"What did they know and when did they know it?"--a variation on a phrase popularized during the Watergate scandal--is now being directed at the nation's Roman Catholic bishops as they scramble to confront the church's sexual abuse crisis.
As it turns out, as early as 1985 the bishops knew more than they admitted about the magnitude of a budding scandal. That year, they were given what critics now regard as a road map for a thorough housecleaning--a prescription that the bishops failed to heed.
The history of this warning, a 92-page report by two priests and a lawyer, may haunt the bishops when they convene in two weeks to discuss solutions to the abuse problem.
The 1985 report warned prophetically that sexual abuse of minors constituted "the single most serious and far-reaching problem facing our church today." And it flatly urged: "Those presumed to be guilty of sexual misconduct, especially if it involves child molestation, must never be transferred to another parish or post as the isolated remedy for the situation."
Since early this year, the nation's newspapers have been flooded with reports of priests who were transferred from parish to parish to cover up their sexual abuse. Only now--as the church reels from hundreds of millions of dollars in payouts to victims and a stunning loss of credibility--are the nation's bishops ready to reexamine the issue.
The bishops, some of whom were involved in cover-ups of the sexual abuse of minors by priests and bishops, are talking about ideas such as "zero tolerance," and "one strike and you're out." They are also calling for far greater oversight by rank-and-file Catholics--an attitude adjustment in a hierarchical church where cardinals are called princes and bishops are addressed as "your excellency."
Yet as determined as bishops say they are to deliver, what happens in Dallas at the spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops belong to a lineage of repeated scandals, denials, half-actions and missed opportunities.
Nothing shows this more vividly than the 1985 report by Father Thomas P. Doyle, the late Father Michael Peterson and attorney F. Ray Mouton, confidentially delivered to the nation's bishops when they met in Collegeville, Minn.
"The entire issued of child sexual abuse ... is displayed prominently across the front pages of newspapers, where it shall remain for at least the balance of the decade....The general awareness and consciousness of the public in regard to sexual abuse of children has reached a previously unattained level and shall continue to escalate with each new revelation of discovered cases of sexual molestation."
--The Doyle Report
"Their backs are against the wall, and that is why this is happening," Doyle said in a telephone interview this week. "There is no evidence of any proactive steps taken by the bishops since 1985. They have reacted to critical press and lawsuits but never solely because people were being devastated by sexual abusers." He called the expected Dallas vote on reform proposals "too little, way too late."
It is a view shared by victims of clergy sexual abuse, and by one of the nation's leading church watchers, publisher Tom Fox of the National Catholic Reporter.
"Had the U.S. bishops taken Tom Doyle and Michael Peterson seriously, the unspeakable pain of thousands of victims, potentially billions in lawsuit settlements, and the tragic shredding of the church's Gospel message of compassion could have been avoided," Fox said. His newspaper is believed to be the first to cover the Doyle report beginning in the mid-1980s. It ran the full text for the first time two weeks ago.
Doyle, Peterson and Mouton called for some of the steps that will be before the bishops in two weeks, including more involvement by Catholic laity in overseeing sexual abuse cases and policies, and national standards that every bishop must meet in guarding against the sexual abuse of minors.
Many church leaders say they have made incremental progress and complain that the media and abuse-victims groups have not given them enough credit for what they have done.
But it is also clear that the nation's bishops were for a long time determined to avoid public scandal. Doyle said that to even suggest a problem, as he and his co-authors did in their 1985 report--which was not made public at the time--resulted in institutional retribution.
Doyle, who had a promising career in the Vatican's Washington, D.C., embassy as a priest who many thought was destined to become a bishop, was virtually exiled after he delivered the report. Today he is an Air Force chaplain stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. "We were unwelcome then and still are, because what we had to say was too blunt, threatening and true," Doyle said.
The scandal's current phase erupted in January with revelations in Boston that a known pedophile priest had been transferred from parish to parish, where he allegedly molested up to 130 boys.
The startling disclosures by the Boston Globe about then-Father John Geoghan have prompted some Catholics to call for Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law to resign.
Geoghan is serving time in a case involving just one boy. Now, trial lawyers are wondering how much other church leaders knew about abusive priests elsewhere, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who kept a problem priest on the job.
The Times disclosed that Father Michael Baker told Mahony in 1986 that he had been abusing boys, but that Mahony transferred him from parish to parish, where abuse allegedly continued.
Baker was allowed to retire in 2000 after Mahony approved a $1.3-million settlement with two men who alleged that Baker had molested them. Mahony says that he was not fully aware of the extent of Baker's allegedly abusive behavior and that he believed him to have been rehabilitated based on therapists' reports.
"Some extremely serious issues have arisen which presently place the church in the posture of facing extremely serious financial consequences as well as significant injury to its image....The criminal considerations, civil considerations, canonical considerations and clinical considerations are of such magnitude, not to mention the other substantial considerations such as insurance and public relations, that it was decided that the presentation of these extraordinary issues necessitated an extraordinary response....Time is of the essence."
"If the bishop is aware of sexual misconduct, or a propensity for sexual misconduct, that took place at an earlier date, does this fact become a critical question in subsequent litigation involving child molestation? In other words, if the bishop has knowledge that a priest sexually abused a child in 1970, does this knowledge affect his liability in the event of a similar incident in 1980?"
--The Doyle Report
The report's suggestion that bishops as well as the offending priest could be held accountable was especially telling since the vast majority of cases making headlines today involve sexual abuse that occurred years ago.
Even in 1985, known claims against the church by victims who had gone to court were more than $100 million, and the report offered a "conservative" estimate that claims would hit $1 billion by 1995.
Of late, bishops have expressed concern that plaintiffs in civil suits would not only go after the priest, but the archdiocese and its bishop as well, because of deep pockets.
"All of these dimensions demand a concentrated degree of attention by the church, the report said. Attorneys for victims have claimed that the bishops should be held responsible because they are in charge and ultimately make the decisions about if and where a priest serves.
"While the welfare of the priest-offender is considered very important to the church officials, the welfare both at the time of the abuse and well into the future of the victims is most important and should be given a priority by [bishops] .... We are speaking not only of psychological effects but also the spiritual effects since the perpetrators of the abuse are priests or clerics."
--The Doyle Report
Bishops during the last several years have repeatedly stressed that their first concern is for the victim and the victim's family. But victims support groups argue that for too long the church put its priests first. Resentment and lawsuits followed. Some victims said they sued only after the church refused to either apologize or acknowledge their pain.
The 1985 report was not totally ignored. But progress has been halting and at times equivocal. In February 1988, the bishops' general counsel issued a statement deploring sexual abuse and offered private counsel to dioceses.
On Nov. 5, 1989, a statement that would be challenged by many today was issued by a bishops administrative committee. "The problem of priests and child abuse is a serious one, but not a very common one. Seen in proportion, it is in fact quite uncommon." The statement went on to say child sexual abuse was not a problem just for the church, but society in general.
By the early 1990s and throughout that decade, the bishops seemed more forthright in expressing concern, even as support groups for victims and others continued to question their sincerity.
In February 1992, the bishops conference publicly recommended that "when there is even a hint of such an incident, investigate immediately; remove the priest whenever the evidence warrants it; follow the reporting obligations of the civil law; extend pastoral care to the victim and the victim's family; and seek appropriate treatment for the offender." But the bishops were not talking in those days about "zero tolerance" or "one strike."
In November 1992 the bishops, meeting in Washington, were forced to address the sexual abuse issue once again when alleged victims picketed their conference hotel. The matter was not on the agenda. After a quick private meeting between a delegation of protesters and several clerics, including Mahony, the conference pledged renewed and stepped-up efforts against sexual abuse.
In 1993, Pope John Paul II called sexual abuse a "scandal" for the church. "I fully share your sorrow and your concern, especially your concern for the victims so seriously hurt," he wrote U.S. bishops. Several months earlier, the bishops' Secretariat for Priestly Life and Ministry warned that the church's credibility was on the line. "We are concerned that the hierarchy's authority and credibility in the United States was eroding because of a perceived inability to deal more effectively with the problem of child sexual abuse," it said.
Even so, the secretariat would not go along with what is today called zero tolerance. "We disagree with the extreme position that would bar all priest molesters, without exception, from future ministry," it said.Later that year, U.S. bishops urged the Vatican to approve changes in church law to make it easier to defrock guilty priests. They also asked the Vatican to raise the age of minors in canon law to 17 from 15. The Vatican subsequently agreed.
The Doyle-Peterson-Mouton report was not an unqualified call for the protection of victims of sexual abuse. Much of it focused on how bishops should maintain secrecy to protect their legal flank.
The report went so far as to say that its contents should not be copied and that bishops return their copies after they had read them. This was to avoid the risk that the material might fall into the hands of victims' attorneys or the press.
Doyle this week said the report was written for bishops' eyes only but that it was always the authors' intent to build on its arguments. Many bishops contend that they acted in good faith in retaining troubled priests based on advice from psychologists.
"It's a cop-out," Doyle said. "What you see is classic institutional behavior when you're caught and you're being accused of something that's horrendous....All you need to do is have an encounter with one victim. You'll get the idea. It's horrific."