That wasn’t what I expected to hear yesterday. Sure, I knew that there was a possibility that it might happen, but I didn’t expect it.
The only word I can think of to explain how I feel is numb. I’m not angry, upset, happy… just numb.
I have already been contacted by other survivors, and they are shocked and upset. I understand this. They were abused by people with status and power. The abuses were covered up by the Church, and then we had a Royal Commission during which complainants bared their souls.
But nothing changed for them. Yes, some laws were put into place to protect children today and in the future, but nothing changed for complainants. They wanted offenders to be held accountable. They wanted the institutions that covered up transgressions and allowed them to continue to be punished. They wanted justice.
When Pell was first charged, things changed in my hometown of Ballarat, where he was a priest. Half of the people were angry and wanted to see him imprisoned. Many had heard stories and were glad that something was being done. The other half were upset that he had been charged, and blamed complainants, calling them liars.
This was a tough time. It was funny to see the supposedly religious people hurling abuse at us. I was abused at the supermarket, from the windows of cars driving by, in anonymous notes left in the letterbox, and by email and on Facebook. I had to go to the police — they investigated Facebook posts and pages set up to defame me and others. In town, ribbons showing support for survivors were regularly cut down. And as the trial went further on these things did not stop, and still haven’t.
I can assure you that I did not venture outside yesterday.
Yesterday, the High Court said that the jury, judge and appeal judges all “failed to engage with whether… it was reasonably possible that [the complainant’s] account was not correct, such that there was a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt”.
When it’s one person’s word against another, there will always be the possibility that the incident didn’t happen. That’s why it’s in court. While we cannot be certain, I am fairly sure that the jury would have considered that the abuse may not have happened — but obviously they must have thought the evidence of the victim was more likely.
But Pell walks free.
The court is not about justice. It’s about legal procedure. Innocence and guilt are not the end objective — only what can be proven to the standard demanded by the court: beyond reasonable doubt. In cases of sexual abuse without a confession or physical evidence, this standard is nearly impossible to meet.
And this case will make it even harder. There will be fewer cases that make it to court — let alone ones that result in convictions.
All this decision means is that the prosecution couldn’t prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. There are still lots of questions around what Pell knew while children were being abused in Ballarat and when he knew it — matters that were investigated by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Because of his pending criminal trial at the time, the Royal Commission redacted anything to do with Pell in its 2017 report.
Pell claimed he didn’t know why Gerald Ridsdale, one of the most notorious paedophiles in the country, was moved from parish to parish by Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, the head of the Diocese of Ballarat in the 80s. The Royal Commission rejected that claim, insisting that Pell had to have known — he was one of Mulkearns’ consultors. But there was no evidence to prove it.
Editor’s Note: Last autumn, Alexis Record and Tom Rastrelli appeared together in one of many blog posts here that commemorated The Clergy Project’s 1000 Member Milestone. I thought they were a good example of the variety of religious backgrounds that people who leave religion come from. Now they are back together in what I think is even a more interesting way – a former fundamentalist reviewing the memoir of a former Catholic priest. /Linda LaScola, Editor
First, with permission from the publisher, Alexis starts with excerpts from the prologue:
The Church needed something new. In January, the Boston Globe had exposed Cardinal Bernard Francis Law for covering up the sexual abuse of minors by priests. As the months before my ordination passed, a mounting number of bishops fell in shame. I doubted my calling. But the Church was different in Dubuque. My archbishop hadn’t harbored pedophiles. He’d turned them over to the police. He’d offered their victims support and healing. I would do the same.
After the archbishop completed the prayer, a priest lifted the deacon’s stole from my shoulder and replaced it with a priest’s stole. Over my head, he lowered a chasuble with gold-and-blue embroidery matching the archbishop’s. I crossed from the center of the sanctuary to the cathedra, the ornately carved oak throne where the archbishop sat. I knelt before him. From a crystal pitcher, he poured syrupy chrism–holy oil scented with balsam–over my upturned hands. Pressing his palms against mine, the archbishop smeared large crosses as he prayed: “The Father anointed Our Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. May Jesus preserve you to sanctify the Christian people and to offer sacrifice to God.” He folded his glistening hands around mine. His dark eyes were absolution. I would sacrifice myself for him, for God.
Hands dripping with chrism, I stood, turned, and walked to my spot at the foot of the altar. I glanced at the front row into my parents’ eyes. They were crying, grinning. I smiled through tears. I was a priest.
Less than two years later, I turned my back on the archbishop. This time, I held my tears. I rushed from his office into February’s darkness. The frigid night air burned my cheeks. In the corner of the icy parking lot, my black pickup offered refuge. My only private space, it was where I retreated to sing, talk on my phone, and cry–all the things a young priest didn’t want his pastor or cleaning lady to witness. I drove through blocks of Catholic neighborhoods, people who trusted the archbishop. Now, I had to obey his command by covering up sexual abuse.
On the north end of town, a boat ramp would provide easy access to the frozen Mississippi. My plan: drive until the ice buckled under the weight of the truck.
Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary
By Alexis Record
For half a decade now I have been a Free Hugs Mom at our local Pride parade with Sunday Assembly San Diego. I become everyone’s mom despite age differences and embrace hundreds of people while making sure they’re drinking water and wearing sunscreen in the summer sun, you know, Mom concerns. Most importantly of all, I tell folks I’m proud of them. Most laugh or smile at my apron, some cry, and a few collapse into my arms as if a stranger’s acceptance might squeeze their fractured parts into some semblance of wholeness. As our group discussed doing an emotionally exhausting two-day Pride event this year, I was still recovering from finishing my tear-stained advanced copy of Tom Rastrelli’s book, Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary. It solidified my resolve to love on those kids.
Recently it felt as if an additional child was in my home: young Tom Rastrelli. I poured my love and support into him as he navigated pure hell. “Oh baby,” I’d tell him as he doubled down on homophobic lessons and planted deeper roots into his own victimization, like a vulnerable plant choosing the darkest corner where growth was promised.
What makes Rastrelli’s story so compelling are his flourishes of detail. His experiences are incredibly visceral–a real strength of his writing–which in turn make the abuses he suffered that much more excruciating. Each page is pure beauty and heartbreak. I found myself unable to put it down, needing to know what happens next. Needing to know Tom would be okay.
Rastrelli excavates the darker parts of his theology and clerical experiences without being anti-Catholic. In fact, I was struck with the humanity of his fellow seminarians and priests. The religious boy’s club included drinking, swearing, smoking, sexism, and jokes about pedophilia as the topic of the day which would not look out of place among a group of men in any other part of society. These boys grow through spiritual practice into priests. They are portrayed with a fair hand, not as monsters, but as loving servants of congregants who become unwitting facilitators of abusive and inhumane doctrines. They encouraged counseling, but not from women who pointed out sexism within the system. They practiced forgiveness, but used it to sweep grievous abuses under the rug. They offered real friendship, but caused their friends to hate their sexualities. They were real people, good people, doing the best they could with the tools they had. It made me want to take my local priest out to coffee to see how he’s holding up.
I’ve never been Catholic. The closest I’ve come is years ago working as a priest’s sign language interpreter during Mass. I outed myself as protestant by signing each word of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” instead of crossing myself and as a result wasn’t asked back. Yet, I did not need to be completely familiar with all aspects of Catholic tradition to follow this story. Any conservative Christian will recognize, as I did, the strong desire to be lost in God’s presence, the pressure to cover up for the sins of godly men, and the deep self loathing after every masturbatory orgasm.
Rastrelli takes the reader on a unique journey most of the faithful never see. Like many of the other wide-eyed liberal students who loved the Church, he set out to affect change from within it only to be gradually and incessantly chiseled into the very shape of those hard beliefs he did not think reflected Christ. Seminarians during this process swallowed larger and larger boluses of cognitive dissonance until they were either consumed from within or vomited out of God’s presence. They were told not to make waves and not to confuse the faithful with their own doubts about the system. It was amazing to me just how so many good people became unwilling participants in facilitating horrific evils. Offering a holy profession for homosexual men who would never be allowed to have sex within the confines of that system and then laying all the blame for child predation upon the gays is just one of those evils.
The brutal parts of this story include the author’s homophobia recounted from his early years and directed selfward like a knife at his own throat, the sexual abuse the reader voyeuristically shares, and, almost worse, the excusing and minimizing of that abuse by the very men supposedly speaking and acting for God himself. Worshipping a tortured savior meant suffering throughout the story was almost always mistaken for love. Oh baby.
Silent no longer, Tom Rastrelli bravely reopens wounds and lays bare scars for all to see. His memoir is a breathtaking, priceless treasure–a bright light in the darkness. I’m proud to recommend it to believers and unbelievers alike. For victims of abuse, I suggest being gentle with yourself while reading. Also, drink some water, wear your sunblock, and avoid hazardous religious systems.
Confessions will be available April, 2020. Preorders available now, from Amazon.
The cardinal’s response was not what Yolanda Martínez had expected — or could abide.
Her son had been sexually abused by a priest of the Legion of Christ, a disgraced religious order. And now she was calling Cardinal Valasio De Paolis — the Vatican official appointed by the pope to lead the Legion and to clean it up — to report the settlement the group was offering, and to express her outrage.
The terms: Martínez’s family would receive 15,000 euros ($16,300) from the order. But in return, her son would have to recant the testimony he gave to Milan prosecutors that the priest had repeatedly assaulted him when he was a 12-year-old student at the order’s youth seminary in northern Italy. He would have to lie.
The cardinal did not seem shocked. He did not share her indignation.
Instead, he chuckled. He said she shouldn’t sign the deal, but should try to work out another agreement without attorneys: “Lawyers complicate things. Even Scripture says that among Christians we should find agreement.”
The conversation between the aggrieved mother and Pope Benedict XVI’s personal envoy was wiretapped. The tape — as well as the six-page settlement proposal — are key pieces of evidence in a criminal trial opening next month in Milan. Prosecutors allege that Legion lawyers and priests tried to obstruct justice, and extort Martínez’s family by offering them money to recant testimony to prosecutors in hopes of quashing a criminal investigation into the abusive priest, Vladimir Reséndiz Gutiérrez.
Lawyers for the five suspects declined to comment. The Legion says they have professed innocence. A spokesman said that at the time, the Legion didn’t have in place the uniform child protection policies and guidelines that are now mandatory across the order.
De Paolis is beyond earthly justice — he died in 2017 and there is no evidence he knew of, or approved, the settlement offer before it was made. But the tape and documents seized when police raided the Legion’s headquarters in 2014 show that he had turned a blind eye to superiors who protected pedophiles.
In addition, the evidence shows that when De Paolis first learned about Reséndiz’s crimes in 2011, he approved an in-house canonical investigation but didn’t report the priest to police. And when he learned two years later that other Legion priests were apparently trying to impede the criminal investigation into his crimes, the pope’s delegate didn’t report that either.
And a few hours after he spoke with Martínez, De Paolis opened the Legion’s 2014 assembly where he formally ended the mandate given to him by Benedict to reform and purify the religious order. The Legion had been “cured and cleaned,” he said.
In fact, his mission hadn’t really been accomplished.
Benedict had entrusted De Paolis, one of the Vatican’s most respected canon lawyers, to turn the Legion around in 2010, after revelations that its founder, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, had raped his seminarians, fathered three children and built a cult-like order to hide his crimes.
There had been calls for the Vatican to suppress the Legion. But Benedict decided against it, apparently determining in part that the order was too big and too rich to fail. Instead, he opted for a process of reform, giving De Paolis the broadest possible powers to rebuild the Legion from the ground up and saying it must undergo a profound process of “purification” and “renewal.”
But De Paolis refused from the start to remove any of Maciel’s old guard, who remain in power today. He refused to investigate the cover-up of Maciel’s crimes. He refused to reopen old allegations of abuse by other priests, even when serial rapists remained in the Legion’s ranks, unpunished.
More generally, he did not come to grips with the order’s deep-seated culture of sexual abuse, cover-up and secrecy — and its long record of avoiding law enforcement and dismissing, discrediting and silencing victims. As a result, even onetime Legion supporters now openly question his reform, which was dismissed as ineffective by the Legion’s longtime critics.
“They always try to control victims, minimize them, defame them, accuse them of exaggerating things,” said Alberto Athié, a former Mexican priest who has campaigned for more than 20 years on behalf of clergy sexual abuse victims, including victims of the Legion.
“Then, if they don’t achieve that level of control, they go to the next level, looking for their parents, trying to minimize them or buy them off, silence them. And if that doesn’t work, they go to trial and try to do what they can to win the case,” he said.
Now, victims of these other Legion priests are coming forward in droves with stories of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse, and how the Legion’s culture of secrecy and cover-up has remained intact.
“They say they’re close to the victims and help their families,” Martínez told The Associated Press at her home in Milan. “My testimony is this didn’t happen.”
Martínez, a 54-year-old mother of three, chokes up when she recalls the day she received the phone call from her son’s psychologist. It was March of 2013, and her eldest son had been receiving therapy on the advice of his high school girlfriend. Martínez thought she was about to learn that she would be a grandmother; she thought her boy had gotten the girl pregnant.
Instead, Dr. Gian Piero Guidetti told Martínez and her husband that during therapy, their son had revealed that he had been repeatedly sexually molested by Reséndiz starting in 2008, when he was a middle schooler at the Legion’s youth seminary in Gozzano, near Italy’s border with Switzerland. Guidetti, himself a priest, told them he was required by his medical profession to report the crime to prosecutors.
His complaint, and the testimony of Martínez’s son, sparked a criminal investigation that resulted in Reséndiz’s 2019 conviction, which was upheld on appeal in January. Resendiz, 43, who was convicted in absentia and is believed to be living in his native Mexico, has until the end of March to appeal the conviction and 6 1/2-year prison sentence to Italy’s highest court. His lawyer, Natalia Curro, said an appeal is being considered, and said her client denied having abused Martinez’s son, though he admitted to abusing another boy.
The investigation, however, netted evidence that went far beyond Reséndiz’s own wrongdoing. Documents seized by police and seen by AP in the court file showed a pattern of cover-up by the Legion and the pope’s envoy that stretched from Milan to Mexico, the Vatican to Venezuela and points in between.
Personnel files, for example, made clear Resendiz was known to the Legion as a risk even when he was a teenage seminarian in the 1990s, yet he was ordained a priest anyway in 2006 and immediately sent to oversee young boys at the Gozzano youth seminary.
“He’s a boy with strong sexual impulses and low capacity to control them,” Reséndiz’s novice director, the Rev. Antonio León Santacruz, wrote in an internal assessment on Jan. 9, 1994. “Given his psychological character, he’s inclined to not respect rules without great difficulty and the psychologist thinks it will be difficult for him to undertake consecrated life given he has little respect for rules. He follows them as long as he’s being watched, but as soon as he can, he breaks them and has no remorse.”
A year later, on Reséndiz’s 19th birthday, the seminarian wrote a letter to Maciel — addressing it as all Legionaries addressed the man they regarded as a living saint: “Nuestro Padre,” “Our Father.”
“I’m having various problems in the field of purity and the truth is I’m having a hard time, because temptations are coming to me,” he wrote. “I’m praying to the Holy Virgin every day for grace and asking her for strength to not offend again; I say again because I have had the disgrace of falling, but with the help of God I will fight to form that pure, priestly heart.”
When Martínez saw such letters in the court file, her heart fell.
“My son wasn’t even born yet,” she said. “How can you put someone like that in charge of a seminary?”
A Legion spokesman, the Rev. Aaron Smith, said the Legion has overhauled its training process for seminarians since Reséndiz’s era, applying more scrutiny before ordination.
“Things are different today,” he said in emailed response to questions.
While Milan prosecutors first heard about Reséndiz’s pedophilia in March 2013 when the therapist reported it, the crimes were old news to both the Vatican and the Legion.
The Legion has admitted it received a first report of abuse by Resendiz on March 6, 2011, from another boy who had been a student at Gozzano. The Legion says that boy, an Austrian, had first told a Legion priest of Reséndiz’s abuse. That priest recommended he report it to a church ombudsman’s office in Austria that receives abuse complaints, which he did, Smith said.
Separately, the Legion got wind of another possible victim in Venezuela, where Reséndiz had been sent from Gozzano in 2008, after he abused Martínez’s son.
Italian police were never informed by the Legion or the Vatican. Neither the Vatican nor Italy requires clergy to report suspected child sex abuse.
When police finally did get wind of the case in March 2013, they uncovered elaborate efforts to keep Reséndiz’s crimes quiet. According to one email seized by Italian police — written March 16, 2011, or 10 days after the Austrian claim was first received by the order — a Legion lawyer recommended to one of the Legion’s senior behind-the-scenes bureaucrats, the Rev. Gabriel Sotres, that a Legion priest visit with the victim in Austria.
The aim of the visit, prosecutors wrote in summarizing the email exchanges, “was to speak to the (victim’s) older brother and convince him to not tell their parents and not go to police because this could cause serious problems not only for the Legion but also Father Vladimir, all the other priests involved and the victim and his family.”
Smith, the Legion spokesman, didn’t deny the prosecutors’ account but said that “encouraging a child to keep something from their parents or guardians is contrary to our code of conduct.”
Later in 2011, the Legion arranged for Reséndiz to be transferred from Venezuela to Colombia, and prepared a legal strategy to limit the possible damage if the Venezuelan case escalated. The emails were sent to several Legion leaders, including Sotres, who remain in top positions today. In fact, in the Legion’s current leadership assembly under way in Rome to choose new superiors and priorities, at least 13 of the 89 participating priests or their substitutes were involved in some way in dealing with the Reséndiz scandal, fallout and cover-up, including two priests who are defendants in the upcoming Milan trial.
According to the seized emails, the plan proposed by a Legion lawyer involved reporting only Reséndiz’s name to Venezuelan police to comply with local reporting laws, leaving out that he was a priest, that he was accused of a sex crime against a child, and the name of the Legion, prosecutors said in summarizing the emails. The report would also note that he no longer lived in Venezuela.
The Legion has said Reséndiz was removed from priestly ministry and from his work with young people in Venezuela within days of receiving the initial Austrian report.
But the emails seized indicate that the restrictions weren’t necessarily enforced: One from Dec. 20, 2012, suggests that Reséndiz was hearing confessions in schools and celebrating Mass in Colombia, news that prompted the leadership to ultimately recommend he be sent for psychological counseling in Mexico and later assigned to an administrative position “where they don’t know his situation.”
Eventually, as part of the church’s in-house investigation, Reséndiz confessed — but only to the Legion and Vatican authorities, and only about other boys he abused, not Martínez’s son.
“I sincerely recognize my terrible behavior as a priest,” he wrote the Vatican official in charge of the sex crimes office in 2012, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller. “Truly I lived in hell when these sad facts occurred. I recognize the gravity of the acts that I committed and I humbly ask the church for forgiveness for these sad and painful facts. I can’t understand how it could have happened, and I recognize that I lacked the courage to admit to the problem and advise my superiors of the danger.”
The Vatican defrocked him on April 5, 2013 — just a few weeks after Italian prosecutors first heard about Martínez’s son.
By October of that year, the Legion was nearing the end of De Paolis’ mandate and clearly wanted to avoid the possibility that the Reséndiz case could explode publicly and jeopardize the plan to resume their independence from the Vatican.
Martínez and her family, for their part, were coping with the trauma of her son’s abuse.
“He would have nightmares. He wouldn’t let me touch him …,” Martínez said. “He couldn’t stand anyone being close to him.”
Once, he was even prevented from throwing himself in front of a subway train.
Martínez had been in regular touch with the Legion priest closest to the family, the Rev. Luca Gallizia, her husband’s spiritual director. He was serving as the family’s contact with the Legion, after all other priests and members of Martínez’s Regnum Christi social circle severed contact — apparently on orders from the leadership.
Gallizia traveled to Milan to meet with Martínez on Oct. 18, 2013, bringing a proposed settlement to compensate the family. They met in a room off the parish playground of the Sant’Eustorgio basilica where Martínez worked.
When Martínez read it later that night with her husband, she was shocked.
“It was a second violation, because for all intents and purposes in that letter, they asked us to deny the facts. And for us it was a stab in the back because it was brought to us by our spiritual father. … He knew everything about us, because my husband confided in him. And that made it even more painful.”
The Legion declined to comment on the proposed settlement, citing the upcoming trial.
The document the Legion wanted Martínez’s family to sign states that her son ruled out having been sexually abused by Reséndiz and regardless didn’t remember. It said he denied having any phone or text message contact with him, and that his ensuing problems were due to the fact that he left the seminary and was having trouble integrating socially into his new public high school.
The document set out payments for the son’s continuing education and therapy and required “absolute” secrecy. If the family were called to testify, they were to make the same declarations as contained in the settlement — denying the abuse.
A few months later, the Legion realized it had erred in leaving the proposal with Martínez and proposed a revised settlement acknowledging the abuse occurred. Now, though, it required the family to pay back double the 15,000 euro ($16,300) settlement offer if they violated the confidentiality agreement.
It was then that Martínez called De Paolis.
“Both my lawyer and I, our jaws dropped,” she told the Vatican cardinal.
The pope’s envoy said he was surprised as well.
“Yes, but this, this is how it’s done in Italy,” he said.
The mother would have none of it. “It’s not a very nice agreement, signing a lie,” Martínez told the cardinal. “Aside from the fact that I don’t want any money, I’m not signing the letter.”
Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone resigned in December 2019 after intense public criticism for his handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York.
His departure came three months after the Vatican announced what’s called an “apostolic visitation” – a religious investigation that allows the pope to swiftly audit, punish or sanction virtually any wing of the Roman Catholic Church – into Malone’s diocese, or region.
In my research on clergy sexual abuse, I’ve learned that these investigations are still shrouded in secrecy.
Visitations for clergy sexual abuse
When clergy abuse cases first emerged in the 1980s, the Vatican used apostolic visitations to punish Catholic institutions who had attracted negative press for their role in the scandal.
After lawmakers in Ireland, Canada and the U.S. suggested that seminary training was a potential cause of the clergy sex abuse crisis, for example, the Vatican ordered visitations to investigate the entire network of seminaries in those countries.
Though the full results of these investigations are rarely made public, resignations of troublesome clergy typically follow.
Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, for example, refused to leave office even after he was convicted in 2012, by the circuit court of Jackson County, Missouri, for his failure to report child sexual abuse. After awaiting his resignation for two years, the Vatican pressured Finn by opening a visitation in 2014. He promptly resigned after the Vatican’s investigation.
In the ancient church, popes used apostolic visitations to govern far-flung regions. But since the creation of separate political delegates in the 16th century, visitations have been used more for emergency situations.
A biblical approach to managing scandals
The theology underpinning apostolic visitations comes from the Christian Bible, particularly passages from the Gospel of Mark and St. Paul’s Letters, which urged early Christians to supervise one another.
The medieval Catholic empire was so diffuse that bishops had to travel long distances to “visit” their communities. Those yearly visits are still called “canonical visitations” because they are described in canon law, the regulations that govern clergy.
Unlike mundane canonical audits, apostolic visitations are special investigations ordered by the pope, who chooses a delegate, or “visitor,” to lead the inquiry. The Vatican has sole discretion over the purpose, scale and duration of the investigation.
In theory, apostolic visitations need not be punitive. They could instead serve as a constructive way for the pope to delegate bishops to work as internal consultants or executive coaches for struggling units within the church, which oversees an estimated 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide.
However, Catholic laws define visitations in explicitly judicial terms, and scholars have concluded that the investigations are nearly always a form of discipline.
Visitations are highly secretive. Even when the Vatican acknowledges that an visitation is underway, it seldom discloses the pope’s reasoning for opening the inquiry, let alone the full findings of the investigation.
This lack of transparency has been condemned by some Catholics who expect the modern church to hold fair and open trials.
The Vatican was widely criticized, for example, for its inability to articulate why it investigated all 60,000 nuns in the United States. Pope Benedict initiated that controversial visitation in 2008, only to have it quietly closed in 2014 by his successor, Pope Francis, who did not impose any changes on American nuns.
Resigning in a more dignified way
In the case of Bufallo’s Bishop Malone, none of the visitation’s findings have been shared publicly. In his official statement, Malone defended his handling of clergy abuses before explaining that “prayer and discernment” had led him to resign.
Malone admitted that the apostolic visitation was “a factor” in his decision, but he was also adamant that the pope had not forced him to retire.
The authoritarian and top-secret nature of apostolic visitations makes it impossible to know whether the Vatican discovered any new allegations of child sexual abuse in Buffalo. The integrity of the visitation has also been called into question, because the inquiry was led by a bishop who is himself now under investigation for allegations of child sexual abuse.
As a result of all this secrecy, the public cannot know whether Pope Francis is being proactive in his outreach to survivors, especially to victims from dioceses where the bishop is suspected of having concealed the church’s crimes.
Over the last year and a half, 178 U.S. dioceses serving 64.7 million Catholics have released lists of priests “credibly accused” of sexual abuse. However, the problem with these lists is that they exist independently of one another, with no consensus as to what makes an accusation credible. This lack of organization makes it difficult for members of one parish to get a full picture of past accusations, leaving surviving victims feeling as if their abusers are still hiding in plain sight, with potential victims ignorant of past allegations. In order to address this problem, ProPublica combed through all existing abuser lists released by dioceses and organized them into one searchable master list.
In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury report listed hundreds of priests accused of abuse across the state as part of a sweeping investigation, which prompted dioceses across the country to release similar lists. One of the major problems with these lists, according to ProPublica, is that there is no standard for what constitutes a credible allegation, leaving many abusers unnamed. For example, in February 2019 Larry Giacalone was paid a $73,000 settlement by the church after coming forward to name his alleged abuser, a priest by the name of Richard Donahue. However, when the Boston Archdiocese released its list of names soon after, Donahue’s name was missing. After facing pressure from Giacalone’s attorney’s the priest’s name was added to the “unsubstantiated” portion of the list.
Decisions about how and whether to form and release these lists are left to individual dioceses. And while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops can offer suggestions and guidelines, a spokesperson for the organization, Chiedo Noguchi, explained that ultimately bishops answer to the pope, not the USCCB:
“Recognizing the authority of the local bishop, and the fact that state and local laws vary, the decision of whether and how to best release lists and comply with varying civil reporting laws have been the responsibility of individual dioceses.”
This lack of guidelines makes it much more possible for abusers to hide, even after public allegations, and churches are able to divide cases into “credible” and “incredible” with no input from courts or law enforcement, according to the ProPublica report:
“The Archdiocese of Seattle, which released its list prior to the grand jury report, began by dividing allegations into three categories: cases in which priests admitted the allegations or where allegations were “established” by reports from multiple victims; cases that clearly could not have happened; and cases that fell into a gray area, like those that were never fully investigated at the time they were reported. The archdiocese decided it would name priests whose cases fell into the first category and leave out the second group, but it sought additional guidance on the third set of cases.”
In many cases, dioceses also leave off the names of priests who have died since being accused, and 41 dioceses serving nine million U.S. Catholics have yet to release any lists whatsoever.
In order to better organize and distribute information about sexually abusive priests, ProPublica has organized all 178 of the existing lists into a searchable database, allowing users to search by priest name, parish, or diocese. The more accessible list enables searchers to track priests who appear on multiple lists, a feat that proved incredibly difficult when information was scattered.
However other groups, like Bishop Accountability, say there is much more work to be done. The group forms its own list of accused priests based on court and church documents as well as news reports and includes 450 names from dioceses that have failed to create their own lists. Furthermore, accusations against orders like Jesuits, members of their own order who often work in parishes and schools, are often not included in any lists, as they are technically outside the diocese. According to Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, the task of counting up every single abuser who has or may be committing sexually abusing prisoners is simply too difficult:
“At some point you have to make a decision,” Topczewski said. “Someone’s always going to say your list isn’t good enough, which we have people say, ‘Your list is incomplete.’ Well, I only control the list l can control and that’s diocesan priests.”
But David Clohessy, who led the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests for 30 years, says that putting together better, more accessible lists isn’t nearly as difficult as Catholic authority figures are making it seem:
“They continue to be as secretive as possible, parceling out the least amount of information possible and only under great duress,” Clohessy said. “They are absolute masters at hairsplitting — always have been and still are.”