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Sex Abuse: Different Pope, Same Strategy

Pope Francis this past September named an American Jesuit, Fr. Robert Geisinger, formerly the head of the Chicago Jesuits, to be the Vatican’s top prosecutor for serious crimes, including child sexual abuse. The Boston Globe reported this weekend that Fr. Geisinger had extensive knowledge for years about a serial sexual abuser within the Jesuit order, a Fr. Donald McGuire (who is now in prison), but went along with the Jesuits’ keeping the abuser in ministry. One of the chief critics of Geisinger is my friend Phil Lawler, editor emeritus of Catholic World Report, who, with his wife Leila, had a personal connection to the McGuire scandal. From the Globe:

Catholic author Lawler said Geisinger’s apparent failure to recommend stronger action in the McGuire case before the proceedings to expel him from the priesthood raises questions about his fitness to prosecute sexually abusive priests.

“What I want to see in this role is someone who will plow through the institutional resistance to prosecution,” he said. “Somebody could make the case that Geisinger was only being a loyal adviser to those in positions of greater responsibility, but the case that you cannot make is that he was aggressive.”

Lawler and his wife, Leila, housed one of McGuire’s victims during the 1999-2000 school year when the victim was an eighth-grader at the Trivium School, a small Catholic school in Lancaster. Both complained about McGuire’s behavior during his visits with the boy, but neither the school nor the Chicago Province took action to stop him.

“The boy was not abused while he was here but he was abused after he left us, after we had communicated our fears to [McGuire’s] Jesuit superiors,’’ Lawler said in a 2012 Globe interview. “That makes me livid.”

Years later, the Lawlers’ boarder notified law enforcement authorities about multiple incidents of abuse by McGuire during trips to other states and other countries, which led to federal charges of traveling in interstate and foreign commerce for the purpose of engaging in a sexual act with a person under 18 — and led to McGuire’s 2008 criminal conviction.

Got that? The fact that McGuire is in jail today is not because of anything the Jesuits — including Fr. Geisinger — did, but because one of the victims called the cops on him.

In 2011, San Francisco Weekly wrote about the McGuire case, including mentioning that Jesuit fathers Joseph Fessio — ironically, the publisher of the magazine Phil Lawler used to edit — and the late John Hardon, heroes to to orthodox Catholics, were part of the conspiracy of silence around McGuire. The Jesuits have known that he had a thing for boys since — are you ready for this? — 1964. Excerpt:

McGuire’s case sounds many of the same themes as other priestly abuse scandals that have convulsed the Catholic church over the past decade. Yet experts say he stands out, both in the harm he did to families and the extremely detailed paper trail left behind. The latter factor can be attributed largely to McGuire’s identity as a Jesuit.

Founded by the soldier turned saint Ignatius of Loyola in 1534, the Society of Jesus, as it is officially called, is organized under a rigid, quasimilitaristic order. Its administrators record their actions and conversations with the diligence of government bureaucrats. As a result, phone conversations, correspondence, and general reflections on McGuire were often preserved in written form, though the Jesuits initially denied they had the information when a criminal investigation of his actions began in 2003.

What those documents portray is a criminal career marked not only by the destruction of many young lives but by a particularly twisted modus operandi. McGuire seemed to revel in the elaborate torment of his victims, perverting the sacraments into vehicles of abuse and turning vulnerable boys against their parents. One of his more notorious practices was to coax admissions of masturbation out of his victims under seal of confession — and then massage their genitals as part of the process of penance.

“If I had to make a Top Five list [of predator priests], Donald McGuire would be number one,” says Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk who performs investigations on behalf of abuse victims suing the Catholic Church. “He truly is the Hannibal Lecter of the clerical world. He did more psychological and physical damage to children than anyone else. And what makes it worse is that the Jesuits knew about it, and did nothing.”

I am genuinely shocked to read that even as late as 2011, Father Fessio was defending his behavior in this matter:

Some of McGuire’s colleagues maintain they acted appropriately and according to guidelines accepted in church culture at the time. “As soon as I knew of any allegation, I reported it to the proper [church] authorities. I didn’t report it to the police, but I don’t think I should have reported it to the police,” Fessio says. “I think it’s the proper way to do things. There are a lot of false allegations going around. It can destroy a man’s life and reputation.”

I’m sorry, but what? What about the victims?! Are the laity not people too? Clericalism, man, clericalism. It is a curse.

Here’s a Chicago Tribune story from 2013 about how much and for how long the Chicago Jesuits knew about Don McGuire’s rapes and molestations — and said nothing to law enforcement.

And now, Pope Francis has made one of those Chicago Jesuits his chief sex abuse prosecutor. A big reformer, that Pope Francis.

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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