“We have nothing to fear from the truth”: 25 years of covering clergy sex abuse

Veteran Catholic journalist Philip F. Lawler speaks with CWR editor Carl E. Olson about covering clerical abuse from the early 1990s to today.

(Left) Philip F. Lawler. (Right) The cover of the November 1993 edition of Catholic World Report.

Philip F. Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for decades, and Catholic World News, which he founded in 1995, was the first English-language Catholic news service operating on the Internet. Today he serves as editor of Catholic World News and director of CatholicCulture.org, and is also the author of several books, including The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture (2010, Encounter Books) and, most recently, Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock (2018, Regnery).

Lawler was editor of Catholic World Report from 1993 to 2005, and has covered the clergy sex abuse crisis extensively, during that period and since. He recently corresponded with CWR’s current editor, Carl E. Olson, about covering this and related topics before they hit the mainstream media in 2002, and about what the latest round of scandals mean for the Church in the United States and beyond.

Carl E. Olson, for CWR: When and how did you first begin reporting on the clergy abuse scandals in the Church?

Philip F. Lawler: To be honest, I don’t remember when I first began to investigate the issue; it was more than 25 years ago. But I do know that by November 1993, we carried a full dossier on the topic—a cover story—in Catholic World Report. From that point forward, the issue was always on the front burner for the magazine, and when I started up Catholic World News as a daily online service in 1996, I took the same editorial approach. You’ll find literally hundreds of stories in our archives that pre-date the eruptions of 2002.

CWR: Some “progressive” Catholic critics now claim conservative Catholics downplayed the clergy abuse scandal. Yet a number of conservative critics in the mid-1990s raised questions about clergy sexual abuse, you among them. Is failure to address the sexual abuse scandal something peculiar to conservative Catholics?

Lawler: Not at all. There are obviously some people who want to distract attention from the central questions raised by the scandal, and they find it convenient to claim—in clear disregard for the evidence—that “conservative” Catholics ignored the issue.

In all honesty, however, we should admit that many good, faithful Catholics were very reluctant to recognize the importance of the issue. They were trained to respect the hierarchy, and perhaps they took that deference too far. They were also suspicious of the media—with good reason, since the secular media have regularly distorted issues of faith and attacked the Church unfairly—and so they were slow to recognize that in this case, there really was a scandal to expose. Even now, after all these years, there are some Catholics who—God love them—simply can’t bring themselves to realize the extent of the problem, and grasp at any argument, however flimsy, that can be used to justify the bishops’ failures.

Still there were plenty of “conservative” Catholics who were vigorously pursuing the issue. I do think Catholic World Report led the way, but we had company. If you really are a conservative, in the sense that you seek to preserve the Catholic patrimony, then you should be ready to fight against the corruption that threatens that treasure. That’s how I always have approached the issue. We have nothing to fear from the truth. If the truth of the matter shows a need for profound reform—and it does—so be it.

CWR: Based on your experience and reporting, what were the key factors in the clergy abuse scandals? In what way is the current situation different from the early 2000s?

Lawler: There were several important factors, coming together at the same time to create a sort of “perfect storm.” The clear teachings of the Church regarding sexuality were under assault in the 1960s and 1970s, at the same time that the sexual revolution was bringing enormous changes in public attitudes. At the same time, unfortunately, the traditions of ascetical discipline in clerical life were breaking down. Priests who had been formed with strict standards saw those standards torn down; seminarians were no longer trained to keep the battles for chastity “far from the castle walls.” And of course there were other factors sapping priestly morale: the decline in Mass attendance, the defections from the clergy, and so forth. Quite a few priests lost their way, I’m afraid. I suspect that alcohol problems played a major role—both by lowering the inhibitions of priests who were already in trouble, and by helping their colleagues not to notice.

And an uncanny ability “not to notice” was a huge factor! Bishops, especially, developed habits of putting the best possible interpretation on anything they heard about their priests—even at times when they knew better. Too often they denied the obvious, even the undeniable. What’s worse, they misled their own people about the realities of the situation, and thereby did incalculable damage to their own credibility and teaching authority.

As I wrote in The Faithful Departed, this was a three-part scandal. First, some priests—a shockingly large number, albeit a small percentage—molested young people. Second, the revelations gave ample indications of widespread homosexuality within the clergy. Third, the scandal showed that bishops had covered up evidence of abuses, and in many cases lied to their people while doing so. With the Dallas Charter, the American bishops addressed the first part of the scandal. The new procedures should work to curb the abuse of children, although the procedures depend on the determination of the individual bishops. The second and third parts of the scandal, unfortunately, were not addressed in Dallas and haven’t been addressed subsequently. Homosexual activity within the priesthood is, if anything, more evident now than it was in 2002, and if it involves adults rather than teenage boys, it is not usually regarded as an urgent concern. And our bishops still haven’t taken the steps necessary to restore their damaged credibility.

The McCarrick scandal drew attention to this unfinished business, for two reasons. First, it involved homosexual activity by a prominent prelate, which had continued for years and had obviously not hampered his rise through the ecclesiastical ranks. Second, it involved that uncanny ability of bishops “not to notice” misconduct. Many Church leaders had been informed about the problem. Many others would surely have recognized it, if they had only looked at the evidence. So now we’re looking squarely at the unresolved second and third parts of the same devastating scandal.

Ultimately, McCarrick’s downfall was an encounter with an under-age boy. I don’t think many people knew that he had abused minors; I didn’t know. But I did know, and countless others knew, that he had taken advantage of seminarians. Doesn’t it stand to reason that someone who would chase 19-to-20-year-olds would be a danger to 16-to-17-year-olds? For that matter, wasn’t his desire for young men—of legal age or not—enough to disqualify him from higher office? The whole sordid story illustrates the inability and/or unwillingness of Church leaders to recognize a problem—a danger to their flocks.

CWR: Cardinal O’Malley has spoken of the need for “clearer procedures.” What needs to be more clear? And will it help?

Lawler: Even before Dallas, there were plenty of canonical options in place for a bishop to use, if he chose to discipline a priest for abuse. The bishops didn’t use those options. In the McCarrick case, the problem should have been addressed decades ago—not by a formal canonical procedure, but by responsible Church leaders picking up the phone and informing their colleagues that this man was not fit for higher office. At the bare minimum, other bishops should have confronted McCarrick (I know of one who did), and they certainly should have refused to set him up as their spokesman. Or maybe a sort of “family intervention” could have been quietly arranged. The tragedy is that, as far as I know, nothing happened.

(By the way, I was appalled by Cardinal O’Malley’s statement, in which he admitted that a prominent priest had warned him about the likelihood of a scandal involving then-Cardinal McCarrick, but said that he had never personally received the letter, and had taken no action. He, of all people, as chairman of the special papal commission on sexual abuse, should know that sort of buck-passing is unacceptable in these cases.)

But Cardinal O’Malley is right to point out that the Vatican still has not established a clear standard for holding bishops accountable for their handling of these issues. Pope Francis actually established a tribunal for that purpose in 2015—and then, inexplicably, scrapped it before it was ever put to work. In 2017 the Vatican announced that the tribunal was unnecessary because existing procedures were adequate. Cardinal O’Malley—who, again, is the key man in the universal Church for such questions—obviously disagrees. So do I. The failure to address part three of the scandal can be laid at the feet of Pope Francis.

CWR: What role do you think widespread theological dissent against Church teaching regarding sexual morality played in creating an atmosphere in which sexual activity of clergy could be rationalized?

Lawler: You probably can’t prove a causal connection, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that abuse peaked at the same time that dissent—particularly on issues involving sexual morality—came to the fore. And it makes sense, logically, that if priests were no longer holding the Catholic faithful to high standards, they would let their own personal standards slip as well.

In particular, the widespread practice of contraception—breaking the link between sexual activity and procreation—paved the way for acceptance of extra-marital sexual activity, including homosexual activity.

CWR: Some “progressive” Catholic commentators speak of the US bishops of the 1980s as if they were lock-step “conservative” bishops all eagerly following every letter of John Paul II’s pastoral vision for implementing Vatican II. The implication is that it was the “conservative” vision of John Paul II that facilitated clergy sexual abuse. What do you think about that?

Lawler: Well, I can assure you that back in the 1980s, orthodox Catholics would have been delighted to see some evidence that the American bishops were all conservatives, all in lockstep with Pope John Paul II! At that time, remember, our bishops were issuing statements on the nuclear freeze and the economy, ignoring the epidemic of liturgical abuse, and authorizing awful translations of the Mass. In fact, one major reason why so many American Catholics loved Pope John Paul II is that he provided us with encouragement and leadership that we weren’t getting from our own bishops.

It’s true—the records clearly show—that in the 1980s our bishops were routinely ignoring and/or covering up clerical abuse. But then, that’s how they were handling other problems, too. They were routinely ignoring and/or covering up evidence of heresy being caught in parochial schools, for instance.

There are plenty of people who would like to pin responsibility on John Paul II, for different reasons. Radical theologians would like to dismiss his teaching legacy. Bishops would like to shuck of their own responsibilities, passing the buck. Victims’ lawyers would like to reach into the “deep pockets” of the Vatican. But the evidence is quite clear: the bishops had authority to deal with the problem, and they didn’t.

CWR: We’re now very aware not only of bishops covering up abuse by priests but also of bishops engaging in sexual misconduct with priests and seminarians. Without becoming paranoid and adopting elaborate conspiracy theories, should the lay faithful be suspicious that many US bishops may be so compromised by what they have done or know others to have done that they shouldn’t be expected to undertake serious reform?

Lawler: Simple answer: Yes. As a body, the American hierarchy is hopelessly compromised in terms of credibility on this issue. The only solution is a serious investigation by someone who is—and, equally important, is known to be—completely independent and able to demand answers to tough questions. I can see only two possibilities:

• Another commission set up by the US bishops’ conference. But we’ve already been done that road, and it would be tough to convince people that this time the commission really would have autonomy.
• A formal Vatican visitation, complete with Archbishop Scicluna and his crew. That approach has produced some results in Chile, although we still haven’t heard the end of that story.

(There’s a third possibility that makes me shudder: a Congressional commission with subpoena power. Aside from the obvious Church-state conflicts there, it would be run by grandstanding politicians, with one eye on their poll ratings and no interest in Catholic doctrine or sacramental life. Fortunately, no one is suggesting that disastrous course of action. At least not yet. But if the bishops can’t put their own house in order…)

Individual bishops can’t do much by themselves to launch an investigation. But they can ask their own questions, demand honesty of their colleagues, and make it plain that they won’t cover up for the bishops who are compromised. A bishop who recognizes widespread corruption in the hierarchy can’t continue to “play ball,” to conduct business as usual.

If there aren’t fireworks at the next USCCB meeting—or sooner—we’ll know that we’re headed for even more trouble.

About Carl E. Olson 1081 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

37 Comments

  1. Since it is a systemic issue, there needs to be a coming clean about Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s role in this corruotion

    • It is truly a devastating scandal and disappointing reality of so much spinelessness among our leaders which should be courageously guiding us against the tide of immorality in the culture. Their lack of leadership is exactly why contraception slipped effortlessly into the ranks of Catholics. It seems that most of our leaders don’t want to challenge the laity with truths that inconvenience them. It’s hard to understand how men who have dedicated their lives to serve God, can become so indifferent to sin and corruption.

    • Lawler admits, “But I did know, and countless others knew, that he had taken advantage of seminarians.”
      Ok. You knew. So why didn’t you do something about it??
      You’re complicit in the coverup you’re condemning.

  2. I hope Mr Lawler and Mr Olson continue to expose whatever needs to be exposed.
    The American bishops can be counted on to be weak and vague. They are the ones who brought us here. It is unlikely they will clean up their own ‘mess’.
    Bring it on.

  3. “25 years of covering clergy sex abuse.”

    That phrase says just about all that really needs to be said. In a nutshell.

  4. As I recall, the Vatican did an investigation of American seminaries (after numerous complaints) in the late 1970’s or early 80’s. The very fact that such a public step was taken means that there were widespread abuses (doctrinal and otherwise) that the bishops were not correcting. This means that something was already gravely wrong with the American hierarchy. As far as I know, nothing concrete came out of this investigation. I have no idea why the situation was not corrected, but I suspect that the bishops were simply unwilling to bear the burden of doing their job in an apostolic way. Now we see the consequences in so many ways. Sadly the disgraced former Cardinal is just the tip of a very large iceberg which is not limited to sex abuse but could truly be called quite often an apostasy.

    • That is exactly right. The problem is not (merely) sexual abuse, which is the tip of an enormous iceberg of homosexuality. Homosexuality is predominant among the clergy and episcopacy — 50% to 70% according to the late Malachi Martin are homosexual. But even predominant clerical homosexuality is not the root problem. That is, as Jacob has indicated, apostasy. Massive percentages of lay and clerical “Catholics” deny infallible Church teaching on divorce, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality and in fact have denied it for decades that now stretch into generations. The Church that exists today is hollow and rancid with perversion, heresy, and hypocrisy.

      • Until the bishops and cardinals and pope and Catholic editors clearly speak to the specific problem: poisonous homosexual clergy, nothing will change. They are all kidding themselves and they will drown in their cowardice.
        All of the above are very afraid to say the words ‘homosexual priest problem’, much less act upon it.
        Our clergy will not clean their own mess in their own house. Not enough spine. Corruption too deep.
        Our Lord will clean it up, completely, in His own good time. It will be nasty, possibly violent, possibly very soon. Bet on it.

    • If you read Michael Rose’s “Goodbye, Good Men,” you will find that the seminaries put on a show for the visitors to convince them of orthodoxy and good faith and then went back to business as usual once the team had gone. And apparently the investigators were not very eager to dig deeply into the problems of the seminaries.

  5. Just so more people know, the unrepentant arch sex abuser McCarrick also crafted the Land of Lakes statement, where Catholic universities rejected Church authority.

    The Bishops of the US have been following McCarrick’s teaching policy for 50 years, and they still follow it. When John Paul II wrote ExCorde Ecclesiae, and asked the bishops to reject the deceitful Land of Lakes policy, the USCCB wrote a deceitful “implementation” policy to ensure that they would not have to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

    Summing up: when given a choice btw McCarrick (an unrepentant arch sex abuser and post-Catholic ideologue) and JP2 (a saint)…the USCCB itself, and vast majority of Bishops of the US…chose a man enslaved by evil…McCarrick.

    Thst is as bad as it gets.

  6. “In fact, one major reason why so many American Catholics loved Pope John Paul II is that he provided us with encouragement and leadership that we weren’t getting from our own bishops.”

    But in many instances it was John Paul II who gave us those very bishops to begin with.

    • The problem with U. S. bishops covering up and ignoring clerical misconduct far predates John Paul II. Nobody has done a worse job nominating bishops than Archbishop Jean Jadot, the papal representative in the U.S. whom JP II rightly fired early in his reign.

      • I’m quite aware that the problems predate Pope John Paul II and agree with the statement about Jadot. However, my statement remains true as well: “In many instances it was John Paul II who gave us those very bishops to begin with.” It is a demonstrable fact that many of the U.S. bishops that were appointed by JPII were… problematic at best.

        One example should suffice, but they can be multiplied.

        From Wikipedia: “Cupich was the choice of Pope Francis to succeed Francis Cardinal George as Archbishop of Chicago on September 20, 2014. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Cupich was ordained a priest there in 1975. He was named the Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, by Pope John Paul II in 1998.”

  7. The possibility that makes Lawler shudder: a Congressional commission with subpoena power and its Church-State conflicts, should be taken as a warning that there is an end to the patience of both the State and the public. If the Catholic Church authorities in the US don’t succeed in putting their house in order, the long term consequence could be that this Church will be tagged an international criminal organization by the US.

  8. In the 1980’s the Bishops were covering up clerical abuse and concentrating on political issues. Today, nothing has changed. Now they pose for the media while lamenting the poor illegal aliens and posturing about global warming, while an insidiously evil disease of active homosexuality runs rampant in our Church and MOST Bishops are silent. NO, the Bishops cannot investigate themselves. It is time to clean house with an investigative group formed from the laity and carte blanche to review documents and interview anyone and everyone. It might be nice for Pope Francis to get involved himself and remove the ones he has surrounded himself with that are already known to be homosexual and to work against the teachings of Christ. It would also be nice if the Bishops and priest that are homosexual would resign from their offices and save the Church time, money and scandal. Maybe do one last good thing for the Church. I for one, am sickened by all of this and I want them out. Nothing short of a total cleanse is needed for the Church. Praying that the Lord will continue what He has started by letting the secrets of McCarrick open the door.

    • It’s rather naive, based on his own behavior while in Buenos Aires regarding the abuse of Gabriel Ferrini and his failure as Pontiff to hold Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga accountable, to believe that Pope Francis would replace homosexualist Bishops with Bishops who are not homosexualists. When one takes into consideration who he has already chosen to receive red zucchettos, it’s a short journey to conclude that he not only condones clerics who engage in intrinsically disordered sexual deviancy but he promotes those who tolerate and encourage it.

  9. At the root of those problems, I believe, is a psychological disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

  10. Re Cardinal O’Malley and passing the buck; wasn’t it Cardinal O’Malley who passed the buck to Rome for an answer to the question whether the feet of women could be washed on Holy Thursday?

  11. I’m wondering why nobody ever mentions the massive scandals uncovered in my diocese in Belleville, IL. About 10% of our priests were dismissed, Gregory was brought in to clen up the mess, and approached the Vatican for permission to start the lay review boards and training on how to deal with abuse. That’s when the abuse problem became public and there were USCCB meetings on how to deal with it.
    This was at least 10 years before the Boston publicity that ended up in a movie. There were rules put together by Gregory in place a long time before Boston. Everybody acts like Belleville didn’t break the secrecy and have daily front page stories in our great local paper and the St Louis coverage prodded by SNAP. The sex abuse and clergy parties were no longer secrets. The Vatican was informed and Benedict involved in approving procedures.
    Why does everybody act like it was all a big shock in Boston? Because the huge mess in Belleville was in a small MidWestern diocese? It was discussed ad nauseum at annual USCCB meetings. No excuse to play at being shocked in 2002.

  12. To investigate this mess, how about a commission of only Catholic laity headed by a non-Catholic (Trey Gowdy maybe, he has experience as a federal prosecutor). The bishops have proved that we can not rely on them to investigate themselves.

  13. Well, there won’t be a Congressional commission with subpoena powers. In 2002, it was possible to pretend that the real problem was the cover up, not the activity that was being covered up. Any politician in America who wants to investigate aggressively now has to be willing to be seen as condemning sodomy itself, even if it involves some amount of mutual consent.

  14. Lawler indicates that “it’s hard to ignore the fact that abuse peaked at the same time that dissent—particularly on issues involving sexual morality—came to the fore. And it makes sense, logically, that if priests were no longer holding the Catholic faithful to high standards, they would let their own personal standards slip as well.” There’s also a feedback loop built into this dissent. Consider McCarrick’s role in the Land-of-Lakes document in 1967. A church leader so invested in a depravity like his will naturally have both a defective understanding of the Church’s (human, actually) teaching of the morality surrounding sexual activity, and a compelling desire NOT to teach clearly the gospel in this area. How many churchmen like him have their been? Is this why we’ve had such shoddy catechesis, especially in the area of sexual morality, since the 60s?

  15. WHEN WILL WE TAKE THE LOGICAL STEP OF ALLOWING THE CLERGY TO MARRY AND THUS DEPRIVE HOMOSEXUALS OF A CONVENIENT STRUCTURE/SYSTEM IN WHICH TO HIDE? WE WILL ATTRACT MORE HEALTHY MEN AND HAVE A CLERGY WHICH THE FAITHFUL CAN IDENTIFY WITH AND WHO UNDERSTAND THE REALITY MARRIED/FAMILY LIFE.

    • Well said. Think about this. God our Father set up His Church with married and unmarried men. He knew why He originated the hierarchy in that way. God bless, C-Marie

      • you don’t understand sexual abusers. most abusers are married. why sick them on a wife and kids. Marriage is not the answer. The Church must get rid of gayism, active homosexuality in the Church.. i ve seen it.. it’s ugly, its real, its bad, it’s everywhere. That’s the problem, marrying the clergy will solve nothing except bring abour married sex abusers and pedophiles. The books are out on that one!. Just thought you’d like to know.

    • a)Why are you screaming at us in all capital letters?

      b)Your argument is utterly without merit. There are any number of homosexuals who hide behind marriage, too.

      And C-Marie, God our Father set up His Church with authority to impose discipline; and one of those disciplines was a celibate clergy. The problem is not clerical celibacy, it is priests who have chosen to do evil. A married priesthood would merely provide additional opportunities to do evil, such as adultery and fraudulent second marriages, in addition to all the problems that already exist. You’ve only too recognize that many sins are committed by married men; being married doesn’t stop them.

      • Leslie, you are so right! Ask the Priests who’ve come into the Priesthood with wives from the Episcopalian Church. It is too much to try to juggle the responsibility of two Families! The souls cared for by a Priest, leading a Holy, unselfish life, keep him exceedingly busy-and that Priest is surrounded by the best love on Earth.
        Has anyone else noted that homosexual Priests have an aversion and dislike for a truly faithful, orthodox, Church loving Catholic?

    • Your solution is specious, at best. 21 of the 22 Churches sui juris which comprise the Catholic Church already ordain, as a norm, married men. All 21 of those Churches have not only a shortage of Priests but cases of clerical sexual abuse. The numerous cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by public school teachers, protestant ministers, mormon elders, Jewish rabbis, muslim imams, married men, et al, proves that ordaining married men is not the panacea that many foolishly think it would be. Take a look at stopbaptistpredators.org as only one example.

      Ridding the Priesthood of homosexuals who were never supposed to be admitted to seminary let alone ordained and dismissing Bishops from the clerical state who violated the ban on ordaining homosexuals is the solution, plain and simple.

  16. Yes there are some good bishops. But all US Catholics should withhold any diocesan donations from all US diocese until a complete invetigation is conducted by a fully independent group. The only thing that forces bishops to change is money, just like votes at the ballot box forces politicans to change!

  17. I just want to know when it will be safe to return? The welcome back mat is out front, but the roof is still leaking.

    So much is being said about the sexual preferences of Priests that it is becoming monotonous. It is perhaps a shame that Priests are born with a libido. Some libidos are intense, some are “normal”. That fact makes it nearly impossible for a candidate to be properly vetted.

  18. If it is true that 300 priests in 16 parishes in Pennsylvania are charged with sexual abuse it is another glaring fact that the issue is out of control.

  19. Sadly this all started after Vatican II and rejection of 2000 years of traditions of the Catholic Church. Until we return to the pre Vatican II Church, we will continue to see one scandle after another. If you like Vatican II, fasten your seatbelts because the road to oblivion is a rough and dangerous road.

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