Our Fathers

Reading Our Fathers, a sprawling narrative history of the sexual-abuse crisis by David France, is like watching a bad movie all over again. You know how this is one is going to end. Looking back over forty years, Our Fathers attempts to touch on every aspect of the scandal, from its roots in Vatican policy to the mind-numbing revelations of 2002. (That year alone accounts for nearly half the book.) At six hundred pages, it is an exhaustive and exhausting work—one that should have been at least two hundred pages shorter.

France, a former Newsweek reporter, juggles dozens of story lines, cutting quickly from scene to scene to achieve cinematic momentum. In one chapter alone, he jumps from Jim Falls, a sexual-abuse victim from Los Angeles; to Mitchell Garabedian, one of the lawyers for victims in Boston; to Patrick McSorley and Anthony Muzzi, two of the late John Geoghan’s victims; to Thomas Plankensteiner, an Austrian theologian and member of the activist group We Are Church; to Emilio Allue, one of Cardinal Bernard Law’s auxiliary bishops; to Alfredo Ormando, a sexual-abuse victim who burned himself alive in St. Peter’s Square; and then finally to Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent, two prominent gay-rights advocates who were silenced by the Vatican. It is hard not to admire France’s reportorial skills, but this approach often leaves the reader a bit dazed, trying to weave together the strands of a diffuse narrative.

France is a gifted writer and he creates some moving moments. It is hard to read about case after case of molestation and not get angry all over again. Still, it is problematic that many of these scenes are only told from the victim’s point of view; some of the accused priests are dead, and others presumably did not consent to an interview. I do not doubt that the victims are telling the truth, but it seems that if France is going to present these scenes as fact, full of color and dialogue, he needs to talk to all of the parties involved. When France does get to interview one of the accused, he proves to be a sympathetic reporter, alert to ambiguities that often cloud the truth. The story of Rev. Dominic George Spagnolia, one of Law’s fiercest critics who was accused of (but denied) abuse, is unexpectedly affecting.

Our Fathers might have succeeded as a useful, if flawed, work of history if France had limited himself to documenting the sexual-abuse crisis. But ultimately he is interested in much more than that: he wants to explain why it all happened. So in an attempt to find the origins of the scandal in church teaching, his narrative is interspersed with scenes from the Vatican. The problem is that encyclicals and papal commissions are just not that dramatic, and France’s attempts to make them so fail. Dispatches from Vatican II read like a papal potboiler, with conservative bishops vowing to “take back the church and do as they always had.” When Pope Paul VI releases Sacerdotalis caelibatus, his long-awaited encyclical on priestly celibacy, “hundreds of thousands of priests sucked in their breath, awaiting his verdict.” I’m all for writing about church politics in an accessible way, but this kind of melodramatic language is ill suited to its subject.

France never states clearly why he thinks the scandal occurred; instead, the reader is left to piece together his argument based on what scenes he chooses to include. His point, as far as I can tell, is that the sexual dysfunction of the clergy is a result of the retrograde views of the Vatican, which condemns birth control, preaches against homosexuality (causing severe psychological conflict for gay priests), and forces its priests to remain celibate. This isn’t a convincing explanation of sexual abuse. It’s certainly nothing like the nuanced treatment that Peter Steinfels (A People Adrift) and David Gibson (The Coming Catholic Church) have provided.

In his acknowledgments, France writes that when he began the book, “I saw before me a history of corporate crime and cover-up as unscrupulous as could be found in any industry,” but what he in fact discovered was a more complicated story about a “church of individuals, many of them brokenhearted, trying to look forward.” I read this before beginning the book and was hopeful that Our Fathers would get beyond the stock portrayal of the bishops and victims so prevalent in the mainstream press. I was disappointed. Although a few figures (like Law) are treated with surprising sympathy, France’s character portraits tend to be a bit cartoonish. Bishops are inevitably rich, haughty bureaucrats while reporters and civil attorneys are noble crusaders out to set things right. (Garabedian, who has been well compensated for his legal services, is hilariously described as having “a nearly saintly thirst for justice.”) There may be an element of truth to these caricatures, but they are of no use to anyone truly interested in understanding the causes of sexual abuse within the church.

The problem, finally, is with France’s sources. This book is, above all, for and about the victims of sexual abuse; their understandably Manichaean take on the scandal drives much of the narrative. The victims deserve a great deal of credit for forcing the church to confront the horrors perpetrated by its priests. Yet the extreme view of the church put forward by some victims has colored nearly every story about the scandal from day one. Surely they must be heard, but their analysis should not go unquestioned.

Pope John Paul II is faulted for his role in the sexual-abuse crisis in Vows of Silence, the new book from veteran journalists Jason Berry and Gerald Renner. Half of Vows is an indictment of the pope and his friendship with Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who has been accused of sexual abuse by former seminarians. The other half is a portrait of Tom Doyle, a feisty Dominican priest who first complained about the sexual-abuse problem twenty years ago and whose life story is used to explore the subterranean world of papal politics.

Berry and Renner both have impressive résumés. Berry famously wrote about serial abuser Father Gilbert Gauthe for the National Catholic Reporter, and Renner covered religion for the Hartford Courant for many years. Like many reporters, they have a soft spot for their sources. So Doyle, a canon lawyer who has long been a source for journalists, comes off as a “rock star” (their term), while the ultra-secretive Legionaries are treated with a good deal more skepticism.

That skepticism is warranted. Founded in 1941 by Father Maciel (as he is known), the Legionaries have an extreme devotion to their order and its founder. Seminarians must take a vow never to speak ill of the order and to report anyone who does. In 1997, Berry and Renner wrote a story for the Courant detailing allegations of sexual abuse against Maciel; nine former seminarians claimed that he had molested them in the 1950s and 1960s in Spain and Italy. The authors’ examination of the charges is a model of meticulous reporting. The victims’ allegations are scrutinized and the order is allowed to defend its founder. (The Legionaries contend that the accusations are part of a conspiracy to defame Maciel.)

Ultimately, Berry and Renner make a convincing case that the allegations are accurate. Their larger argument, that John Paul II must bear some responsibility for the crisis, is a tougher one to make. Yet their line of reasoning is pretty hard to dispute. The standard criticism of the pope is that his failure to appoint independent-minded bishops created a vacuum of leadership within the American episcopacy. Berry and Renner contend that by consistently refusing to accelerate the process of expulsion for abusing priests (the Vatican insists on the need for church tribunals), the pope made it very difficult to prevent further abuse. They also suggest that by appearing repeatedly with Maciel, John Paul has lent his support to a highly suspect individual and provided a poor example to his fellow bishops.

The authors’ prescriptions for change are less astute. While their evaluation of the complicated question of gay priests is quite fair and they are right to insist that the next pope must “allow a fearless introspection of celibacy and the priesthood,” their suggestion that celibacy is a root cause of the scandal is simplistic. A call for “faithful dialogue on theology and doctrine” is welcome, but the assertion that the “‘submission of will’ to Rome cannot coexist with the sensus fidelium” ignores the need for a teaching authority within the church. France, Berry, and Renner are all excellent reporters and their books thoroughly document the insidious problem of clerical abuse; the solution to that problem, however, lies elsewhere.

Related: "The Church's Sex-Abuse Crisis" by Peter Steinfels 
"Griefs & Anxieties" by the Editors
Patrick Allitt reviews Peter Steinfels's 'A People Adrift'

Published in the 2004-03-12 issue: 

Maurice Timothy Reidy is a former associate editor of Commonweal.

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