Home/Rod Dreher/The Cancer Of The Cover-Up Mentality

The Cancer Of The Cover-Up Mentality

Father Joseph Maskell (screenshot from 'The Keepers')

When the seven-part Netflix documentary The Keepers came out last year, a number of readers e-mailed to tell me I should watch it. Set in Baltimore, it centers on the unsolved 1969 murder of a young nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, and the search led by two amateur sleuths (former students of Cesnik’s) to find her killer. Their investigation uncovers a 1960s-era sex abuse ring involving a now-dead priest, Father Joseph Maskell, and a cover-up in the Cesnik murder investigation by both the Baltimore police and the Archdiocese of Baltimore. I knew that much without watching the series, and I judged that I didn’t have it in me to enter into that world.

But after interviewing Stan Schulte last week, and hearing him talk about how watching The Keepers inspired him to come forward with his own story of abuse at the hands of his uncle, a Catholic priest of the Lincoln diocese, made me decide to watch it.

It is a stunning piece of work. I won’t discuss it in detail, because I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t watched it (it’s still streaming on Netflix). There is an explosive surprise in the final episode that reveals the worst about the Church and how it handled the matter, especially when a couple of Maskell’s victims filed a civil suit in 1994. This isn’t ancient history. This is Baltimore under Cardinal William Keeler.

One of the film’s conclusions is that if the Archdiocese had acted to stop Maskell the first time his sex abuse was reported to them, Sister Cathy would probably still be alive, and over 30 more victims would never have been raped. The Keepers is about institutions and systems — in this case, the Church and the State (in the form of the police) — conspiring to keep terrible secrets buried. Two observations made by figures in the film stand out to me.

The first was at around the 28-minute mark in Episode 4 — something a professor of psychology says when she recalls going to see her friend Father Maskell in a rectory near the end of his life. He was very sick. The 1990s-era civil suit brought to light allegations that he raped teenage girls at Keough High, the Catholic girls’ school where he had been assigned as a chaplain and counselor. The professor had not known these things about her friend Joe. She says she asked him if it was true that he had done those things. He did not answer. She asked him then if he thought it was moral. She said:

“He told me he thought it was moral because he was protecting the Church at the time. I think the worst moral thing for Joe would have been to get the Church in some sort of problem.”

The second comes at around the 54-minute mark in Episode 7. The wife of a man who might have had something to do with Sister Cathy’s murder says that she’s confident that her husband is innocent. But:

“If there were ever any remote possibility that he had been involved in something criminal, I would want that brought to light. The truth is more important than some story that we tell ourselves to keep our lives untroubled on the surface.”

Those two points deeply resonate with the kinds of things we’ve been talking about in this space since the McCarrick story broke — in particular, with events in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. As I’ve said, Lincoln was a shock to me, because I have always believed, both as a practicing Catholic and as a former Catholic, that it was an island of solid orthodoxy. Things broke open there after I published two weeks ago former Lincoln priest Peter Mitchell’s essay about his experiences in the ideal conservative diocese. Mitchell wrote that it was a mistake to say the scandal is isolated to liberal dioceses:

I went to Lincoln when I was 20, believing that by going to a “conservative, traditional” seminary program I would find a place immune from the systemic problems that I knew infested “liberal, progressive” seminaries. I could not have been more mistaken.

When I arrived in Lincoln to be a seminarian, I was introduced to the vocation director and told I needed to follow his directions if I wanted to become a priest. This man, Monsignor Leonard Kalin, was the vocation director for the Diocese of Lincoln and pastor of the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska for an entire generation (1970-1998) under two bishops with a reputation for impeccable orthodoxy. When he died a decade ago, Kalin was remembered publicly as a good and holy shepherd of young souls. It was a façade.

After Mitchell’s essay appeared, more stories emerged, not only about the late Monsignor Kalin but also concerning contemporary priests — including  Father Charles Townsend, sent away last year for dubious “health reasons” but put back into parish life without warning parishioners. Bishop James Conley has been on the defensive. He admitted error in that particular case, and is having to deal with lay Catholics who are angry at him for what they consider to be covering up to protect the Church, and other lay Catholics mad over what they believe to be his unfair treatment of Father Townsend.

It’s been shocking to me to learn this stuff both about the Diocese of Lincoln and Bishop Conley, a man I have long respected. Granted, this is scarcely in the same universe as the kind of things that have happened in other dioceses, much less the horror story told in The Keepers. Nevertheless, if there’s any lesson that the Catholic Church (and the rest of us) should have learned since 2002, it’s that lies that minimize sexual abuse for whatever reason, and that leave others vulnerable to predators, are wicked, and must be cast out. A lie to cover for a priest becomes no more justifiable if it is told by a “good” diocese, or if the sin and the crime being covered for is less outrageous than systematic rape. The truth is more important than some story that we tell ourselves to keep our lives untroubled on the surface.

I read on this blog over the weekend the following comment on the Church’s mess. I know the author, who is a conservative Catholic:

I’m a pessimist on this and the catastrophe may not be the one you’re thinking of. I think one of the hopes people have for this crisis is that at least something as monstrous as McCarrick’s abuse will unite orthodox Catholics in such a way that real change can come about. If anything, the McCarrick and Conley cases have deepened divisions among conservative Catholics. There’s a large number of people who are alarmed that all the focus on the crisis will drain energy and focus needed for the new evangelization and political activism. In particular, they’re worried that taking out a guy like Conley whom Weigel talent-spotted at UD and brought to Chaput’s attention years ago to secure his appointment as auxiliary in Denver and who now as bishop contributes behind the scenes to conservative causes in many ways will damage the cause of orthodox Catholicism for years to come. If anything, this latest round of allegations has left upper-middle class Catholic lay intellectuals as divided as I’ve ever seen. And the worry is that once the orthodox Catholic united front cracks on these issues, secularists and liberal Catholics will have a wide opening to push through all sorts of changes. It’s been really hard to even raise these issues in conversation and a lot of friendships have frayed or snapped because of this. At this point, I don’t see anything constructive coming out of this.

That’s news. I had not thought about the extent to which the orthodox Catholic case depends on the Diocese of Lincoln, with its vibrant orthodoxy and relatively large number of vocations, being a showplace of how to be faithfully Catholic. If the political and evangelical cause of conservative Catholicism requires one to turn a blind eye to clerical wrongdoing in Lincoln, and poor governance by one of the most beloved conservative bishops, then what good is it? Why should people trust them with power?

By his own admission, Bishop Conley erred in the way he handled Father Townsend, who has now resigned his pastorate. Why couldn’t the bishop have been straightforward with the people of St. Peter’s parish, who had a right to know what was going on with their pastor? The only plausible explanation I can see is that he kept it quiet “for the good of the Church.”

Having watched The Keepers, I can see why it inspired Stan Schulte to go public with his abuse claim. Schulte had first gone to Bishop Conley with testimony that his priest-uncle had molested him, and Conley took it so seriously that he imposed restrictions on that priest (who denies the charges, by the way). But Schulte was unnerved by seeing his uncle interacting with minors on Facebook, and in turn by how vulnerable minors who interacted with his uncle might be owing to the shield of silence. The restrictions the diocese imposed on the accused priest amounted to saying: “Trust us” — an imperative that, in the matter of priest sex abuse, no diocese has the right to expect anyone to obey any longer. As Schulte told me:

I have been fighting all by myself for the past nine months. These unknowing parents are sitting there, with the children as Facebook friends with my uncle the priest. The diocese has not warned them about him. We have such blind trust for priests. He has access to their children. They don’t even know what’s going on because the diocese has hidden it under ‘health issues.’

I think Stan Schulte acted in the spirit of the woman in The Keepers who said that truth matters more than the stories we tell ourselves to keep our lives untroubled. I also think, though, that Bishop Conley acted out of what is apparently a deep impulse within many clergy, at least older ones: that the moral worth of an action depends on whether or not it protects the Church. And by “protecting the Church,” they don’t mean protecting the people of the Church, especially its children, who are the most vulnerable; they mean protecting the image of the Church, most of all its clerics.

You might have seen this by now infamous clip of eager-beaver Father Thomas Rosica’s powder-puff interview with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. At the 3:36 point, Fr. Rosica says that out of the McCarrick catastrophe, the Church now sees that bishops have to be able to care for bishops, and cardinals for cardinals. Cardinal Wuerl agrees.

This Catholic theologian had no particular person in mind when he tweeted this below, but it brought to my own mind the Wuerl- Rosica conversation:


In that spirit, why did Bishop Conley bring to Lincoln and put to work Bishop Robert Finn, who failed so badly in Kansas City that he had to resign after being convicted of not reporting child sex abuse. According to a January 2016 article in the Lincoln Journal Star:

A Catholic bishop who was the first American priest convicted of not notifying police of suspected child abuse in a timely manner is now the chaplain at a Lincoln convent.

But Lincoln’s bishop said Robert Finn paid for his mistake by completing two years of probation and deserves mercy.

Finn became chaplain of Lincoln’s School Sisters of Christ the King convent in December after serving as bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for 10 years.

He cited personal reasons when he resigned as a bishop in April in the aftermath of a child pornography scandal involving one of his priests, Father Shawn Ratigan, and a subsequent Vatican investigation into Finn’s effectiveness as a leader.

As chaplain for the School Sisters of Christ the King, Finn celebrates Mass, hears confessions and serves as spiritual adviser to the more than 30 nuns who live in the convent. He succeeds Monsignor Myron Pleskac, who died Jan. 2.


Finn was the first American priest to even be indicted for failing to report suspected child abuse to police “in a timely manner.”

He learned in December 2010 that Ratigan had child pornography on his computer involving children in the Kansas City diocese. According to reports, Finn immediately removed Ratigan from the school and ordered him not to have contact with children.

But the photos were not reported to police until five months later, and by that time, Ratigan had taken more photos of another young girl in the diocese. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Finn and the diocese were each indicted on two misdemeanor counts of failing to report the abuse. A judge found Finn guilty of one count and sentenced him to two years on probation. The diocese paid a $1.1 million civil fine for violating the terms of a 2008 civil settlement regarding the Kansas City diocese and a history of child sex abuse.

Bishop Conley told the newspaper that his invitation to and reception of Bishop Finn was an act of mercy:

“It is a grace to welcome Bishop Finn to our diocese, to continue his priestly ministry as chaplain to the School Sisters of Christ the King,” Conley said in a written statement. “Priests and the faithful of our diocese have told me how glad they are to have him here. Bishop Finn has been a longtime friend to the School Sisters — and in God’s mercy, he arrived just as their beloved chaplain passed away.

“Of course, Bishop Finn has faced legal issues related to administrative decisions, he’s addressed them appropriately, and they’ve been resolved. The faithful of our diocese can be confident that his ministry as a chaplain to the School Sisters of Christ will be a grace for all of us, and a witness to God’s enduring mercy.”

Emphasis mine. “Legal issues related to administrative decisions” is a rather cold-blooded way of characterizing the Shawn Ratigan affair, which led to Finn’s conviction and, after a Vatican investigation, forced resignation. Here is a summation from the Kansas City Star (9/6/2012):

Those facts included an acknowledgement from Finn that he is a mandated child abuse reporter under Missouri law. The stipulation also contained a long recitation of the now-familiar facts of the case with several new insights.
Those included:

• A June 2010 conversation between Finn and Ratigan, in which the bishop told his priest that “we have to take this seriously,” after a Northland Catholic school principal complained to the chancery that the priest was behaving inappropriately around school children.

• A chancery computer manager’s determination in December 2010 that only four or five of the hundreds of lewd photos found on Ratigan’s laptop had been downloaded from the Internet. The rest appeared to have been taken with a personal camera.

• Ratigan’s denial, while hospitalized for a suicide attempt, that he had sexual contact with children or had any images of children involved in sexual acts on his computer.

• A statement from a Pennsylvania psychiatrist, who found that Ratigan was not a risk to children, which appeared to support the priest’s contention that he was the victim of mistreatment by a school official who complained about his conduct around children.

• A note that Ratigan’s “treatment” with the Pennsylvania therapist in early 2011 consisted entirely of telephone conferences.

• A letter from Ratigan to the bishop in February 2011 in which the priest admitted having a pornography problem. “I am going to give you a brief summary of how I got to where I am with my addiction to pornography,” Ratigan wrote.

• Finn’s acknowledgement in a March 2011 email that Ratigan had issues around children. “I am quite concerned about him attending” a sixth-grade girl’s party, Finn wrote. “I think this is clearly an area of vulnerability for” Ratigan.

• Finn’s statement at a meeting with other priests after Ratigan’s arrest that he had “wanted to save … Ratigan’s priesthood” and had been told that Ratigan’s problem was only pornography.

The stipulation also explained Murphy’s decision to call authorities in May 2011. Murphy complained that he was not receiving direction from the diocese’s lawyers and had misgivings about the diagnosis of “loneliness” from the Pennsylvania psychiatrist. Murphy said he had become “horrified” of the prospect that the photographs were not merely downloads from the Internet but were images of children that Ratigan had abused.

“I thought this is just moving along with no direction, and I thought I have got to do something,” the documents quotes Murphy as saying.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said after Thursday’s trial that Murphy had taken an important, if belated, step to protect children, and acknowledged that her office had agreed not to prosecute him in exchange for his cooperation in this case.

“But for the acts of Monsignor Murphy, we’d never know,” Baker said. “And Father Shawn Ratigan would not be in a federal prison awaiting sentencing.”

Ratigan, 46, pleaded guilty in August in federal court to five counts of producing or attempting to produce child pornography.

And there’s this detail:

In January 2011, Finn had removed Ratigan as pastor and sent him for evaluation and counseling. But by late winter, Ratigan was assigned as a chaplain to a sister’s convent and living with a group of Vincentian priests in a suburb east of Kansas City.

There was no known supervision of Ratigan and he remained in contact with families from his former parishes, attending family gatherings and meals. It was later learned that Ratigan used these occasions to take images of children using his cell phone, some of them questionable.

Ratigan was found guilty in federal court in September 2013 of producing child pornography and sentenced to 50 years in jail. He was laicized in January 2014.


The costs of Finn’s legal defense totaled $1.39 million, the diocesan paper reported in 2012. At that time, the diocese had spent nearly $4 million for other clergy sexual abuse claims.

In March 2014, an arbiter ruled the diocese had violated five of 19 child safety measures it agreed to as part of a 2008 settlement that awarded $10 million to 47 plaintiffs. In August of that year, a Jackson County circuit judge upheld the arbiter’s decision that the diocese pay $1.1 million for breaching the terms.

“There can be no doubt that the diocese, through its leadership and higher-level personnel, failed in numerous respects to abide by the terms,” Jackson County Circuit Judge Bryan E. Round said in his decision then.

Let’s not be bloodless about this. Here, from the diocese’s own investigative report (which I quoted at greater length in this 2011 entry), is what investigators found on Father Ratigan’s laptop:

Julie found the following: hundreds of photos of girls mostly under the age of 10  with  some  clothing  (swimsuits,  underwear,  etc),  photos  of  one  female between  2‐3  years  of  age  showing  full  vaginal  exposure  and  full  buttocks
exposure,  multiple  saved  Flickr  links,  multiple  links  to  young  female Facebook  pages,  a  “favorite”  to  a  spy  pen  that  allows  you  to  take  photos (looks like a ballpoint pen) and a “favorite” for two way mirrors (no longer a valid website so we were not able to identify purpose of site).
In  the  hundreds  of  photos  it  became  obvious  the  viewer  is  focusing  on  the female  pelvic  region.  It  is  also  obvious  that  some  photos  were  taken from a camera positioned under a table in which girls were sitting in their swimsuits or under playground equipment in which girls were climbing above.  There is
also a photo with a little girl sleeping and someone has changed the location
of her hand  and  clothing while  she  sleeps  to  take  the photos.    It  appears  that
4‐5 photos were downloaded while the others seem to have been taken from
a personal camera…

The photos of the 2‐3 year old female “‐‐‐‐‐‐” were in a separate folder titled
with  her  name.    These  photos  are  the  only  photos  that  were  found in which
you see full vaginal shots and a buttocks shot.

Understand that Bishop Finn and his team knew this, but still thought it worth leaving Father Ratigan in ministry, though in another assignment. The bishop made this call after having Ratigan evaluated by Philadelphia psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons, who, like Bishop Finn, is a member of Opus Dei. Fitzgibbons concluded that Ratigan was not a pedophile, and that his enthusiasm for pictures of little girls’ crotches was because of “loneliness” and “depression.” On the basis of that evaluation, Finn sent Ratigan to live with the Vincentians, where he got in trouble again. More from this report on his sentencing:

Three of the counts for which he was sentenced Thursday involved him touching children while posing them for pictures, according to prosecutors.

In an incident involving a 2-year-old victim in the choir loft at St. Joseph Church in Easton, Mo., Ratigan touched the girl’s buttocks. He touched the inner thigh, buttocks and labia of another 5-year-old victim who was photographed, prosecutors said.

In a third incident involving a girl who was 8 or 9 at the time, he touched her inner thigh, buttocks and labia.

“Ratigan also touched her buttocks through her clothing for the obvious purpose of obtaining more sexually explicit photos,” prosecutors said in their memorandum.

In arguing for a lengthy prison sentence, prosecutors said that after the first photos were discovered, diocese officials ordered Ratigan to have no contact with or photograph children and not use a computer.

“Within months, he was violating every one of the above restrictions,” prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors said that even after Finn confronted Ratigan about the violations, Ratigan used his cell phone to take non-sexual photos of prepubescent girls, including pictures of the crotch area of minor who was visiting his residence on Easter Sunday.

Bishop Robert Finn’s judgment was disastrous. If you go back and look at this 2011 piece from me, you’ll see that Finn and his team relied on extremely legalistic readings of the law and procedures to justify keeping Ratigan in ministry. It is hard to conclude other than that they were eager to give the benefit of every doubt to this troubled priest, and little to no consideration to his potential and actual victims. That piece has a report on a Kansas City layman who declined to be ordained to the diaconate because he could not trust Bishop Finn in light of all this.

After leaving behind Kansas City in disgrace, Finn found refuge in Lincoln. Bishop Conley, in a Journal Star column defending the move, wrote:

I invited Bishop Finn to Lincoln because he desires to spend his retirement serving the Church. He does not have a position of authority, administration, or oversight. He has a purely religious role, in an appropriate adult setting, which he has undertaken in humility. He is not paid by the Diocese of Lincoln; his role of chaplain provides him only room and board. Bishop Finn has not ever been accused of sexual abuse of children. His ministry as chaplain does not represent an issue for anyone’s safety.

The anger of former abuse victims or their relatives is understandable. Their pain is real, and the Church has an on-going duty to help them heal. But those who have acknowledged and paid the penalty for past actions, who seek to serve in humility, and who pose no on-going danger to anyone, have a right not be harassed and disparaged once justice is served. To do otherwise is not justice; it is malice. And it is not worthy of our community.

Again, legalism! Finn served two years probation on his conviction. The concern of Lincoln laity would not be that Finn might grab their children; there’s no reason to believe that. I could well be punitive (that he wasn’t made to suffer sufficient consequences for his failures in Kansas City) and/or protective: that a bishop or a priest so demonstrably insensitive to child sex abuse shouldn’t have a diocesan role.

Bishop Finn’s primary role in Lincoln is to serve as chaplain to a group of nuns who teach in local Catholic schools. It does not strike me as malicious to wonder if a bishop of Finn’s manifestly poor judgment is a good choice to spiritually advise nuns who oversee children. Finn has expanded his ministry in Lincoln, having given a retreat for catechists, and, I am told, doing confirmations.

Is it really malicious to be bothered by the presence of Bishop Finn in a ministerial capacity in one’s diocese? Why is it harassment and disparagement to say so? It’s fair to ask whether or not the Finn case is about bishops sticking by bishops through thick and thin, or about defending the Catholic faith and the flack through thick and thin. I have no doubt that Bishop Conley believes the latter. But then, as we have seen over these last years, clericalism, to borrow a concept from Jonathan Haidt, binds bishops and priests into teams, but also blinds them to reality.

What is the role of theological orientation in all this? I wrote last week about how startling it was to see leader of the Napa Institute, a conservative Catholic organization, issue a strong call to holiness and episcopal accountability while at the same time hosting the failed Archbishop John Nienstedt, who left Minneapolis in disgrace over sex abuse-related corruption in his archdiocese. Nienstedt is a conservative, which apparently covers a multitude of sins and failures in some eyes.

Granted, the cornfields of Nebraska aren’t the same as the vineyards of Napa, but was Finn given a soft Midwestern landing from his Kansas City fall because Bishop Finn, like Bishop Conley, is a staunch theological conservative? Finn really had done a lot of good in Kansas City when he first arrived, making the diocese more orthodox — a fact that magnifies the tragedy of his Ratigan failure, but does not obviate it. Ratigan was himself a theological conservative, which makes one wonder if that had anything to do with the kid gloves with which Bishop Finn treated him.

Similarly, the fact that Bishop Conley is such a strong conservative, admirable in many ways, magnifies, but does not obviate, his recently exposed failures in Lincoln.

Catholic conservatives angry over what Conley’s travails do to the wider project of promoting Catholic orthodoxy ought to be honest with themselves. The damage is done not by victims and critics telling the truth, but by the efforts to conceal for the alleged good of the Church. I’ll end on this.

Remember Richard Fitzgibbons, the conservative Catholic psychiatrist who badly advised Bishop Finn that Father Ratigan wasn’t a pedophile?  Though I had written about his involvement in the Ratigan case, I had forgotten about it until researching today.

In 2002, I was tipped off that Dr. Fitzgibbons was one of the Catholic laity who flew to Rome before Newark Archbishop Ted McCarrick was moved to Washington, a cardinatial see. I was told that he was one of the group of Americans who warned the Vatican not to move McCarrick, because he was a molester.

I phoned Dr. Fitzgibbons in Philly back then to ask him if he had been on this trip. His answer: “If that were true, I wouldn’t tell you for the same reason that Noah’s sons covered their father in his drunkenness.”

He didn’t confirm or deny his participation in the trip, but by referencing the story from Genesis 9, Fitzgibbons was saying that protecting the image of the Church justified being silent about Cardinal McCarrick. Note well that McCarrick is a progressive, and Fitzgibbons is a conservative — but protecting the Church’s image was more important to him.

All of this about McCarrick could have come out in 2002, and been dealt with, had Fitzgibbons, among others, cared more about truth and accountability than shielding the cardinal from the consequences of his moral drunkenness.

This cover-up mentality is a cancer.

UPDATE: In a piece about Cardinal Angelo Sodano — aside from the Pope, the most important Vatican power broker — John Allen gets to the mentality I’m talking about here. Excerpt:

To begin with the clearest case, “zero tolerance” obviously implies that the direct commission of sexual abuse requires swift and stern discipline, and we now know that standard holds even for Princes of the Church due to the example of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

We also know, at least in theory, that covering up abuse by others is also a violation of the “zero tolerance” policy, meaning that it, too, is supposed to draw sanction – though proving such knowledge, as opposed to suspecting it, is often surprisingly difficult.

Where it gets stickier is when the charge isn’t committing a crime or a cover-up, at least not directly, but simply being on the wrong side of history – showing such poor judgment, such tone-deafness and insensitivity, as to suggest ignorance of the magnitude and depth of the abuse crisis, thereby rendering the Church’s response weaker and less convincing.

Allen points out that Sodano has never been accused of sexual abuse himself. More:

On the other hand, there’s little question that the cumulative weight of Sodano’s career suggests an official who’s been unwilling, or unable, to take on board the real nature of the clerical abuse crisis, and he hardly inspires confidence in terms of a robust commitment to reform.

Granted, Sodano is now 90, yet he remains the Dean of the College of Cardinals, and if Pope Francis were to die tomorrow, he’d still preside over the daily meetings of cardinals in the run-up to the conclave to elect a successor. Moreover, Sodano is active despite his age, and is widely seen in Rome as exercising significant behind-the-scenes influence through an extended network of friends and proteges, especially in the Secretariat of State.

As Francis ponders what “accountability” for the abuse scandals implies, sooner or later he’ll likely have to consider figures such as Sodano – officials who may not be guilty of a crime or a cover-up, but whose choices and statements have left many observers, especially abuse survivors, wondering exactly how serious the system truly is about “zero tolerance.”

It’s about accountability, and how seriously Church officials take the seriousness of the horror of child sex abuse.

UPDATE.2: A reader sends in a strongly skeptical analysis of The Keepersby someone who thinks that recovered memory is fraudulent.

UPDATE.3: Stephen Brady, head of the (now defunct) conservative Catholic activist group Roman Catholic Faithful, wrote in 2007 that Bishop Finn reassigned to parish work a priest who had been found by police to have a huge trove of gay porn — though no child porn. Cops investigated after a parishioner of Father Anthony Pileggi’s found pornography on his computer, and alerted police. No charges were filed because the porn turned out to be legal. But a police report was filed, and RCF investigators obtained a copy of it. Brady recalls:

In November 2006, RCF sent one page of the police report to parishioners at both parishes and included a cover letter, which stated (in part):

Once you read the enclosed information, I am sure you will understand the need to write. RCF believes, as the Church teaches, in the infinite value of each and every soul. As a father of seven children, I am especially concerned about damage that can be done by a priest who does not accept Church teaching and/or lives a life of filth. Any bishop who would place such a priest in a position of authority at a parish or school is not fit to be a bishop. He shows a complete disregard for the souls of the unsuspecting faithful.

One week after RCF’s letter was received at both parishes, Finn removed Pileggi and sent his own letter to parishioners which stated (in part):

It is with great sadness that I write to you today. As many of you know from letters sent by an Illinois based group [Roman Catholic Faithful], Fr. Anthony Pileggi cooperated fully with an inquiry conducted by the Missouri Highway Patrol last spring. …Law enforcement found no evidence of criminal activity and doctors report that he has no sexual attraction to children or inclination to child pornography.

…As bishop, I take seriously any allegation of improper behavior by people serving in the name of the Church. In consultation with my advisors and Fr. Pileggi’s doctors, I came to believe that he could serve the faithful of Our Lady of Lourdes. …Now, with the release of the internal documents of the Highway Patrol, the controversy has been magnified. Because of my care and concern for everyone involved, Fr. Pileggi will no longer be your pastor and will leave the parish.

According to the bishop’s letter, it seems there was nothing wrong with appointing Pileggi as pastor of a parish and school as long as the parents did not know of his past. Would a ‘good’ bishop do such a thing?

Strangely enough, I wrote about this in 2011 on this site, in a post asking when a clergyman should lose their position. That post began:

I mentioned in an earlier post that in the Orthodox Church in America, an archdeacon who left his position to go to California to “marry” another man was restored to active ministry after he came home and reportedly repented. My view is that even if a cleric who does that repents and is restored to full communion, he still should not be in ministry. How can he be taken seriously as a spiritual leader after that? Should one forgive him and receive him back as a fellow sinner and communicant of the Church? Yes, absolutely, no question. But not as a deacon, or as a priest. To whom much is given, much is expected.

We ought not to expect our priests and deacons to be perfect, but when they commit serious sins that speak to a graver disorder impairing their Church ministry, they rightly lose the confidence of the faithful. When bishops allow priests and/or deacons who have transgressed in particularly egregious ways to remain in ministry, it shows a certain contempt for the faithful, in my view, or at least an stunning lack of sensitivity. The primate of my church, Metropolitan Jonah, was wrong to have signed off on this when he was in charge of the Diocese of the South — though to his credit, he later tried to reverse it when this was pointed out to him. The bishop who currently has authority over this situation, Bishop Nikon of Boston (locum tenens of the Diocese of the South), is aware of it, and has done nothing.

But where do you draw the line? What are the “unforgivable sins,” so to speak, from which an ordained minister cannot recover his ministry, and ought to be removed?

I believe use of pornography is one. A pastor who has a pornography addiction, or even simply a hobby, is not trustworthy as a spiritual leader. At least, I couldn’t respect or trust him. Could you? Would you trust him to hear the confessions of your children? Me, not for a second.

The conservative Catholic writer Matt C. Abbott tipped me off then to what Finn did with Pileggi, and to Stephen Brady’s column. In it, Brady asked rhetorically if people would trust their children to play in the yard of a neighbor who was preoccupied with gay porn. I added:

No, of course not. Nor would I allow my children to spend time in the house of a heterosexual neighbor who was sexually attracted to young women and spent hours a day viewing straight porn. It is morally insane that a bishop would find this behavior not disqualifying from the ministry (and for the record, Fr. Pileggi serves today at a parish in Kansas City). [UPDATE 8/14/18: I can’t find any record of him in ministry today — RD]

The faithful in all churches — Catholic, Orthodox, and otherwise — have to be able to trust our leaders to deal with moral clarity and resolve in cases like this. People don’t want  and don’t need to know the personal problems of our clergy — unless we can’t trust the bishops to be looking out for the interests of the whole church, instead of the clerical class. There are surely some exceptions, but as a general matter, I don’t believe we can. The breakdown of trust is profound, and I don’t know how it gets fixed. Putting programs and procedures in place is not enough. In the end, you have to be able to trust the judgment of the bishop. Good luck with that. Honestly, I have never understood why a situation in which the right thing to do is clear to a garbageman or a check-out clerk is not clear to a bishop. I guess it takes advanced theological education and ordination to the episcopate to believe that a priest addicted to gay porn is still fit for ministry, or that a deacon who flees his post to marry a man but changes his mind can be restored to the altar, as if it never happened.

Once again, this is evidence of clericalism. Bishop Finn back then saw what was good for Father Pileggi — keeping his priesthood — as more important than what was good for the Catholic laity of his diocese. The Father Ratigan thing was yet to come, but the instinct to put the supposed good of the priest over the greater good of the Church was already present.

By the way, another Diocese of Lincoln priest has been removed from his post by Bishop Conley, who had previously told this priest not to be alone with females.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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