This is not just an academic or legal matter. It means that Catholics cannot find out what claims of sexual misconduct have been made against priests who have served in our communities over the years—although the claims have been judged credible by the IRCPs. And it means that church officials, now as ever, can act on claims made against priests through the IRCPs as they see fit, with muddled diocesan procedures, scant accountability, and little chance for survivors, attorneys, the press, and people generally to inquire about the procedures and the outcomes—as seen in instances involving the New York and Brooklyn IRCPs.
In these ways the IRCPs, for all their benefits, perpetuate a problem that runs through the church’s dealings with priestly sexual abuse across the decades. The problem is that members of the clergy and the episcopate, when it comes to priestly sexual abuse, are unable or unwilling to speak clearly and frankly—whether it is Theodore McCarrick using self-exonerating language on Nightline in 2002, the Dallas Charter authors in 2004 referring to acts of priestly sexual abuse of minors only in a footnote about canonical “delicts,” the archbishop of New York and the chancellor of Brooklyn dissembling in interviews, or a Jesuit tasked to oversee a list of credibly accused Jesuit priests refusing to describe the allegation made against a Jesuit I knew and admired that led him to be “impeded” by the order in 2002.
Even now, when it comes to priestly sexual abuse, bishops and church officials will not say what happened. They will not call rape, molestation, assault, and violation by their names. They will remove a priest without saying what he did. They will remove a priest and fail to tell, not only the people, but the pastor of the parish where the priest lived. As a result, they strike me—and other Catholics—as less than truthful; and, since they are less than truthful about priestly sex abuse, they are less than credible when they speak to the home truths of Catholicism. Under these circumstances, the news of the imminent canonization of John Henry Newman—who eloquently rejected the claim that Catholic priests cannot tell the truth—served to underscore the gap between Newman’s defense of priestly veracity and the approach of many clerics to priestly sexual abuse in our time.
Paul is exercised over the imputation that Cardinal Dolan, in instituting the New York IRCP, might have had an eventual change in the statute of limitations in mind—but there’s no such imputation. In the article, I raise the question of motives and then explore it by presenting various points of view: the archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling’s statement that the New York IRCP was established to help victims “and for no other reason,” Camille Biros’s account of the consideration she and Kenneth Feinberg gave to statute reform as they designed the program, and the opinions of several attorneys who have dealt with the IRCPs –including two generally unstinting critics of the church, whose comments reflected both benefits and liabilities. My own view is that instituting the IRCP in a general way was a shrewd, responsible, aptly timed decision on Cardinal Dolan’s part, and that the program’s specific limitations could have been addressed (and still can be). But the chance to consider the question of motives in depth, as it demands, was foreclosed in part by Joseph Zwilling’s categorical insistence that Cardinal Dolan established the New York IRCP for a single motive only.
The history of Catholicism in the part of Brooklyn where I live goes back to 1843 and further. There are many allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests who served there in recent decades. It’s natural and appropriate to look into the recent history of the part of the world where one lives and to consider what has happened there over the years, as I did—as a Catholic, a father, and a Brooklyn resident, as well as a writer. Working with a New Yorker researcher, I cited several instances of abuse that are established fact or have been reported on a firm basis, drawn from the seventies, eighties, nineties, and early aughts. With changes in the church’s approach to priestly sexual abuse in mind (changes Peter Steinfels and others have written about), I treated those incidents in a single paragraph, while giving much greater attention to the ways the church in this century has dealt with priestly sexual abuse and its effects.
Concluding his response, Paul makes a point so exaggerated that it is silly. He writes: “Elie seems to settle on the idea that reconciling with victims and regaining the trust of lay Catholics will occur only after the Church divulges in explicit detail the acts of every sexual abuser.” Note the “seems to” there—a rhetorical wiggle that Paul uses elsewhere. No, old friend, I don’t “settle on” anything so extreme or impossible. I propose that church officials, having tried many crisis-management strategies without notable success in regaining people’s trust, might try an approach that involves saying what happened clearly, frankly, and forthrightly.
What should the church do? It should discuss acts of priestly sexual abuse and the handling of them clearly, frankly, and forthrightly; and it should arrange for the documents and records created by the IRCPs to be archived and made available to journalists, scholars, and interested members of the public, so that people can know and tell the story of the most significant episode in the recent history of the church in the United States.
Paul Baumann read the New Yorker article carelessly and wrote about it tendentiously. The subject of priestly sexual abuse deserves better. So do the readers Paul and I have in common.
Paul Baumann Responds
Let me first address, as briefly as possible, the curious “personal dimension” of Paul Elie’s response. We have had a professional relationship, friendly, but not friends or social acquaintances outside of his writing for Commonweal. Yes, Paul did speak to me for his New Yorker article, but he stipulated that our conversation be off the record, which is why I did not mention it.
The earlier conversation Paul refers to happened probably twenty-five years ago. He doesn’t seem to remember many of the details and neither do I. I was not the editor of Commonweal at the time, as he claims, but an associate editor, a junior member of the editorial team. Paul, I believe, was beginning his career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. As best I can recall, his description of having been “violated” when he was a twenty-year-old college student was quite vague. In his article he descripes being groped. I do remember wondering what exactly he was trying to say to me. It was obviously a very personal matter, and I didn’t want to pry. If I was the first person he told about this incident who was in “a public Catholic role,” he never mentioned that fact to me or indicated what he expected me to do, nor did he subsequently complain that I had failed him. Since I asked him if he would consider writing about it, I clearly was not ignoring his story. I was hoping he would tell it, but Paul never took me up on the offer.
I did not know Zogby, and probably never met him, even in passing. I did rent a room from the West Side Jesuit Community at 98th Street in the 1990s, and spent three nights a week there. Other than the four Jesuits who lived on my hall, I had almost no contact with the community, which was scattered in various apartments around the building. Yet Paul insists on putting me at the scene of the crime, a crime that took place nearly five years before I ever set foot in the building, and was not revealed to me until years after that. It is still not clear to me what Paul thinks I should have done with such vague and confidential information. In his article, he confesses that he himself did nothing about Zogby.
I’ll admit to being baffled by this part of Paul’s response. Is he implying not only that I failed him, but that somehow I am among those who were either willfully ignorant of sexual abuse, or actively denied it? This sort of innuendo and guilt by association is also a part of the history of the response to clergy sexual abuse, and I’m surprised to see it so cavalierly deployed here. It is precisely Paul’s inability to separate his personal experience from the larger story of the church’s failures that in my opinion distorted his essay, and now is repeated in his response.