The Horrific Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal Is About to Get a Lot Worse
"I think we're going to look back on this as a Martin Luther moment, where someone's nailing the theses to the door."
Photo by Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Last week, in the wake of a grand jury report that concluded at least 300 priests had preyed on some 1,000 children across Pennsylvania since the 1940s, attorneys general in New York and New Jersey announced investigations into Catholic Church sexual abuse. Missouri, Nebraska, and Illinois have launched state-level probes as well—and more are likely to follow. New York went so far as to issue civil subpoenas in all eight of its dioceses—New Jersey has created a special criminal task force to look into seven—calling for the production of internal Church documents that relate to the handling of abuse cases. The dioceses, for their part, have pledged transparency in working with investigators.
The wave of official scrutiny comes on the heels of what can only be described as a disastrously scandal-ridden summer for the Catholic Church. In addition to the outrageous findings in Pennsylvania, Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, DC, was removed from the ministry and resigned from the College of Cardinals after being accused of sexually abusing a teenager, other minors, and adult seminarians. Pope Francis has yet to officially weigh in on the saga, but has been rocked by accusations from a rival archbishop who claimed the pontiff knew of McCarrick's behavior and went so far as to demand he resign from the papacy.
Even if the pope himself is unlikely to ever face any kind of criminal prosecution over what he did or did not know and when, it does seem as if we're in the midst of an unprecedented moment. Francis will reportedly meet with embattled leaders of the US Catholic Church Thursday, and it's fairly clear what they'll be talking about: With these recently formed investigations coming in a new era of awareness about the scope of sexual misconduct, America is virtually certain to learn a lot more in the weeks ahead about cover-ups, misdeeds, and the general workings of the Church hierarchy.
But where will it all lead? What is the worst-case scenario for the Catholic Church in America, besides more bad press and a handful of high-level priests losing their jobs? To get a sense of the legal terrain, we called up John C. Manly, a sexual-abuse lawyer based in Los Angeles who has advocated for dozens of people abused by Catholic clergymen and others and has seen the spectacular ability of the Church to withstand law-enforcement scrutiny up close.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: After the bombshell report out of Pennsylvania, the attorney general in Missouri announced that he would launch a similar investigation, and the Archdiocese of St. Louis, for one, pledged its complete cooperation. Then, the attorneys general in New York and New Jersey launched similar investigations. Is this something new that we’re seeing—the multiple intensive investigations and the apparent cooperation of the dioceses?
John C. Manly: The scandal has had a few evolutions. The first one was really Gilbert Gauthe, in the late 80s. He was a priest in Louisiana who molested dozens and dozens of children. That was basically the first exposure. And then there was the [Joseph] Bernardin exposure in '92. And then the [Rudolph] Kos case in Dallas—there was a huge verdict. And then the Stockton verdict on [Oliver] O'Grady in '97, which got a whole bunch of press. And [Ryan] DiMaria, my client, a victim who won a huge settlement, $5.2 million, in the early 2000s. And then, of course, Boston, in 2001 and 2002. That spawned Los Angeles, and there was also a tremendous amount of press about Cardinal Roger Mahony.
"If you think Pennsylvania was bad, wait until you get to New York and New Jersey."
So what's different about this, than any of those I just mentioned, is that there was really no effort in any of those evolutions to do anything but prosecute predator priests. For example, law enforcement had Mahony in their sights—they could have indicted him. And Steve Cooley, who was the district attorney in Los Angeles County at the time, didn't do it. And I think he didn't do it because the Church—the hierarchy of the Church—still had a significant amount of influence. What's happened, as time has gone on, is the individuals who hold elected office have had less and less exposure to a Church that's had the sort of political power it did 30 years ago. The Church, now, simply has less political influence now, and can't stop it.
Frankly, if you're the attorney general of Pennsylvania, and you begin getting these calls, and you see the scope of this, why wouldn't you investigate it? It's criminality, really, on a scale that's unheard of. In California, the Church paid $1 billion to settle cases in the mid 2000s. A diocese went bankrupt. And it's not just the number of perpetrators. The real criminal conspiracy, and the real criminality, is the effort to cover it up, and conceal it as a matter of policy and practice. I think a lot of people still want to believe that something like what happened in Pennsylvania is an anomaly. It's not. It's the norm. Every diocese is the same—and the reason for that is the Church is a hierarchal organization, managed from the top-down.
What do you think is actually likely to happen next in the US? Do you expect more and more states to do what this initial handful have done?
I do. You know, the attorneys general talk, and I think that people finally recognize that this is a public health issue. You go to prison, places for drug rehabilitation, alcohol anonymous meetings—you're going to meet child victims of priests in every place like that. The Catholic Church school system in this country is the largest private school system here. Catholic institutions own more real estate than any other private institution in the United States. It's a massive organization. And we happen to have diplomatic relations with [the Vatican].
I think the next step—and I do think it's going to happen—is a federal investigation. Catholic institutions are not only religious, but they're massive receivers of federal, state, and local financial aid through charity and other organizations. And, more than anything else, they're a tax-exempt organization. If Scientology, which is a tiny sect, [eventually loses] its tax-empt status because of criminality, then isn't a fair discussion to have that for the Catholic Church [too]? Can you imagine, say, if you found out that 300 United Airlines flight attendants were molesting children, what would happen to United Airlines? And we don't have 300—[we have even more] priests who have been removed for this behavior since the early 2000s. The only reason they haven't been held to the same standard that everyone else has been is the religious works in front of them.
The truth is—no one wants to say it, but it's the truth—we have, basically, a foreign government allowing its agents to run wild over children, sexually.
But the Church has stayed intact for roughly 2,000 years. So if a federal investigation were to be launched, would it really threaten the Church as a core institution in the US?
I think this is different. I used to say the Church would be around long after I'm dead and gone, and I'm sure it will be—but I see this as a greatly diminished institution. I do see hierarchy going to jail. What's needed here, really, is a federally, multi-district investigation. The Church has been given the benefit of the doubt—and multiple chances—like no other institution in the world. And what they've proven is that they will not address the underlying problem that is causing this, which I think is celibacy. It doesn't work; it's never worked. You never hear it debated in any of this stuff.
Regardless, in most of these situations, the statute of limitations will be expired, right?
Yes. That's their only defense, typically. I'll tell you: A case in point of that right now is in California. Jerry Brown, in my view, has always been anti-victim, from the time when he was first governor in the 70s until now. He's also a former Jesuit seminarian. A statute of limitations reform bill came right to his desk a few years ago, and he vetoed it—and talked about how important statute of limitations were, and basically mimicked the bishops. But he's from that generation of people who would never do anything to hurt the hierarchy of the Church. In contrast, Gavin Newsom, who will likely next be elected [for governor], is of a completely different generation.
How long are investigations like in New York, though, even going to take?
If they get a grand jury, as they did in Pennsylvania, typically they're less than a year. We know New York is bad, because we've had some disclosure. But that disclosure to date is going to pale in comparison to what they find. And what I think they're going to find is cardinals in the modern era—[Cardinal Edward] Egan and others—and bishops were doing everything they could to keep a lid on this, because they knew how bad it was. If you think Pennsylvania was bad, wait until you get to New York and New Jersey. These Italian parishes, say, especially in the mid-to-late 20th century—and this is very similar to Latino immigrants today, where their home, and the center of community, is the parish. And, it turns out, many were a feeding ground for predators.
What can realistically happen, criminally or otherwise, to higher-ups—say cardinals—who are foreign diplomats, and most often recalled to the Vatican after their scandal is revealed?
It's an interesting question. They usually have dual-citizenship, so they can flee to the Vatican. Nelson Mandela has this great quote that you can judge the soul of society by the way it treats its children. We're not doing a very good job.
But how does the United States compare to the responses in the rest of the world? I know, for instance, that Australia has seen passage of controversial laws that requires priests to divulge what they hear in confession—which critics argue is problematic because priests often do not know who is on the other side of the confessional. Do approaches like that make sense?
The confession can be used as a weapon, and a tool to access children. I think there is a place for confidentiality in medicine, in psychology, and in spirituality. If someone wants to go to confession, and confess a serious sin, I'm conflicted on that, I'll be honest—because I do think they have that right to do so. There's also a part of me that's concerned priests will also just make things up.
I'd like to also discuss the Church scandal, now, in the context of the #MeToo movement. Are the Church survivors unique in a way, as opposed to other survivors of abuses of power?
So I can tell you why I believe that there has been a long delay, in regards to the Church. It's complicated, but—did you grow up Catholic?
Me too. So the difference between Catholicism and basically any other Protestant sect is that the only way to salvation in the Church is through the sacramental life. And the only way to participate fully in the sacramental life is to go through all seven sacraments, one of them being to become a priest. And the victims that priests typically target are almost always the most devout kids who truly in their heart believe.
And, remember, the priest at mass actually has the power to literally, in effect, change bread into God through transubstantiation. And at that moment, we're taught essentially in catechism, that the priest is God. So, that's all to say, these children have been molested by a God man. And for most people that's difficult to grasp, but if you truly believe, the impact that has on your psyche is profound. And the level of shame—having represented victims of coaches, teachers, principals—is faraway worse. There's a certainty with Catholicism that you feel no one else really has. Most priest survivors I know cannot go to mass, even if they want to. That delay, and the inability to articulate it, is unique to the Church.
In terms of the #MeToo movement, we're going to hold powerful people accountable no matter what—and that's a very helpful thing to know for survivors. I think we're going to look back on this as a Martin Luther moment, where someone's nailing the theses to the door. I think the Church has destroyed itself. It will exist as a smaller form of what it used to be.
I'm no longer Catholic. I'm sure that shocks you. But the sad part of all this is that the kind, decent theology of the Church—helping the poor, the imprisoned, the weak [gets lost]. We need that voice in our society right now.
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