CHARLESTON—Maureen Dowd, columnist for The New York Times, wrote a column titled “Men’s Club,” criticizing the Catholic Church’s handling of clerical sexual abuse which was published by The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston April 20. In a letter to the paper, Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone responded to Dowd’s criticisms and those of the media for Pope Benedict XVI.
What follows is the bishop’s letter:
Pope Benedict XVI: Walking Truth on its Head.
In his recent letter to all priests, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, averred that “it is true that, albeit proportionately small in number, some priests have committed horrible and most serious crimes of sexual abuse upon minors, deeds that we must condemn and rebuke in an absolute and uncompromising manner. Those individuals must answer for their actions before God and before tribunals, including the civil courts. Nevertheless, we also pray that they might achieve spiritual conversion and receive pardon from God.
“The Church, for her part, is determined neither to hide nor to minimize such crimes. Above all, we are on the side of the victims and want to support their recovery and their offended rights. On the other hand, it is absolutely unacceptable to use the crimes of the few in order to sully the entire ecclesial body of priests. Those who do so commit a profound injustice. Anyone possessed of common sense and goodwill knows it to be the truth.”
As Bishop of Charleston, to whom the Catholic faithful in the entire state of South Carolina is entrusted, I have monitored the scandalous media reports on child sexual abuse and the alleged mismanagement of the situation by the Church’s hierarchy.
There is no question that bad decisions have been made in every sector of the Church and on just about every level.
While not excusing our very tragic history, and by the way, the tragic history of pedophilia in every sector of society — families, public schools, hospitals, youth organizations, I am appalled by the deliberate falsehood dished out to the public on this issue by some of the media.
I am particularly disappointed that The Post and Courier provided Maureen Dowd, a columnist for The New York Times, who obviously has an axe to grind with the Church, a platform to champion her hostile personal agenda against the Church and its leadership. Her op-ed titled “Root of Catholic Mess: ‘Men’s Club,’” published in the The Post and Courier on Tuesday, April 20, was a drip of personal vendetta, distorted facts, name-calling and a clear manifestation of jaundiced journalism where facts are not sacrosanct. As a columnist for The New York Times and as an individual, Maureen Dowd is entitled to her opinion.
However, journalists and columnists of note understand that the liberty is not a license to misinform, especially when the facts are accessible.
It is necessary to set the record straight. In “Father” Stephen Kiesle’s case, for which Ms. Dowd and The New York Times have continually chastised the Church and the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, records indicate that following the allegation of child sexual abuse in 1978, the Oakland Diocese placed Father Stephen Kiesle on administrative leave of absence.
He was subsequently arrested and convicted in that same year for this abuse; the conviction: a misdemeanor charge of lewd conduct for which he was sentenced to three year’s probation. Three years later , he requested to leave the priesthood and that was the basis of the request sent by Most Reverend John Cummins, Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, to Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Therefore, Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter to Bishop Cummins was not a response to the complaints of pedophilia. The Cardinal’s Congregation did not have jurisdiction to deal with priests accused of sexual abuse until 2001. Bishop Cummins did not seek to laicize Kiesle as punishment for his misconduct, rather, Kiesle himself asked to be released from the priesthood. Therefore, the case before the cardinal was a request for laicization by a young priest, Father Stephen Kiesle.
In the ongoing saga, some journalists and columnists advertently or inadvertently, but unfairly, misinform their readers, in ignorance of the Church procedure and the import of some priestly terms.
To enlighten misguided reporters and commentators, Professor John Coverdale, a Seton Hall law professor who specializes in tax law and the interplay between law and Catholic social thought, wrote a rejoinder to what he describes as partisan journalism by The New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein and Michael Luo in their article “Pope Put Off Move to Punish Abusive Priest,” wherein he makes it clear to every discerning reader that “a priest who has been suspended may request that he be released from his vows of celibacy and other obligations as a priest. If granted, this petition to be ‘laicized’ would leave the former priest free to marry.
Laicization — which is altogether different from defrocking and which may apply to a priest who has committed no crime but simply wishes to leave the priesthood — is not further punishment. It is something a priest who has already been punished by having been suspended might well desire, as do some priests who have committed no crime at all for a variety of reasons.
“The priest who is the subject of the article had already been punished by being suspended long before his case reached Rome. He asked to be laicized. Cardinal Ratzinger delayed his laicization not his ‘defrocking’ as the article [and Maureen Dowd’s] incorrectly says. He had been defrocked years earlier when he was suspended from the ministry. All of this is clear without reference to outside sources to anyone who knows something about Church procedure and reads the article with sufficient care. It is anything but clear, however, to a normal reader.”
Though then-Cardinal Ratzinger signed a letter deferring a decision on the laicization of Father Stephen Kiesle, his hesitation did not mean that Kiesle remained in active ministry. Bishop Cummins suspended the priest and placed him on an extended leave of absence long before the application for laicization was entered. There is no record to show that Kiesle abused children again before he was eventually laicized in 1987.
The next complaints against him occurred in 2002, 15 years after he was dismissed from the priesthood. It is true, that in 1985, he was discovered volunteering in a church, but not as a priest. When the bishop became aware of this, he was removed from that volunteer position.
In his lamentation over the disregard for journalistic standards in the coverage of the unfolding child sexual abuse scandal, a notable journalist specializing in religion asks some key questions which I would like to reiterate:
Would quicker laicization have protected children in California? No. Cardinal Ratzinger did not have the power to put Kiesle behind bars. If Kiesle had been laicized in 1985 instead of 1987, he would have remained at large, thanks to a light sentence from the California courts. As things stood, he remained at large. He was not engaged in parish ministry and had no special access to children.
Did the Vatican cover up evidence of Kiesle’s predatory behavior? No. The civil courts of California destroyed that evidence after the priest completed a sentence of probation — before the case ever reached Rome.
In that journalist’s opinion, and I concur: “This was not a case in which a bishop wanted to discipline his priest and the Vatican official demurred. This was not a case in which a priest remained active in ministry, and the Vatican did nothing to protect the children under his pastoral care. This was not a case in which the Vatican covered up evidence of a priest’s misconduct. This was a case in which a priest asked to be released from his vows, and the Vatican — which had been flooded by such requests throughout the 1970s — wanted to consider all such cases carefully.”
When a priest is laicized, he returns to a lay state and is no longer under the control of the Church. Now, the question is: Who is responsible for his actions after laicization — the Church or the civil authority? Cardinal Ratzinger only requested more time to properly consider the request for laicization. In two years, he was laicized. But it took the civil authorities nine years to investigate, prosecute, and finally convict the priest. Who is truly at fault?
The child sexual abuse scandal erupted in the United States eight years ago when evidence emerged that bishops protected abusive priests, kept them active in parish assignments, covered up evidence of the charges against them, and lied to their parishioners.
There is no evidence of such cover-up in this case or any other adjudicated by Pope Benedict XVI.
I urge journalists, columnists, commentators and the media in general to get their facts right in the frenzied discourse of the unfortunate child sexual abuse which has become a hydra-headed monster in our society.
As was recently seen in Malta, Pope Benedict is deeply moved by the stories told by victims and has expressed his shame and sorrow over what they and their families have suffered. He has assured them that the Church will continue to do all in its power to investigate allegations, to bring to justice those responsible for abuse and to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future.
In all fairness to this pope, no one else has done as much as Pope Benedict XVI, and by extension, the Catholic Church, to provide a safer environment for our children.
Today, the Catholic Church — its schools, hospitals and organizations — are the safest environments for children in today’s world bedevilled by sexual predators. The records are there for everyone to see.