Important new books on RCC clergy sex abuse scandal

Michael D’Antonio, Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal (Thomas Dunne Books 2013)

Ray Mouton, In God’s House: A Novel About One of the Great Scandals of Our Time (Head of Zeus 2012)

No matter how hard they try—and they have given it all they have—the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy cannot keep the truth of its callous and calculated disregard of children from reaching the mainstream media and seeping into our common culture.   You may think that you already know all there is to know on this topic, but three recent developments in the media—one movie deal, a non-fiction book, and a novel—will laudably raise the level of awareness to new levels.  These works should push even those in denial to reconsider their position, and our federal and state legislators to do what is right, which is to focus on the victims, not the lobbyists for the Church.The Movie Deal With DreamWorks Studios

The Boston Globe reporters who, in 2002, broke the story of the Catholic hierarchy’s cover up of child sex abuse by priests in the Boston Archdiocese recently inked a deal with DreamWorks Studios and Participant Media to produce a feature film on the subject.  DreamWorks does nothing by halves, so this should be a strong contribution to the question of how the public came to know that bishops were vulnerable children’s worst enemies.   It is important that a movie be made that focuses on the reporters’ breaking the story itself, and I hope that the screenwriters and director will be searingly honest about how long the story sat at the Boston Globe before it was finally printed.

Until the Boston Globe made history in 2002, and its reporters accordingly won the Pulitzer Prize, the media was actually complicit in the cover-up of abuse in the dioceses.   Until relatively recently, the media was frightened of stories putting the Catholic Church in a bad light.  DreamWorks would do well to include some of the media history that occurred before this story broke, including the pressure that bishops put on papers to let them take care of the issue in private.  There was an egregious lack of coverage across the country, with reporters losing their jobs or being re-assigned to another beat if they broached the topic, and editors resolutely refusing to bring such stories to print.  Indeed, one Milwaukee reporter, Marie Rhode, had the story first, but was re-assigned to another beat, which created the opening for the Boston Globe reporters to work on the story

That was the era that I have dubbed our “Pollyanna years,” when we all shared a belief in the myth that religious groups only do good.  It was taboo to point to the bad behavior of some religious organizations, which, of course, was disastrous for the vulnerable, like children left alone with predatory adults, who used the blind faith in religious organizations and cunning to persuade adults to trust them. I was chastised as recently as 1997 for using the term “religious lobbyist.”  Of course, between the clergy sex abuse crises and 9/11, those days are over.

The Nonfiction Book, Mortal Sins, by Pulitzer-Prize-Winning Investigative Journalist Michael D’Antonio on the Clergy Child Sex Abuse Scandal in the United States

A new non-fiction book is a tremendous addition to the fund of our understanding of this crisis. It is entitled Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, and it is a searing and deeply engaging account of the contemporary battles that have been waged against the culture of secrecy and cover-up maintained by the Catholic hierarchy.   The extraordinary quality of the writing makes this difficult story both readable and impossible to put down.

The crusaders for the victims, so hated by the hierarchy, feature prominently. They include survivors and national leaders Barbara Blaine and David Clohessy of SNAP; former monk and brilliant psychologist Richard Sipe; pioneering and visionary trial lawyer Jeff Anderson; and the heroic Fr. Tom Doyle, who is also a central character in the amazing historical novel In God’s House, which I review below.  While each of them have had their fair share of press on the issues, there are stories here that have never been put together for the public before.

You will be shocked and disgusted at the hierarchy, and you will find yourself cheering for the survivors who had the guts to tell the truth about the abuse, as they distanced themselves from their past, and sometimes their families, and, at the same time, turned away in anger and disgust from the largest and oldest religious organization in the world.  There are also the parents, who suffer torments typically relegated to a parent who has lost a child.  At the same time, there are moments of triumph, hope, and heroism.

Mortal Sins is filled with facts and sharply-drawn people, and includes a very useful Index on the crisis, but it is far more than a collection of facts.  In fact, D’Antonio has crafted a compelling story that needed to be told with his big-picture focus, and gifted way with words.  He keeps the reader’s attention despite a storyline that spans decades, and includes dozens of players.

The book is larger than its topic, as well, because abuse has reared its ugly head in our churches, synagogues, mosques, universities, schools, teams, and families.  It is a moral necessity that we examine this monster closely, memorize its features, and never forget it.  Then we must devise by all means possible the traps that will remove the monster from our midst, and find the sunlight that will illuminate a path out of this dense thicket.  It is really too late to be shocked, because it is time, right now, to fix our ways.  Mortal Sins takes us past the shock, into the understanding that is the precursor to a society solving its most deep-seated problems.  Please read this book for our children, and their children.

A Great Southern Novel, In God’s House, on the Beginning of the Abuse Scandal in the United States, Written by One Who Was There

While fact-based books document the truth, it is rare that they fully capture it.  Ray Mouton’s recently published In God’s House pierces to the beating heart of the scandal in a riveting novel.  It is written in the best of the Southern novel tradition, and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the greatest.

The irony of this book is that Mr. Mouton was the devoutly Catholic young, Louisiana lawyer who was hired by the Diocese of Lafayette in 1984 to defend the serial pedophile Fr. Gilbert Gauthe, who had made a habit of having the altar boys sleep over the night before altar practice.  In Mouton’s words in a 2002 CBS story, Gauthe did “[e]very sexual act you can imagine two males doing” with these boys, night after night.

In God’s House, though, does not focus on the acts of abuse, but rather illuminates the twisted darkness in the hearts of the bishops (and eventually the Pope) as they reacted to the emergence of a scandal for which they lacked the skills, morals, or souls to fix.  This is the account of where the scandal began in the United States.  Abuse has been going on for centuries, but the public scandal is mere decades ago.

It is to Mouton’s credit that he opted to write a great Southern novel, rather than an autobiography.  No one would have blamed him if he had done the latter, given his heroic and early role in this story.  But the Southern literature genre is a perfect fit for the clandestine, backward-looking hierarchy, and the deep but often muted suffering of the victims and their families.  That means that the story is riveting and truly impossible to put down, despite its 500+ pages! At the same time, it is filled with accurate historical detail, because, of course, he was there.

I do not believe that any other account of the scandal does a better job than Mouton’s novel does of peering into the essential craziness of the men in power in the Church who used theology to justify the persistent endangerment of children by men whom they knew full well were abnormal.   Mouton’s character development is masterful, as it brings to life the faces and mannerisms of the evil that is cloaked in clerical garb and installed in the mansions of the bishops.  There are echoes here of the South African Dutch Reformists who crafted the foundation of apartheid straight out of their theology, and the American Protestant ministers who enlisted the Bible to justify slavery.

The story starts in Louisiana as it focuses on this one pedophile priest, and I dare not give away too much, but the protagonist is transformed by what he learns, which drives him to eventually find his way to a fictionalized Tom Doyle, a rising star priest who was in the Papal Nunciature in Washington, DC, and, who, to those who know him, leaps from the page as the man we deeply admire.   It is worth your while to read both Mortal Sins and In God’s House even if you only do so to become acquainted with this giant in the movement for justice for our children.

Both of these books, so very different, but both so illuminating, have the goods to make them candidates for feature films of their own, each of which may one day be rightfully honored at the Academy Awards.  That means we may have a trilogy of popular movies someday on the clergy sex abuse crisis.  Children will be safer if we do.