Letter to the editor: The big picture on clerical sex abuse in the Church

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The following is an unsolicited letter submitted by a reader.

As a father of two and a cradle Roman Catholic, I am disgusted with the abuse of children by clergy of our church. I am equally angry over the weak handling, at best, to an active cover-up of these crimes by our church leadership. Over my lifetime, I have struggled to consider this evil reality. It naturally makes you consider whether the Roman Catholic faith is the one, true faith.

Most priests are wonderful, hardworking, honest and holy men. Very, very few priests have ever hurt a child or committed any crime in their entire lifetime. These are facts that must be acknowledged before further discussion.

The impact of criminal offenders in the Catholic Church is most offensive due to the actual level of betrayal. Men whose hands were consecrated to carry out the holy sacrifice of the Mass went on to hurt the most defenseless in our midst. Even a single priest in a billion committing this sin is horrific. It is a repulsive betrayal of their sacred vows to serve God and man.

Archbishop Aquila is not telling us the whole story, nor should he. It would be inappropriate for Archbishop Aquila to comment on the contributing factors to the evils detailed in the Colorado abuse report. Any real leader in any organization does not look for excuses but takes full responsibility for his or her organization. I find no fault with the Archbishop for his transparency and aggressive work towards protecting our children and our Church.

I feel compelled to speak of some of the contributing factors to this evil. I have not been asked by anyone to write this essay. I don’t know how much any of the following came into play as a catalyst or contributing factor to the evils committed by Colorado Catholic clergy.

My intent is not to forgive or lessen the reality of the evils perpetrated. The criminals named in the report are at fault. What they did was pure evil. I do not want to be misinterpreted in any way as giving any excuse or explanation for the evils described in the report. However, by understanding the bigger picture even beyond the recently issued report, we can better defend our children and the Roman Catholic Church going forward.

Historically, the medical community played a role in not reporting complaints of abuse to law enforcement. The mechanisms today by which doctors report to law enforcement officials did not exist. Some medical professionals feared legal ramifications if they broke doctor/patient confidentiality even with good intent. Many psychiatrists and psychologists once believed they could cure pedophiles or homosexuals (homosexuality was once listed as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). After treatment and counseling, some doctors would advise Church leaders that an offender was now healthy or cured. In some cases, those same doctors would encourage Church leaders to return offenders to the same type of environment involving close and continuing contact with children. Today, this is widely viewed as malpractice. No responsible medical professional would encourage an alcoholic to search for employment as a bartender during or after completing rehabilitation for alcoholism.

Furthermore, laws regarding medical professionals, doctor/patient confidentiality and reporting to law enforcement have come a long way in the last 70 years. Reporting requirements are very strict and well known for medical, childcare and educational professionals. Those who come across any evidence of the possible abuse of children have a legal duty to report these concerns to authorities who will follow up.

Law enforcement in the United States 70 years ago was far different than today. Law enforcement officers did not have the same education and training. Today, most law enforcement agencies require a college degree and some work experience prior to hiring. Psychological screening and thorough background investigations screen out many who are unsuitable for police work due to integrity or emotional deficits. A rigorous course of study and further evaluation in a police academy also works to ensure high-quality law enforcement officers protect the community.

Law enforcement failed in many cases by not having the capability or skill in response to complaints. The public also knew confidentiality could be a real issue if they came forward to police. Many knew the police would allow the church to handle allegations of criminal conduct as an internal church issue. Today, there are very little of these professional and procedural lapses on the part of law enforcement. Law enforcement officers now investigate claims of criminal conduct much more effectively. A religious, educational or medical facility can no longer easily blow off law enforcement by saying a complaint is “an internal matter.”

Journalists seem to have decreased in integrity even further over the last 70 years. How can this deter criminal conduct in the church? Many journalists today have such a visceral hatred for religion that they aggressively look for stories to paint a religious institution in a poor light. This pressure, while being motivated less about protecting children, can be a strong deterrent to anyone thinking of using the priesthood as a cover for their criminal conduct. Many journalists salivate over the idea of writing a negative story about any religion or clergy.

All of this is to say that social media, journalists, law enforcement, doctors and the legal profession are all trip wires to ensure that any allegations of sexual abuse in any institution are handled in a more thorough and responsible manner today. No institution, the Church and parishes included, have the option to handle anything “quietly” today.

The preceding are some contributing factors that Archbishop Aquila will never try to use as an excuse. Some misdeeds were simply evil with no contributing factors. Others were the wrong actions taken for some semblance of a noble intention. Some were taken in some twisted sense of mercy for either the criminal or victim. They were failures but should be considered in some context for the sake of awareness and understanding. This will help us in vigilance going forward.

The Roman Catholic Church is all about forgiveness and the goal of bringing souls to heaven. This can allow dangerous rationalizations in some cases. Many bishops wrongly made the decision to cover up criminal conduct to protect the faith and trust of whole congregations. In hindsight, those same leaders certainly must see that the best response would have been swift, thorough, honest and transparent investigation of any criminal allegations. How could they make such a wrong choice? One must remember the times in which they lived. As mentioned, the politics, societal norms, medical guidance and realities of the legal community were all different. Many times, our clergy may have wanted to believe the doctors. Who wouldn’t want to believe an offender was healed and ready to return to full duty in a parish?

I struggle with how high leadership in the Roman Catholic Church have not done more to punish or report criminals. At times, I fall back upon the understanding that all human organizations have those that will betray and commit horrific crimes. The FBI, CIA, Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, childcare providers, the military, schools and all other human organizations have had evil doers. This is no reason to throw up our hands and declare any of these institutions as inherently evil.

I wish we could say the Roman Catholic Church was absolutely perfect, but we must remember that even one of the twelve went on to betray Jesus directly. My thoughts here should not bring anyone any comfort. My only intention is to discuss the bigger picture to increase understanding and vigilance. Hopefully some will also read this, pray and then acknowledge that the Roman Catholic Church still is the one, true faith.

We need to be careful not to look at all priests as potential criminals. While vigilance among all the faithful is necessary, we must support and pray for our priests daily. They deserve as much for all they do for God and His kingdom on earth.

Matthew Hayes,
Greenwood Village, CO

COMING UP: Thomas Fitzsimons: The unsung Catholic Founding Father 

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As our nation celebrates the day of its independence and subsequent founding as a country on July 4, a look back some lesser-knowCatholic history of this historic event seems warranted.  

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin: these are names every American knows. Pull out your wallet and you’ll likely see at least one of their faces on the money you carry aroundAnd while this nation was founded on principles rooted in Christianity, none of these men were Catholic. In fact, of the men history calls the Founding Fathers of America, only two were. 

Many may already be familiar with Founding Father Charles Carroll, a Catholic and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and whose brother John was the first Catholic bishop assigned to what would become the United States. However, Carroll was not the only Catholic who played a role in the founding of our country. The other was Thomas Fitzsimons, a name that is not mentioned much (if at all) in U.S. history classes but deserves to be recognized nonetheless.  

The unwieldy named Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, published in 1887, paints a vivid picture of Fitzsimons and the way his faith informed his character. While the other Founding Fathers were meeting and deliberating about the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons joined the Continental Army anfought on the frontlines against the British army. 

Captain Fitzsimons commanded his company of militia until 1778, when France entered the war. British troops withdrew from Pennsylvania and began to focus on the southern states. It was at this time that Fitzsimons became more involved in politics at the state level. In 1782, he became a delegate at the Continental Congress. In 1786, he was elected as a Pennsylvania state legislator and served for three terms until 1789. In 1787, he was selected to represent Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Congress, where the United States Constitution was written and ratified. He, along with Daniel Carroll, were the only two Catholics to sign to Constitution. 

Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1741, not much else is known about Fitzsimons’ family. He had three brothers – Nicholas, Andrew and John – and one sister, Ann. He and his family immigrated to America as early as 1760, where they became residents of Philadelphia. It was here that Fitzsimons would stake his claim as a businessman and politician. 

In 1763, Fitzsimons married Catharine Meade, whose brother, George Meade, would later go into business with Fitzsimons and build one of the most successful commercial trade houses in Philadelphia. Throughout his life, Fitzsimons was in close correspondence with Bishop John Carrollthese letters revealed insights into the Catholic Founding Father’s personal life. In a letter to Bishop Carroll in 1808, Fitzsimons wrote of being married to Catharine for 45 years. Additionally, local baptismal records show that he and Catharine stood as sponsors at the baptisms of three of Meade’s children. 

In 1774, Fitzsimons began his first foray into politics when he was elected as one of 13 Provincial Deputies who were given authority to call a general meeting of the citizens. It is believed he was the first Catholic to have ever held public office in the budding United States. Even so, anti-Catholic bigotry was common at the time and did exist within some of his fellow statesmen, such as John Adams, who once said in an address to the people of Great Britain that the Catholic faith was “a religion that has deluged your island in blood and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.” 

Fitzsimons’ first stint in public office was brief, only lasting from May to July, but it was a foreshadowing his future involvement in state affairs. As the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Fitzsimons formed a company of soldiers to fight against the British army. He was assigned to the Third Battalion under Col. Cadwalader and Lieut. Col. John Nixon, who was the grandson of a Catholic. Behind the scenes, as George Washington and the like organized committees and framed what would become the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons ascended to the rank of Captain and continued to serve his country as a soldier and patriot.

In addition to his tenure as a commanding officer and politician, Fitzsimons also found success in other ventures. In 1781, he helped found the Bank of North America, the United States’ first de facto central bank, and served as its director until 1803. The latter years of his life were spent primarily in private business, but he maintained a consistent interest in public affairs; even Fitzsimons wasn’t exempt from the old adage, “once a politician, always a politician.” 

Through all of these endeavors, and even after befalling troubled financial times in the early 1800s, Fitzsimons remained a diligent philanthropist. He gave immense support to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia and was invested in the improvement of public education in the commonwealth. As one of his contemporaries wrote after his death in 1811, “he died in the esteem, affection and gratitude of all classes of his fellow citizens.” 

Fitzsimons was buried in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia, which is now part of Independence National Historical Park. His name may not be a household one like Washington or Jefferson, but Fitzsimons can be remembered as something of an unsung Founding Father of the United Statesa man whose life of quiet faith, humble service and admirable patriotism exemplifies the values that this country was founded upon in a simple yet profound way.