If you read enough about the Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandal--and I do--you come across several truisms. The cover-up was worse than the abuse. Ideology was no predictor of episcopal misfeasance. Americans failed to grasp the gravity of sexual abuse until relatively recently. But that last one has never sat very well with me. I remember joking with grade-school and high-school classmates in the 1980s and '90s about priests who seemed a little too interested in engineering alone time with students. We didn't know any priests who had abused, but we were aware of the phenomenon of abusive clerics. We sensed the threat they posed--enough to develop an appropriately morbid coping mechanism. (Lots of Irish Catholics among us, naturally.)
It's not that I reject the notion that it took a long time for Americans to figure out what sexual abuse does to kids--and how difficult it is for some abusers to stop. Of course, in the bad old days nobody wanted to talk about sex at all--let alone its perversion. And it's true that even when bishops were convinced that a priest had abused a minor, they tended to view the abuse as a sin, not a crime. Remove the temptation (reassign the priest), remove the occasion for sin. And yes, later, when psychologists got involved, many told bishops that chronic abusers could be treated and returned to ministry. We know better now. But didn't anyone know better then?
At least one person did. Her name is Sr. Peg Ivers. The Chicago Tribune caught up with her this week.
Ivers's name shows up in several of the documents released by the Archdiocese of Chicago in January. In a May 2005 "memo to file," Professional Responsibility Administrator Leah McCluskey recounted a conversation she had with Ivers concerning the case of Fr. Thomas Job. He was assigned to St. John Vianney in the 1970s, when Ivers was principal of the parish school. She was in her twenties. Ivers told the Tribune that in about 1974, a thirteen-year-old student approached her and told her that Job had done "something bad" to him and other students. She spoke with the boy's parents, who did not believe him, and made him apologize to Job. After Ivers received a similar complaint from another boy, she went to the pastor. But he told her not to "worry about it." More troubling, as Ivers told McCluskey, she "couldn't get anyone at the archdiocese to listen" either. "As a result of her knowledge of Fr. Job's abuse of boys," the memo reads, "and the lack of action by the archdiocese...Sr. Peg left St. John Vianney."
Four months later the police called. Job had been arrested.
Ivers may have been shocked by the reports of abuse, but she wasn't surprised. As soon as Job arrived at St. John Vianney, she found his behavior suspicious. Job was "always with boys," according to the memo, "taking them on trips and overnights at the rectory." And the priest seemed to her not to have any adult friends. He came from money. His parents bought him a summer home up in Wisconsin, where he used to take boys from time to time. In the airplane his parents gave him.
What did surprise Ivers, however, was the archdiocese's decision to move Job to another parish "shortly after his arrest." More allegations followed. "Job was never charged with a crime against a child," the Tribune reports, "but the priest complained to a church leader in 1986 that a 'second incident' of sexual abuse of a minor would not have occurred had the archdiocese provided counseling after the first, according to the archdiocese documents. He left the priesthood in 1992 and was defrocked in 2010."
That wasn't the only problem priest that came Ivers's way. According to a November 2005 memo to Cardinal Francis George--who became archbishop in 1997--Ivers left a voicemail for McCluskey regarding another abusive priest, the notorious Fr. William Cloutier. He had come under her supervision when in 1981 he was transferred to do campus ministry at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle--after he returned from treatment following an allegation that he molested a boy and threatened him not to tell anyone, with the aid of a firearm. Ivers wrote to George earlier in '05, relating the "problems" she had with Cloutier--and her frustration at the archdiocese's failure to act. (He was made associate pastor of another parish in 1985.)
Two months later, in January 2006, Ivers again contacted McCluskey about Job. A memo from McCluskey to George explains that Ivers had written the cardinal about the priest "in the recent past," and was concerned that she hadn't yet received a reply. "It seems as though appropriate for Cardinal George to reply directly to Sr. Peg," McCluskey wrote. (George wrote on the bottom of the memo that he didn't recall the letter, but he asked whether McCluskey had it and would forward it to him--and he asked for help drafting a reply.)
Throughout the Tribune piece, Sr. Peg Ivers comes off as remarkably grounded, courageous--and (no surprise) humble. "Nobody is interested in stories about old nuns," she told the Tribune. But of course that's not true. This is precisely the kind of story Catholics want to hear. I keep having to remind myself that Ivers was in her twenties (and thirties?) when she encountered these men. And it was the '70s and early '80s. "I was often told I was overstepping my bounds," she said. She sounds like she was the right woman at the right time. "With my last breath, I will remember their faces." She sounds like a person who took her role as a caretaker of children more seriously than many. "I can see him walking up to me and saying, 'Sister, do you have a few minutes?'" She sounds like someone who listened when it mattered most. In short, she sounds like a hero.
She sounds like a saint.