Next month will mark the fourth anniversary of the adoption, by the U.S. Catholic bishops, of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The protocol document was the bishops’ response to allegations of long-standing clerical sexual abuse of minors over the past 50 years. While the media, victims’ advocates, and not a few of the faithful in the pews (both liberal and conservative) have tended to paint the problem with a broad brush, several important facts emerge from close studies of the available data, most notably the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study released in February 2004.
First, the majority (55.7 percent) of accused priests have had only one allegation lodged against them. Second, most of the confirmed cases of sexual abuse were perpetrated by repeat offenders; according to the John Jay study, 149 priests had ten or more allegations against them, and they accounted for 26 percent of all allegations. Third, most of the confirmed cases (over 80 percent) were male on male. Fourth, most of the confirmed cases were in large dioceses on the East and West Coasts.
It is hard to tell what to make of the first fact. Priests, like all men, are subject to temptation—indeed, if we, as Christians, believe that they are engaged in a particularly strenuous form of spiritual warfare, we might well surmise that they are subject to even greater temptations than the average layman. It is certainly possible that many of the accused are guilty, and it is also possible that they have had only one allegation lodged against them because that is the number of times that they fell—none of which excuses their sin, but it does potentially place the phenomenon in a context that is often lacking in discussions of clerical sexual abuse. (There is also the possibility that some of those who have had only one allegation lodged against them, especially years after the date of the alleged incident, are innocent.)
The second and third facts speak for themselves. Despite attempts by some victims’ advocates (especially lawyers) to portray the scandal as widespread, vastly underreported, and unrelated at all to homosexual inclinations, the data seem to indicate that the cases of John J. Geoghan and Paul Shanley more accurately represent the crisis—in other words, there were a small number of serial sex offenders in the American priesthood who were attracted to victims of the same sex. The idea that, for instance, the abolition of priestly celibacy would have prevented Geoghan’s or Shanley’s crimes is laughable. Even assuming that either man would have married before he was ordained, his “sexual preference” would likely have won out, despite the assurances of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) that homosexuality has nothing to do with clerical sexual abuse.
And finally, the concentration of cases in the large dioceses of the East and West Coasts is significant, though not necessarily for the reason usually cited (the perceived lack of orthodoxy of such dioceses). Despite the desire to pin all transfers of priests and cover-ups of their crimes on the bishops of their dioceses (and even to allege centuries-long conspiracies among bishops that extend as high as the Vatican), the reality is likely much less Da Vinci Code-ish. Larger dioceses have more complex bureaucracies, and, all too often, the bishop is unaware of much of what occurs. The case of a Bernard Cardinal Law, who may have personally authorized transfers and cover-ups, is much more rare, as the rumored desire, back in 2002, of some American bishops to censure the cardinal indicates.
Witness the recent statements by Francis Cardinal George of Chicago regarding sexual-abuse cases that have occurred in his archdiocese since the passage of the charter. While acknowledging that he bears the ultimate responsibility for the actions of the archdiocese, including the implementation of the charter, he has expressed frustration at his inability to oversee the day-to-day operations of his archdiocese. Responsible (as of 2004) for over 2.4 million Catholics and 944 priests, is it any wonder that Cardinal George must rely on a bureaucracy that has clearly failed him? (Whether any diocese should be allowed to become this large is an important question, but it is one for another day.)
And yet the passage of the charter, its implementation over the past four years, and the implications of these four facts notwithstanding, civil lawsuits against the Church continue to multiply, spreading now to smaller dioceses and involving priests, usually long dead (the vast majority of allegations made in 2005 were against deceased priests), against whom the lawsuit is often the only allegation. Unfortunately, because of the perceived extent of the crisis (which perception may not, as we have seen, reflect reality), every allegation is assumed by the media to be true; every accused priest is assumed to be a Geoghan or a Shanley; and every plaintiff is assumed to be acting only out of the goodness (or, at worst, pain) of his heart and to be entitled to whatever compensation he can wrench from the greedy fingers of a Church that still refuses to reform.
One of the latest lawsuits has been filed here in Rockford—a circumstance that seems particularly ironic, since the bishop of Rockford, Thomas Doran, a renowned canon lawyer, is widely acknowledged as the primary author of the final version of the charter.
On February 23, Donald Bondick, a 50-year-old retired postal worker from Rockford, filed a lawsuit against the diocese of Rockford and against the Conventual Franciscans of St. Bonaventure Province (based in Chicago), alleging that he was sexually abused once in 1969, at the age of 14, by a Franciscan priest, Fr. Ted Feely, who died in 1991. Bondick did not reveal the alleged abuse until June 2002, 11 years after Father Feely’s death. (A second person came forward two weeks before Bondick, though his name has never been released and he has chosen, to date, not to file a lawsuit.)
So far, the story is pretty standard, and it should surprise no one that representatives from Voice of the Faithful and SNAP were present at Mr. Bondick’s news conferences in Rockford and Chicago, or that he is, as the Rockford Register Star reported,
being represented by two law firms with national reputations for taking on the Roman Catholic Church, mostly over allegations of clergy abuse: Jeffrey R. Anderson of Minneapolis and Kerns, Pitrof, Frost & Pearlman.
Mr. Bondick’s lawsuit is attracting attention, however, because, as local TV station WTVO reported, “he claims to have seen former Bishop Arthur O’Neill having sex with a man in the steam room of a local health club” in 2003.
Mr. Bondick alleges he followed Bishop O’Neill back to his residence and confronted him about what he saw, while taping the conversation. On its website, WTVO reproduced an excerpt of the alleged conversation:
Bondick: I just want to let you know I saw what went on.
O’Neill: Well, that guy has been after me for a long time.
Bondick: I don’t know how he could have been after you; you were attempting to have anal intercourse with him right in the shower. I just think if your [sic] going to do that, do that in private.
The lawsuit also alleges that Bishop O’Neill confessed to a diocesan official to “having sex with the man at the healthclub.”
The media covering the press conferences in Rockford and Chicago either reported the allegations concerning Bishop O’Neill uncritically (as WTVO did), or they ignored them altogether, while reporting on the lawsuit. (Bishop O’Neill, the current vicar general for the diocese, is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.)
Both courses of action are unsatisfactory from a journalistic standpoint. Those who decided not to report the allegations, presumably because they could not determine whether they are credible, implicitly called into question their own decision to run the rest of the story—after all, the same man is making both claims. And those who did report the allegations were obligated to attempt at least a minimal determination of their credibility.
How credible are the claims regarding Bishop O’Neill? Let’s start with the last one. No journalist can possibly believe that the diocese would have told Mr. Bondick what Bishop O’Neill said. Moreover, it is hardly believable that Bishop Doran would continue to allow Bishop O’Neill to appear in public as a representative of the diocese (one of his chief duties as vicar general) if he had admitted to such behavior. To believe such an allegation, one would not have to believe that Bishop Doran is a scoundrel; one would have to believe that he is a fool, and no journalist who has even casually observed him throughout his career could possibly believe that.
The tape recording would appear to be more damning, though the excerpt reported by WTVO hardly indicts Bishop O’Neill—the only mention of homosexual sex (and then only an “attempt”) comes from Mr. Bondick after Bishop O’Neill allegedly speaks.
The recording itself raises other questions. If Mr. Bon-dick followed Bishop O’Neill back to his residence from the health club, where did the tape recorder come from? Was he in the habit of taking a tape recorder to his health club?
Moreover, the First Amendment Handbook of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press points out that
Twelve states forbid the recording of private conversations without the consent of all parties. Those states are California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington.
At his press conferences, Mr. Bondick claimed that he held the tape recorder in plain view between himself and Bishop O’Neill. In other words, he alleges that Bishop O’Neill was aware that he was being taped and yet held an incriminating conversation with him. Even setting aside the credibility of that claim, the mere awareness or even acknowledgment of a recording device is not enough to prove consent, so any tape of the alleged conversation may still not be admissible in court. A journalist who has any experience covering civil lawsuits should certainly entertain the possibility that Mr. Bondick and his lawyers are using the tape to make a splash in the media to try to convince the diocese to settle without a trial. Indeed, Jeff Anderson & Associates boasts of settling “over 90% of the cases where monetary damages are paid and non monetary changes are implemented to prevent further victimization.”
Some media outlets may well have decided not to publish this sensational allegation because it strains credulity beyond the breaking point. At the time of the alleged health-club incident, Bishop O’Neill was 85 years old. Any journalist who has observed him over the past decade knows that, although he is intellectually quite spry, his physical health is another matter. But if this particular allegation strikes a journalist as incredible, shouldn’t it raise questions about the veracity of Mr. Bondick’s other allegations?
From the beginning, however, journalists have shown not even the slightest interest in examining Mr. Bondick’s credibility. In fact, last July and August (six months before Mr. Bondick filed his lawsuit), the Rock River Times, a local weekly newspaper, took the extraordinary step of granting him pseudonymity to tell his story in a five-part series.
The editors justified their decision this way: “All non-clergy members’ names have been changed due to the nature of the alleged abuse and the age of the victim at the time of the alleged abuse.”
Mr. Bondick alleges he was abused at the age of 14, but in 2005, at the age of 49, he was allowed to make public allegations against a dead priest under a pseudonym. What journalistic purpose could possibly be served by such a decision?
From the standpoint of the journalists covering Mr. Bondick’s February 23 press conferences, however, these stories are valuable, because of the discrepancies between Mr. Bondick’s current allegations and those that he made under cover of the pseudonym “Thomas White.” And yet, as I write this a month later, not a single local journalist has examined any of those discrepancies—including the reporter who wrote the five-part series for the Rock River Times.
Let’s start with the tape of Mr. Bondick’s alleged conversation with Bishop O’Neill. None of the five articles in the Rock River Times makes mention of a tape. The reporter, Melissa Wangall, details a conversation between Mr. Bondick and “a cleric from his boyhood church,” and she includes dialogue in quotation marks, as if it were direct quotations; nowhere does she indicate that it is paraphrased. But the dialogue is quite different from the excerpt published by WTVO:
“I saw what you did with that man back there in the health club in the shower.”
“The man that you were anally copulating [sic].”
The cleric replied, “That man’s been after me for a long time.”
White said, “As I saw it, you were sodomizing him.”
White began to cry. Through his tears, he said, “I was abused by Father Ted—”
“Feely,” finished the cleric. “He was a Franciscan.”
White asked, “How much did you know about the abuse going on in 1969?”
The cleric replied, “I didn’t know too much.”
White continued to cry as the religious leader stood with his head down.
After a long pause, the cleric stated, “You taught me a valuable lesson.”
“How’d I do that?”
“You taught me not to do such foolish things in public places.”
Let’s assume that the tape existed at the time of Miss Wangall’s interview of Mr. Bondick in June 2005. Then we have two possibilities: Mr. Bondick informed her of the tape, or he did not. If he did, then why doesn’t the dialogue in the Rock River Times match the excerpt from Mr. Bondick’s news conference? No conscientious reporter, informed of the existence of such a tape, would print dialogue in quotation marks without verifying it by listening to the tape himself.
Therefore, we must assume that Mr. Bondick did not inform Miss Wangall of the existence of the tape. But now we have two more problems. First, how can Miss Wangall justify placing hearsay in quotation marks? And second, if Mr. Bondick had the tape of the conversation in his possession for almost three years, how could the account of it he gave to Miss Wangall be so different from the transcript of the tape? At the very least, wouldn’t he have refreshed his memory before his interview, or even transcribed the conversation and referred to his notes?
Moreover, Mr. Bondick had already been guaranteed pseudonymity, so what practical reason could he have had for keeping the tape secret from Miss Wangall? One possibility springs to mind (besides the possibility that the tape did not exist in June 2005): Perhaps Mr. Bondick did not want to show all of his cards in case he ever did file a lawsuit. In that light, the articles in the Rock River Times appear as a stalking horse for Mr. Bondick’s lawsuit. Get the story out there; influence the possible jury pool; gauge the public reaction; and then decide whether to proceed. If so, then Miss Wangall and the Rock River Times allowed themselves to be manipulated to serve Mr. Bondick’s purposes.
The alleged encounter with Bishop O’Neill highlights other discrepancies between Mr. Bondick’s story now and the accounts in the Rock River Times. As local TV station WIFR reported:
The Rock River Times articles, however, give the opposite impression, ascribing “Thomas White’s” long-term abuse of alcohol and drugs, his own drug-dealing, his inability to commit to relationships, his troubles with the law, and his suicidal depression to his memories of abuse. At one point, he even states: “I never forgot the abuse . . . I just kind of pushed it down.” He tells of warning others to stay away from Father Feely and of telling his own son and his son’s friends, in 1999, that, if “a priest touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you have my permission to beat the s— out of him.”
If Mr. Bondick’s memory of his alleged abuse returned in 2002 after the alleged encounter with Bishop O’Neill, why did “Thomas White” tell the Rock River Times that the encounter took place in 2003, several months after he claims to have revealed the alleged abuse to his wife? And why, in June 2005, did Mr. Bondick have a different account of why he revealed his alleged abuse, telling the Rock River Times that:
In 2002, an article in the Chicago Sun-Times reported a priest had abused former Major League baseball player and sports announcer Tom Paciorek and his brothers when they were children.
White, who was a Chicago White Sox fan, had followed Paciorek’s career and the former baseball player’s revelation hit home.
Sitting across from his wife at the kitchen table, White broke down. He confessed to her the abuse he had endured over the years [sic]. After speaking with his wife, White then told his son, his mother and siblings.
Finally, after Mr. Bondick’s press conferences, several media outlets claimed, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, that “he remains Catholic and last month became Rockford coordinator of the Catholic activist group Voice of the Faithful.” Yet, in August 2005, Miss Wangall reported that
White now feels disenfranchised with the church, and hasn’t regularly attended mass since 2002.
“I have more respect for organized crime,” White said. “At least they admitted what they were. They never denied what they did.”
Those remarks echo ones made by Mr. Bondick on March 4, 2005, in a review he wrote on Amazon.com of Survivors of Predator Priests: “The Catholic Church is criminal in the handling of these cases over the decades and centuries and should be exposed for what they truly are—monstrous criminals.”
And, only a month and a half before filing his lawsuit (on January 6), he wrote a review on IMDb.com (of the horror movie Hostel), which included the lines:
If you desire real horror, just talk to any of the thousands of survivors that suffered brutal sexual abuse and torture at the hands of the Roman Catholic Clergy. Then there are the Bishops that knowingly moved these pedophile monsters all around the world—for centuries.
And a month before filing his lawsuit (on January 21), he wrote on the SNAP Survivors Network Bulletin Board that “I don’t give anything to the Roman Catholic Church since coming forward in 2002. They are liars, thieves and criminals and will not receive our hard earned money, time or attendance.”
When it comes time to file a lawsuit, it is, of course, better to appear as a faithful victim than as an embittered ex-Catholic. When it takes all of 15 minutes to discover the truth on the internet, however, how do journalists justify their uncritical “reporting” of Mr. Bondick’s faith-fulness, or of his other claims?