When images of Pope Francis meeting with high ranking members of the American Catholic Church flashed across televisions, internet sites and newspapers, reactions varied. Some saw the meeting to address the issue of priestly pedophilia as a positive move and, perhaps, a way of finally dealing with a long-simmering plague on the Church. Others, though, saw it as a public relations stunt, a palliative for the masses.
The meeting, held at the Vatican late last week, was preceded by an official announcement from the Church announcing an official investigation into this generational problem of sexual predation has been undertaken.
Neither the Vatican nor the bishops conference has shared many details of the meeting beyond a brief statement from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston. “We are grateful to the Holy Father for receiving us in audience,” the statement read. “It was a lengthy, fruitful, and good exchange.” A more comprehensive meeting with the Pope and senior bishops to discuss “protection of minors,” has been set for next February at the Vatican.
But one thing the meeting did underscore is just how seriously Pope Francis sees this problem. And just how seriously even high-ranking Church leaders see his role as head of Christianity’s largest religious group. Official membership is listed at more than a billion people worldwide.
The Pope’s former ambassador to the United States recently published an extraordinary letter demanding Pope Francis resignation. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano accused Francis of knowingly covering up for embattled Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. McCarrick has an alleged history of sexual misconduct. It was only months ago that a Virginia man accused McCarrick of a twenty-year pattern of abuse that began in the man’s pre-teen years. McCarrick has also been named in allegations by three other men, two of whom who were seminarians at the time.
McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, D.C. from 2001 to 2006, has been suspended of all official Church duties. He was once an architect of Church policy on sexual abuse.
Jeb Barrett, a 79-year-old Denver musician and survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, reacted to the hastily called Papal meeting as one of style and not substance. Barrett is one of thousands of men and women across the country who belong to SNAP, an organization dedicated to shedding light on the problem of sexual abuse by clergy. “The problem is centuries old; it’s institutional,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “There have been many attempts to alert the church. It’s a lack of compassion to known criminal activity.”
The award-winning movie, “Spotlight,” the investigative unit of The Boston Globe brought a new awareness to this problem with a series of stories for which it won a Pulitzer Prize. It chronicled how the Boston Archdiocese simply shuffled pedophile priests from one church to another rather than call in law enforcement.
This reaction to the problem is not new. In fact, the pattern is strikingly redundant in cities and towns that span the breadth of the nation. Similar issues are now rocking Chile and Venezuela, too. A recent investigation by the District Attorney in Pittsburgh, also shed enormous light on priestly pedophilia across a wide swath of eastern Pennsylvania. But one investigation involving the archbishop of the largest archdiocese in the country took center stage long before Boston and the movie “Spotlight” came to the nation’s attention.
When Archbishop Roger Mahony took the reins of the Los Angeles Archdiocese he was the youngest ever to hold such a position. He traveled in limousines, marched with civil rights advocates, including Cesar Chavez, and quickly became seen as a man of the people. But when allegations arose on priestly predation across the archdiocese, his actions were anything but in the interests of the victims. His constant focus was on the Church and maintaining its pristine image.
Priests who admitted to these violations were often shuffled to churches where their violations remained secret or sent to an official Church center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, for rehabilitation. Officially called Holy Servants of the Paraclete, it is characterized as a place for priests “with personal difficulties,” including alcohol and patterns of sexual abuse. It has derisively been called “Camp Ped,” by its detractors. Its rate of rehabilitation remains unknown.
“Code words,” Barrett calls them. “The majority of priests sent off to these places have been sent for alcohol, mental health, etc.” The now mostly retired Barrett said he has spoken to scores of victims of predatory priests. “The Church says it will take care of this, but just moves the priest to another unwitting parish where they continue their predatory activities.” He calls these priests, “hidden minefields.”
Barret, who today identifies as a non-deist or non-believer, still performs at various church events, including most recently at Denver’s Basilica. But he has never been able to reconcile the Church’s seeming indifference to criminal behavior.
While he stops short of condemning the entirety of the Church for his experience, he acknowledges a long ago abuse of alcohol---he had his last drink nearly forty years ago---and difficulty in forging true and long-standing relationships on sexual abuse. “Relationships were difficult. I had a lot of confusion and finally decided I was not going to take the risk of ruining a woman’s life.” Barrett now classifies himself as gay.
Barrett said he and fellow members of SNAP have planned a meeting with Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman to discuss changes in the law that has protected pedophile priests. They want to see changes in the law on statute of limitations. Currently in Colorado, the statute runs only a handful of years, thus letting suspect priests or clergy members off scot-free.
Because Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila did not attend last week’s Papal meeting, his office has said it has no comment. But through a spokesman, it reiterates the Archbishop’s full support of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops call for an independent investigation into the ongoing problem.