I had a terrible shock last week. I was thinking about a guy I had known in high school. He was the nephew of our neighbor and I met him when I was 13. Nice guy.
I was wondering what he looked like now, so many years later, so I did a Google search to see if there was perhaps a photo of him on line. I found one, but it was attached to a TV report of his having been accused of inappropriate conduct with one of his students and asking if others were also abused by this man they should contact the TV station. The article was old, and I couldn't find a follow-up to discover whether he had been convicted or not, but it did say that he was forbidden to teach or have contact with children again.
I know that there are false reports, and witch hunts and that an accusation, true or false, can brand a person for life. I hoped that this accusation was false. I just couldn't picture him as being a child molester.
But then last night I watched an HBO special called Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa, about the sexual abuse scandals in the US and the coverup by the Catholic church. It concerned especially one priest. Father Lawrence Murphy, who taught in a school for the deaf in Milwaukee, and his abuse of more than 200 boys over his time there, the attempts to have him defrocked, and the letter written by one of the boys, as an adult, which sparked the first known public protest against clerical sex abuse in the US, a case which ran for more than 30 years and even included a lawsuit against Pope Benedict XVI himself.
The director of this documentary, Alex Gibney, explains how he happened to become involved: I had read a story in The New York Times about a particularly horrific abuse case involving some two hundred deaf boys who had been abused by a priest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. What made the story stand out for me were the documents that were revealed as part of the investigation which led straight to the Vatican - not only to the Vatican, but to Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. That seemed to me a story that hadn't been told yet. And to understand the story and see its connections all the way to the top-that really intrigued me.
The other thing that intrigued me were the heroes at the center of the story, the deaf men. The film is called Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Obviously the silence refers to the silence of the church in the face of these crimes. But it also refers to the silence of these deaf men, these people who somehow managed to have their voices heard, even though they couldn't be understood by most hearing people. That seemed to me miraculous: amidst all of this darkness, there was a ray of light. Or better, in the midst of this ghastly clerical silence, there was a voice for justice.
Father Murphy had it great. He was well liked by the parishioners of the local church, the parents of the boys under his care, and the nuns in the school. He spoke American Sign Language fluently, which many of the parents did not, so he was the translator between the boys and their parents, which meant, of course, that there was no way the boys could communicate to their parents what was happening to them, even if they were brave enough to do so. The few boys who did attempt to tell their parents were punished because "the good father wouldn't do such a thing."
He would go into the boys dormitory at night and choose a boy or two to molest. Since everyone was deaf, nobody could hear him. Some of the boys knew what was going on because they saw the light when the door opened.
Watching the grown men telling their stories (in sign language, with voice over) was very affecting. The men must be in their 70s now and the pain of the memories lingers, the anger against the priest is still there.
The whole issue of sexual abuse of children by priests has been one that I have been passively following since the 1980s, when I first learned about special centers all over the world set up for priests who are known molesters. You know--those centers where they go for a few weeks or months and then are let back into local parishes, without any warning whatsoever to the pastors, and put in charge of children, over and over again. It infuriated me in the 1980s, and it infuriates me even more now, especially after watching this documentary.
There was a time when the Pope (I think it was John Paul at that time) said this was an American problem and that this sort of thing did not happen outside of the United States. The pope lied. At the time Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) had collected all reports of abuse by priests and consolidated them under his office, making him the most knowledgeable person in the world about the extent of priestly abuse...there are even reports going back to the 18th century.
Mea Culpa follows the scandal in Ireland and follows the story of Marcial Maciel Delgollado, a prominent church fund raiser and good friend of John Paul who even admitted to molesting more than 100 children, but still remained JP's good buddy.
The things that were revealed during this documentary were sometimes jaw dropping, like transferring of funds from various dioceses in the U.S. to the Vatican, so the dioceses could declare bankruptcy and make payment when lawsuits were filed impossible.
One priest was tasked with doing investigation for the Vatican on reports of abuse. This man seems to have been very dedicated, thinking that he would actually have the power to do something, but what the Vatican really wanted him to do was to take his $7 million budget and pay off the victims fr as little as he could negotiate. Everyone had to sign a confidentiality agreement and if they violated the agreement and talked about their settlements it would result in an automatic excommunication from the church. The priest was so shocked and discouraged by what he was being asked to do that he left the priesthood.
Gibney was asked how the church has changed since the scandal(s) came to life: Judging from statements from the Vatican, it's as if there has barely been a sex abuse crisis. They really haven't reckoned with it. Even worse, they keep saying it's over, and then more dimensions of the cover-up are revealed. I mean, Pope Benedict has apologized, but in a way that seems so vague and indistinct and didn't at all reckon with the church's role in covering up these crimes.
The documentary points out, several times, that when faced with having to acknowledge that abuse has occurred, the immediate church reaction is to minimize the involvement of the priests without saying one word about the effect on the victims of the abuse.
I will remind everyone that this is the church which is fighting tooth and nail to prevent two people who love each other to make a permanent commitment to each other, which has actively worked to end any outreach to the gay community, and who continues to throw around epithets like "perverted," "disordered" and "intrinsically evil" when speaking of gays and lesbians.
When Father Murphy died, after years and years and years of lawsuits being filed against him or against his superiors who covered up his actions, he was given a full Catholic burial, in his priestly garments. The deaf man who was molested as a boy and who originated the first lawsuit was paid off with $500.