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Early warning.

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.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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Thomas Boyle started complaining in the 80's and even Bernardine came to the conclusion that they should not send abusers to work with children. John Paul II was not the only one who defended Maciel. 2002 and the Boston Globe was the defining moment. People understood Law being exiled.  Neuhaus and his band, even after 2002,  were defending Maciel right up to his censure. Greeley was yelling all over the place...the hierarchy tried to isolate him and make him look like a slanderer.

A lot of people knew.  Too many did not want to know



I remember Arthur Jones when he was editing NCR -- so it must have been around 1981, '82, in there somewhere -- asking me on the phone if I had heard stories of abusive priests and being surprised when I said I hadn't. At the time, I could think of only one who ever aroused my innocent suspicions.

When I was in high school (and Grant not even in utero) there would be three, four or even five priests in the rectory, and the youngest was assigned (in some cases ordered) to play with the boys -- basketball, softball, swimming, whatever -- to attract them to the priesthood. I used to think some of those guys would rather have been reading St. Augustine but, until another class graduated at the seminary, that was their job even if they couldn't hit a shot from the top of the key.

Anyway Art said it was going to be a big story some day. And it was.

What a great narrative, Grant and thanks for posting and connecting the dots.

If I may add, you list three points:

1) the cover-up was worse than the abuse

2) Ideology was no predictor of episcopal misfeasance

3) Americans failed to grasp the gravity of sexual abuse until relatively recently - and then a story of your experience.

Yes, the cover up is and continues to be the worse - it is hypocritical; it reveals fear; it places an institution above relationships of faith, hope, and love; it is clericalism; etc.

Yes, weak bishops can be found on all ideological spectrums e.g. from Weakland to Finn.

Finally, grasping the gravity of abuse.......unfortunately, this episcopal and clerical meme is tiresome and inaccurate.  More than 50% of all US dioceses held sexual abuse conferences with Doyle, Mouton, Peterson in 1985, 1986.  Overwhelmingly, their findings and experience was dismissed, ignored, and eventually buried by the episcopal powers to be.  The failure was not information, was fear of the institution; self-protection; don't rock the boat; let me live in my ignornace. 

Even today, ask lots of priests about sexual abuse (almost all have abusers in their ordination class; been stationed with one; been in the same community house, etc.) and what you will get is a defensive - *well, I never saw anything!* or *I don't know anything about that*.  This typical response reveals the hypocrisy, fear, and powerlessness of our clerical class.

Two personal experiences:

- like you, in the minor seminary in the late 1960s, we had a theology student assinged as ass't dean (we now know because the theology faculty questionned his ability to go forward in training). His behaviors raised questions and alarmed us - we discussed and approached the rector of the seminary.  The response was to reject our claims and suspend a number of students for the accusations they made.  Nothing was said or done to this man.  (now, years later and after even more allegations and now substantiated abuse, he is on a religious order safety plan)

- in 1984 as a college seminary student director, had to deal with a number of students who were threatened with death threats.  It took five days to find out that the student making threats had been abused in the minor seminary including a trip to Ireland with the minor seminary student director.  This student had to be hospitalized; then was directed to return home and dismissed from his studies.  The religious community settled via treatment costs with the family.  Nothing happened to the abuser - he was left in his position in the minor seminary as a student director.  Five years later, that minor seminary was closed when the rector, the same student director, the asst director and one other faculty member were found guilty of sexual abuse (on a large scale).  This never made the news as the religious community settled out of court.  FYI, the student director was then stationed in Africa.  When I asked the provincial if something was going to change for this abuser in 1984, he said it was none of my business (I was from a different province of that religious community working at a joint college seminary).


She blames herself for not immediately going to police but questions whether it would have made a difference given the church's influence then. Even the boy's family didn't believe him. 

The victim's attorney, though, insists she is a hero.

... "She went to the people who she thought would do the right thing, and she did it at a time when nobody else would, certainly not a nun whose entire life is under the church's thumb."

Sr. Peg clearly believed the kids and tried to help. In fact, it sounds like she did help at least in the short run at a time when her superiors were doing nothing or cravenly trying to cover things up. Certainly, only a good woman who loves Jesus would carry such a burden of guilt around for so long.

But, and maybe I'm just not sensitive enough to conditions in the Church decades ago, I think a saint would have understood the damage her superiors were doing not only to children but to the Church itself. I think a saint would have called the cops.

John Cornwell in his new book just out, maintains that there is a strong link between the confessional and sex abuse. The studies indicate 29%. But Cornwell believes that the abuse on trips and other venues almost always have their roots in confession. That may have contributed to the widespread secrecy Doyle talks about. The fact that one was not supposed to talk about such secret matters.


 "CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEMS and Church authorities have failed to identify the link between confession and the access, opportunity, and special trauma of clerical abuse. When I was in my early teens I experienced the connection at first hand. In the course of interviews and extensive correspondence, I would come across many similar instances."


Cornwell, John (2014-03-04). The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession ( Locations 2267-2269).


"According to my interviews and the letters I received from respondents, as well as official reports in many countries, abusive relationships between cleric and child have almost invariably begun as a continuation of the sacrament of confession. Although the statistics about the locations of abuse cited in the John Jay Report are an important feature of the evidence, it is only in the stories hear during a young people’s retreat’. She further alleged that ‘the abuse took place during the hearing of her confession which was conducted in a bedroom at the retreat house. She was instructed to lie on the bed for her confession to be heard. [The priest] then abused her.’"


Cornwell, John (2014-03-04). The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession (Kindle Locations 2337-2339). Basic Books. Kindle Edition. 





I have not read this book, but have read some of his others... with some caveats, I'd recommend them but I knnow there are responsible reviewers and informed sources who do not. Neyet to reavertheless, I think this topic desedrves attention becasue of its secrecy. The various analyzations of clerical abusers make us awaare that at least some would proabbaly have used the sacrament and a symnpathetic confessor.. I have not sen accoun ts by clergy who may have innocently - or somewhat complicity - continued to absolve serial abusers.

Just anecdotally from my own experiences investigating allegations of abuse against priests, I found that when a woman or women, often a religious sister(s), became aware of the abuse or exploitation of children by priests, the abuse generally stopped or was mitigated.  

Many times when considering recommendations to the archbishop regarding the disposition of abuse cases, I would tell myself that if the bishops would have had to go to some woman, serving as diocesan comptroller or something, to disperse their hush money to survivors' families, some mother or grandmother would have had an epiphany and said "No!" because "This is all wrong."  

But, as you know, we Catholics have made patriarchy a constitutive element of the Trinity.  We sheeple do not speak ill of the priests.  My sainted sixth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Adelaide, would have said that this is what happens when "you surrender your reason and will to any man." 

[Not denigrating the heroism of Sr. Peg and many others like her, I have to say that I have been surprised, shocked really, to have encountered more cases than you would think of religious women assaulting children - we're talking about a small fraction of the rate of priestly abuse to be sure.] 

I find the assertion(s) of many priests and bishops who lived with and/or worked closely with the priest predators that they were never aware of the sexual assaults and exploitation absolutely preposterous.

There are two factors at work in these denials especially by priests and bishops:  (1) cognitive dissonance is a powerful force in our consciousness; (2) fear and self-loathing can just simply overwhelm us humans.


Priests DIDN’T WANT to see any “abuse of children” because it was too assaultive to the dominant mythology and ideology about the priesthood and its inherent narcissism and political hegemony in the church.  Sadly, too many of us sheeple participate in this corrosive silence - and this must change forever!

Why? How could all this abuse go on and on, and not be reported? Here's one illustrative story:


In 1997 in SF, Rev. John Conly, former assistant US attorney in Michigan, returned to his rectory to find his pastor, Rev. Gregory Aylward, cavorting [described by the archdiocese as a “wrestling incident” - Aylward was reported to be "sexually aroused" in his underwear during the assault] with a 14 y.o. male rectory phone receptionist.

Conly made a report of the pastor’s assault to authorities immediately in concert with his prior training as a law enforcement official. For this, Conly was sternly advised by the then SF chancellor and soon-to-be bishop of San Jose, Msgr. Patrick McGrath "that's not the way we do things around here."

For his actions to protect a child, Conly was accused by now Cardinal William Levada of “calumny,” was suspended from his pastoral duties, and was threateningly told by Levada to “Think about obedience,” and was compelled to undergo psychological evaluation.

Conly eventually sued Levada for “defamation and infliction of emotional distress.” On appeal, Conly’s defamation allegations were upheld, and in a settlement agreement just prior to Levada having to testify under oath, the archdiocese restored Conley's priestly faculties and “fully prefunded” Conley’s early retirement, substituting for vacationing priests on weekends.  To my knowledge Conley has never spoken about this settlement - a non-disclosure agreement, you think?

Conclusion: We Catholics all know why priests remain(-ed) silent in the face of serial rape and sodomy of children by their fellow priests. 

Obeisance and support for congenitally narcissistic hierarchs by Catholics must end. It is long past time that we Catholics separate the MINISTRY from the MONEY.

As to the 3rd point, that Americans didn't grasp the extent of the abuse scandal, I actually think that is largely true if you are talking about the people in the pews.  I can't believe that the people in the hierarchy weren't aware of the extent of the problem, at least within their own diocese. I guess hind sight is 20-20, but I would say that after the fact, a large number of the people I know, particularly men, who grew up in the Boston area when I did were aware of some priest or other who was "creepy."  Sometimes a little, sometimes alot.  But I'm not sure that until the Globe stories in 2001 we saw it in the larger context.  In my case, it was a priest who often seemed to be making somewhat off color remarks about girls to us altar boys.  There was a rumor that he made a pass at one of the 8th grade girls, but it was certainly never confirmed and he left awfully suddenly. He ended up on a list of abusers of both boys and girls. In my brother-in-law's parish, the pastor was always inviting fatherless boys to go on camping trips.  This was viewed as a positive by most people in the parish, an attempt to provide a male role model, but among the kids was seen as at best odd and as I said before, somehat creepy.  He was identified in the Globe report as a serial abuser. My cousins in another parish didn't like one of their priests.  He never assaulted any of them, but he did a number of boys they grew up with.  They thought he was a strange character.   And much of this was also offset by the fine priests we knew.  So as I say, in hindsight many of us knew or suspected that there were priests with whom something wasn't right.  None of us really talked about it and none of us really had any context...but when the Globe series broke, and when we as adults discussed it, it was amazing how many of us had known the worst offenders and while we hadn't been abused ourselves, had always suspected something wasn't right with these people.

Jim Jenkins, your experience is remarkable, and thank you for sharing.

Levada incredibly went on to be head the CDF, as we here know.

What else do we need to learn about the clerical culture that Doyle and Sipe have not revealed? How can we get a whole slew of Frontline programs to wake people up? Is Francis capable of being awakened?

To follow up on Jim Dunn's comments on what di the people in the pews should have known:


I live in Minnesota. Thirty (30) years ago Jeff Anderson won his first civil suit in a state court against a priest. Looking back I have tried to understand why I hid for almost 15 years from the full scope of the evil revealed in that --and subsequent-- abuse cases. I remember relying on the following rationalizations:


1) There will always a few bad apples in every bushel. Look at the larger picture.


2) Jeff Anderson--and all those other lawyers--are motivated by "money grubbing."


3) In the US, the Catholic Church has always been under assault from secularists (i.e. Paul Blanchard) who exaggerate and over-dramatize every flaw.


4) We can rely on the Catholic press to expose this secularist conspiracy. But the Catholic press (and certainly the Bishops) should not assist the secularists by focusing on  the Church's flaws.  


5) The Catholic Church, to protect itself from its secularist foes, must claim the independence of canon law from civil law when disciplining its clergy and religious.


6) And haven't many civil authorities (public prosecutors and police) granted priests and religious immunity from civil punishment (from everything from DUI to alleged sexual abuse) on the assumption that the Church, as a separate institution, would discipline "its own?"  


7) Doesn't it also seem logical that men and women taking vows of obedience to the Church should expect that "their" Church would treat them as members of a family and not turn them over to the civil authorities?


It is easy from the perspective of 2014 (or if you are under 35!) to scoff at these rationalizations. Yet these assumptions were integral to an ideological structure which defined for both clergy and laypeople what it was to be a Catholic in America.


In its hesitant response the abuse scandal--particularly by requiring notification of the police in cases of alleged abuse--the US bishops have shattered this ideological fortress. They are now scrambling for a replacement. Some predict a new era of persecutions; all seem to see institutional religious liberty endangered by every executive order issued by President Obama. 


But shouldn't we lay people--and the Catholic press--also be required to rethink what it means to be an American Catholic?  We can no longer portray ourselves as members of a divinely instituted, autonomous, and morally superior Church, free "to do its own thing," defended by the walls of canon law and the "wink and nod" of secular political authorities.


What Sister Peg Ivers' experience conveys to me is the extent to which abusers were enabled by euphemism and silence or shame about matters pertaining to sexual activity.   We insist on matters of delicacy and persuade ourselves it is for the dignity and privacy of those involved, especially minors.  But I wonder how many people heard something like "Father touched me in a bad way" and gave themselves the benefit of the doubt for not doing anything, by refusing to use their imagination.  Would they have reacted the same way if a child had said, "Father pulled down my pants and put his hands around my penis and made me watch him while he touched his." 

Even now, I feel like too many people hide in euphemism and try to make others feel guilty for stating the graphic details of what really happened.  And then have the nerve to say, "but I didn't really understand what you meant.  I wish you had told me!"

I imagine how brave these kids must have been to approach any adult, and how generous of spirit Sister Peg must have been for them to know that she warranted their trust.

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