican has long compelled its dioceses to secrecy.
The Bay Area list more than doubles the number of abusers that the three dioceses have so far acknowledged, according to SNAP. And yet lawyers and advocates agree it’s still far too low. The majority of incidences of sexual assault go unreported, and that’s especially true in the case of clergy abuse. (The Pennsylvania investigation found that up to 8 percent of priests in the state abused children.) But research shows most survivors of clergy sex abuse wait decades to report, if at all; many face stigma and fear of backlash in their community, as well as the ongoing trauma of abuse, and, often, a crisis of religious belief. One 2008 study found that less than 5 percent of cases were reported within a year. In California, where 29 percent of the population is Catholic, McNevin estimates that as many as 2,000 priests could have abused thousands of children.
Some bishops have already tried to downplay these numbers by claiming they are not responsible for the actions of order priests, such as Jesuits or the Franciscans, who were working and living in the diocese at the time of abuse. “The alleged incidents occurred, and the reports of abuse were made, in other jurisdictions and were not shared with the Diocese of San Jose,” the diocese said in a statement on Wednesday, the Mercury News reports. Anderson, meanwhile, says his firm will push back on this excuse. “That is a deceit and a deflection,” he says.
The church also argues that few of these names are new. All of the information in Anderson’s report comes from public records, when dioceses were forced to disclose the identities of offenders in 2002. Most of the allegations, the report says, have not been “proved or substantiated in a court of law.”
But much of this abuse has been common knowledge in the Catholic community for years, says Melanie Sakoda, a Bay Area volunteer with SNAP. She believes the renewed attention could have a real impact, either forcing the church to disclose more information, drawing out more survivors, or prompting an attorney general investigation like the one in Pennsylvania, which uncovered 300 abusers and thousands of victims. (A spokesperson for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says it cannot “comment on, even to confirm or deny, a potential or ongoing investigation,” although local reports in San Jose suggest Becerra is looking into investigating the issue.)
While some trauma stems from ensuing media coverage around highly publicized issues of abuse, publishing names can also be an important part of the healing process. “When a survivor sees the name of his or her molester named, that person begins to experience some validation,” McNevin says. “That might cause them to report what happened to them. That report, in turn, attracts other reports, which eventually snowballs into a virtuous cycle for survivors of clergy sex abuse.”
Tom Emens, suing bishops across the state, hopes to kickstart this cycle. Standing beside Anderson at the press conference, he told those listening, including Sakoda and other members of SNAP: “This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a victim and survivor. It’s also the most necessary thing I can do for the people of California.”
Whatever happens, McNevin hopes these efforts will help expand the list. His abuser was named in multiple civil lawsuits, arrested, and convicted. Other survivors have never experienced this kind of validation.
“The Catholic faith calls for confession and penance,” McNevin says. “I expected to go into that church and into the chancery and to have the leaders of this church, who are the bishop and his senior priest and his staff, give me the full story—to do their penance.”
McNevin is no longer a practicing Catholic. But he’s still waiting for his diocese to do its penance—for the hundreds of likely survivors still waiting to see their abusers’ names on a list.