Cleansing the Catholic Church of Its Sins


By Andrew Sullivan

There are several cases where Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now archbishop of Washington, clearly protected and enabled child rapists. Photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

After a while, I couldn’t continue reading the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse in six dioceses in the Catholic Church. Apart from the rising nausea, I realized the horror of each incident had begun to numb my conscience, and the sheer number of cases had numbed it still further. One case is a tragedy; thousands of cases can too easily become a statistic. Like dealing with Trump’s lies, you can get dizzy following the specific horrors committed against children, and the excuses and prevarications and silence of so many in the hierarchy. Which is why specifics matter. They reveal the core nature of the evil involved.

And so we come across a case like this: A teenage boy called George was befriended by a young priest in his twenties, Reverend George Zirwas. The boy’s family saw this as a good influence, as most Catholic families in the 1970s and 1980s would have. One afternoon, the priest invited George, who was around 14 at the time, to a rectory 25 minutes south of Pittsburgh, where he met several other priests: “During a conversation about religious statues, the priests told George to get onto a bed and remove his shirt, and strike a pose like Jesus on the cross. Then they instructed him to strip off his pants and underwear,” writes the Philadelphia Inquirer. “In the unnerving moments that followed, George claimed that [the priests] began taking photos of him on a Polaroid camera. All of the priests giggled — and then added the photos of George to a collection of photos of other teen boys.” This was a grooming gang.

The sex this gang had with the selected boys and teens was, according to the grand jury report, filled with “whips, violence, and sadism.” Then this, per the Inquirer: “The men gave a specific gift to children they favored, something they could wear that would mark them as prime targets for abuse. Zirwas ‘had told me that they, the priests, would give their boys, their altar boys, or their favorite boys these crosses,’ George told the grand jury. ‘So he gave me a big gold cross to wear.’” Literally marking potential victims of rape with the sign of the cross … how am I supposed to grapple with that? If Stephen King had collaborated with Voltaire, they could not have come up with something this evil.

And then the kicker: the diocese was aware of Zirwas’s abuses as early as 1987. Zirwas continued in the priesthood until 1994, when he was placed on leave, citing “personal reasons.” Bishop, soon-to-be Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua did nothing to punish or report this man for molesting countless children. Then he was actually re-appointed as a priest by Bishop Donald Wuerl, who is now a cardinal in my own archdiocese of Washington. When another complaint of abuse found its way to Wuerl, he removed Zirwas, who then moved to Florida, fled to Cuba, and was found strangled to death in Havana in 2001. Nonetheless Wuerl presided at Zirwas’s funeral and made some remarks: “According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wuerl described how Zirwas was a kind man, and had preached a message of salvation through faith in Jesus. ‘A priest is a priest,’ Wuerl said that day. ‘Once he is ordained, he’s a priest forever.’”

This case is, in many ways, a microcosm of the entire wicked business: the abuse, the cover-up, the continued abuse, the conspiracy of silence. But more deeply for this Catholic: the cynicism. The giggling priests — by their very actions — could not possibly believe in the Gospels. They were merely using the Gospels to commit unspeakable crimes. The upper ranks, by their indifference and cover-up, are also deeply suspect. There is simply no way to square a belief in the Gospels and enabling, promoting, and covering up the rape of children. All of these men come off as cynics, incapable of summoning the overwhelming sense of outrage any nonbeliever, or any decent human being, would feel in the face of this kind of accusation; all protecting their own ranks, all far more committed to good public relations than saving children. There is simply something deeply wrong with these people.

Take Wuerl. Some have argued that the report is a “mixed bag” for him. He did over time come to dismiss or suspend any priests credibly accused of abuse. He helped formulate new procedures for dismissing them. And cases of abuse have plummeted since the reforms were put in place. But not always. He’s mentioned 15 times in the report, none positively. Zirwas is one case where Wuerl clearly protected and enabled a child rapist. But there are three other cases where Wuerl — along with the network of psychiatric facilities that the church opened up to launder its abusers — kept child abusers in their jobs. This is not a “mixed bag.” Any enabling of a single act of child abuse is disqualifying for the priesthood, let alone for the Curia. And Wuerl’s attitude tells you so, so much. When his predecessor as archbishop of Washington, Cardinal McCarrick, was dismissed for child abuse and sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians, Wuerl said that it was not “a massive, massive crisis,” merely “a terrible disappointment.”

I’ve tried to grapple with that word “disappointment.” That is the emotion you feel discovering that one of the most powerful men in the church — someone you knew intimately — had molested children and abused young priests under his authority? And notice that he is still focused on McCarrick. The children, the survivors, the human wreckage? Not so much. In an interview on Wednesday, Wuerl did not offer an apology for the child rape he enabled, pushed back against parts of the report, and insisted that handling of child abuse cases had “evolved” over the years, until the current zero-tolerance policy. Wuerl actually set up a public relations website to defend himself — a site that the archdiocese mercifully took down after a few days. All I can say is that I cannot understand why any human being — let alone a bishop — wouldn’t immediately suspend the priest and call the cops after a credible allegation. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 1980s, 1990s, or 1890s. You save the children first. And instead of PR, what about shame, penitence, taking responsibility and begging for forgiveness? Are those only for the laity?

How much of a role did homosexuality play in all this? There is of course a vital distinction to be made here between sexual orientation and sexual abuse, and between being gay and being a pedophile, hebephile, or ephebophile. Many gay priests are fine and honorable servants. It horrifies me they are tarred by association, by some of the more reactionary voices in the church. It’s also true that one reason young men and boys were targeted was that they were far more readily available to priests than girls.

But it remains true that the overwhelming majority of Catholic abuse cases are between men and boys, or men and men, not men and girls, or men with women (although that happened too). And the way in which homosexuality has been treated by Catholicism — the only option for all gays is a life of celibacy and emotional repression — is not likely to lead to healthy homosexual lives, let alone priests.

Homophobia may also have increased the proportion of priests over the centuries who have been gay, because the priesthood has always been a reliable cover for not dating women. And these closeted, fucked-up gays are the ones who may well have internalized many of the slurs against gays in the past, hated themselves, never come to terms with themselves, and seen no real difference between sexual abuse and sex. So gay priests may well have covered this stuff up for aeons, or formed cliques that perpetuated it, or developed personae that could create some campy subculture to make the awful contradictions and cruelties of sexual repression and self-loathing bearable. When no form of sex is allowed, all forms of sex can seem equally immoral. And if your celibacy has ever slipped, you sure don’t want to snitch on someone else, do you?

It’s a vicious, destructive, evil circle. Which is why, it seems to me, that the clerical closet has to end. Secrecy and shame abet sexual dysfunction. Openness and self-respect are the cure. If a priest is celibate and openly gay, he is in no way disqualified for the priesthood — the church teaches that being gay is in itself no sin — so why can’t he be out? The stricture against this kind of honesty and transparency has only compounded the fucked-upness of it all. Allowing married people and women to be priests is also a no-brainer. We have long discovered that secretive, hierarchical cabals of single men are usually trouble in any context and I have a feeling that a female priest would not react to the news of an abused child with concern for the abuser. The church’s moral credibility is now close to zero. All the more reason to throw open the doors and let the light in.

I’ll add one final thought. I can’t help asking myself: How long has this been going on? More to the point, how would we ever have known about it until the modern era? The authority of priests was near-total in the past, especially in Catholic countries or Catholic communities. Any child complaint would have resulted in the disciplining of the child, not the priest. Concern for children was historically minimal, compared with today, and most countries have never had the kind of journalism that is able to go up against the church and prevail. And once you can see the proof of principle — a Cardinal who got away with molesting a child and abusing countless grown men for decades — you can barely imagine what happened in decades or centuries past. I have wakeful nightmares about this. Is it all a giant, cynical scam, as my old friend Hitch would insist, night after night, over drinks?

And that is why this past week has been so shattering again for many Catholics. We may still believe in Jesus. But precisely because of that, we can no longer believe in the church. No one is untouched. Even Pope John Paul II personally advanced and championed one of the worst abusers in the church, the Legionaries of Christ’s Marcial Maciel Degollado, because of the money he brought in, and the rigid ideology he upheld. And they made John Paul a saint! This is no time to shore up the institution. It’s time to open it up and cleanse it. We could start with Cardinal Wuerl.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s