In recent months, as horrifying allegations of homosexual and pedophiliac activities among Catholic priests in the United States have multiplied, the response of the American Church has been, to say the least, disheartening.  Remarks by Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston, Roger Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles, and Francis Cardinal George of Chicago have clouded the issue.  Amid the turmoil, the words of Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, the second-largest diocese in Illinois, have seemed a “voice crying in the wilderness.”  Writing in the February 22 issue of the Observer,
the newspaper of the Rockford diocese, Bishop Doran condemned clerical sexual abuse in no uncertain terms:

The words of Christ regarding those who harm the innocence of children are to be before our minds as we think about these things.  “It would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea”. . . I say without fear of contradiction that every priest who so violates the confidence placed into his hands at ordination by molesting children or adolescents sexually or in any other way or for any purpose should suffer that fate.

Since no allegations of sexual abuse have emerged in the Rockford diocese, it is tempting to say that, finally, Rockford has found an area in which it is not simply average, but to do so would be to join the media frenzy.  While Bishop Doran is one of shining lights in the American Church and his statement is far and away the best, most hard-hitting commentary on the scandal released by any American prelate, the truth is that Rockford is typical of American dioceses.  Now that the allegations of abuse have largely played themselves out, two conditions have emerged: First, the number of priests accused of abuse amounts to about one quarter of one percent of all active Roman Catholic priests in the United States (and, since many of the accused priests are retired, that percentage is on the high side); second, plotting the alleged cases of abuse on a map reveals a United States that is far more divided than the red/blue America of the 2000 presidential election.  Allegations of abuse have been confined largely to the East and West Coasts; most of the cases in between are found in large urban dioceses.  (In this, the Archdiocese of Chicago seems the exception.  Joseph Cardinal Bernadin moved aggressively, during the last round of scandal a decade ago, to institute strict guidelines for dealing with such allegations; this time around, the media has had to dig up old cases to bring Chicago into the story.)

Unlike some American prelates, who have used the scandal as an excuse for attacking the Church itself, Bishop Doran, a superb canon lawyer and former advisor to Pope John Paul II, points out in a later column in the Observer that “the rules of conduct and the moral standards which bind bishops forbid” the reassignment of priests known to have abused children and warns that “these events, which are in themselves disgusting and horrible beyond words, will now be politicized by people in the church with different points of view”:

Those on one side will use it to condemn the Church’s discipline of celibacy saying that a celibate priesthood is responsible for this. . . . [I]n fact, the best science today tells us the crime of pedophilia is quite unrelated to anyone’s station in life.

More disturbing, perhaps, are conservative or traditionalist attacks on the Church:

there are those who will say these crimes are proof of the laxity with which men are admitted to the seminary and priesthood—in spite of the fact that seminaries and dioceses and religious congregations have been very careful to assess the proclivities of those who apply for admission to our ranks.

Attacks from the right are often bound up with a smug moralism, which manifests itself in a desire to make the scandal seem even more widespread than it is.  Chronicles contributing editor Philip Jenkins, whose 1996 book Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis has been cited in Vatican documents, has been accused of downplaying the seriousness of the scandal because he insists on placing the allegations in context.  (You can read his response to those accusations at

In the end, however, the turmoil in the Church comes down to one thing: the persistence of evil.  As Bishop Doran writes:

Sometimes people’s intentions are good.  They look the other way, or they misjudge the nature of the problem.  That was, it must be said, once the case with respect to pedophiles.  Not so many decades ago the best science said their obsession could be cured, or at least treated and brought under control, in the same way that people can be freed from the snares of alcoholism and drug addiction. . . .


Now we know better. . . . [W]e all must join together in beseeching God to make us duly conscious of the monstrosity of this evil.

Unfortunately, some American prelates still show no sign that they understand that sin is a condition that can only be treated by true repentance, not psychology, and that some temptations are so powerful that the only reliable way to keep from giving in to them is to avoid the occasion of sin.  Let us pray that Bishop Doran, who clearly understands that the
wisdom of Christianity has not been trumped by modern psychology and liberalism, may be a beacon for his fellow bishops.