And so it’s Chicago’s turn to have its documents on sexual abuse put on public display. “We realize the information included in these documents is upsetting,” said the country’s third largest archdiocese in a statement. “It is painful to read. It is not the Church we know or the Church we want to be.”
But of course it is the Church we know — an institution where some adults in positions of authority sexually abused minors in their charge and the higher-ups for years did what they could to shield the abusers. To be sure, abusers can be found in all institutions that work with minors, and it is not uncommon for the superiors to behave similarly, to protect against lawsuits and disrepute.
But the Catholic Church is a special case, even among religious bodies. Consider the following letter that the current archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, wrote in 2002 to the Rev. Norbert Maday, then serving a lengthy prison sentence in Wisconsin for molesting two altar boys.
I thank you for your kind greetings on my birthday. Your thoughtfulness took me by surprise, but I am glad to get a personal note from you. I try to keep up with you through the Vicars for Priests.
We have tried, as you know, a number of avenues to see if your sentenced [sic] can be reduced or might be reduced or parole be given early. So far, we have not had any success, but I personally hope that you will not lose hope.
We’re approaching Lent, and you’ll have a very special place in my prayers as we approach that season of penance. Again, I’m very grateful that you wrote.
Fraternally yours in Christ,
It would it be very strange if the principal of a public high school wrote such a letter to a teacher who had been sent to prison for abusing a student. High school principals have — or should have — nothing like the relationship a bishop has with his priests.
When George wrote the letter, Maday remained a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago, and thus his spiritual son. Five years earlier, when Maday’s mother died, the governor of Wisconsin was persuaded to let the body be transported to the prison so the priest could pay his respects — and George wrote to the governor to thank him for his act of charity.
In due course, George changed his mind about Maday, who never owned up to his guilt. The priest was defrocked in 2007 and after being released from prison last summer, the archdiocese forswore all responsibility for him.
As appalling as it is that the priest-bishop relationship should have rendered bishops — again and again — more sympathetic to the perpetrators than to the victims of sexual abuse, there is something wonderful about these ties that bind the Church’s leadership community. They are familial ties.
But as in natural families, they limit what can be expected when it comes to reporting bad behavior. For that reason, the rules must be cut and dried, and beyond the discretionary judgment of the bishops. Even today, after more than a decade of putting rules and regulations into place, they cannot be depended upon to judge their priests objectively. Not all of them. Not all the time.