Paul Elie, a friend and valued contributor to Commonweal for nearly three decades, has written a long article for the New Yorker on the renewed upheaval over clergy sexual abuse. It is a confusing and ultimately disappointing piece, which conflates older crimes and contemporary revelations while providing little explanation for the varying patterns of priestly sexual abuse and the church’s different responses over the past fifty years.
In the print edition of the New Yorker, the article runs under the title “Acts of Penance: Will outside arbiters correct the Church’s history of abuse or enable its legacy of evasion?” How could anyone “correct” the church’s “history” of abuse? There is the history, abominable and inexcusable, yet only occasionally portrayed with any sense of perspective by the mass media today. Then, presumably, there are efforts undertaken to confront that history, attend to victims, and put procedures in place to assure, as well as possible, that such abuse does not occur again. Although it is unquestionable that in many parts of the world the church continues to cover up sexual abuse by priests and bishops, it is not at all clear that “evasion” is a fair description of how most dioceses in the United States have handled accusations of child abuse since the promulgation of the Dallas Charter in 2002. Peter Steinfels’s remarkable analysis of the flaws in the Pennsylvania grand-jury report, which Elie does not mention, showed that the dominant media narrative of a U.S. church that continues to evade responsibility for its history—arrogantly refusing to change its archaic ways in order to protect children—is in essential aspects false.
Much of Elie’s essay is concerned with personal history, including his own disturbing experience of being groped by his Jesuit spiritual adviser when he was a twenty-year-old student at Fordham. The article opens, however, with a wide-ranging description of the cast of sexual predators—many of them dead—who once served in the parishes and schools in Elie’s Brooklyn neighborhood. Historical context is blurred, as the names and crimes of long-dead and still-living abusers are linked geographically, but not clearly differentiated chronologically. We eventually learn that at various times five accused priests had staffed the church of St. Boniface, now the home of the Brooklyn Oratory, where Elie himself attends Mass. These priestly “specters,” Elie writes, haunt the Brooklyn Oratory, just as the history of clergy sexual abuse haunts the entire Catholic Church. Even Elie’s now-deceased great-uncle, once the bishop of Burlington, Vermont, is brought to account for evidently ignoring abuse that took place at a Catholic orphanage. “Either he was aware of the abuses at the orphanage and abided them or he ought to have been aware but remained in willful ignorance,” Elie writes. A willingness to indict an uncle is bravely honest, but a peremptory condemnation of the dead, who cannot defend themselves, can be something else. It is not always easy to determine what is willful ignorance and what is just plain ignorance, even when you can question the presumed offender. Some of the incidents of sexual abuse by priests were so obscene, so bizarre, that many people, including parents, refused to believe victims. The inability to trust victims’ stories was one of the most damaging aspects of abuse, but that incredulity was not merely a question of willful ignorance.
At the heart of Elie’s piece is a description of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP), set up by New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan and then joined by other dioceses. The program, administered by Kenneth Feinberg and his associate Camille Biros, assesses accusations of abuse and determines how much money the church should offer victims. If a victim accepts the IRCP offer, he or she gives up the right to sue the diocese. Feinberg and Biros have an impeccable reputation for rigor and fairness, having done the same thing for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the Boston Marathon bombing. Their “lenient standards of evidence” have encouraged hundreds of abuse survivors to use the program rather than risk a lengthy court battle, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in payouts.