Catholics in Crisis: Sex and Deception in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia

As the Archdiocese reels from a second grand jury report detailing its cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, the local church faces the biggest crisis in its history. How could a spiritual institution turn a blind eye to evil not just once, but twice? The answer lies in the story of the two men who’ve led the Catholic Church in Philadelphia for the past 25 years

When Joe got to Father Schmeer’s office, the priest told Father Durante, who was in the next office, to watch the door. Father Schmeer brought Joe into his office and stood behind him. His fingers dug into Joe’s shoulders. He pressed against Joe. Then he reached into the front of Joe’s pants and tried to masturbate him.

A month later, Joe was called down to Father Schmeer’s office again. This time, standing behind him, the priest pulled Joe’s pants down, and his underwear, and pushed his penis into Joe’s anus, and kept at it until he was satisfied.

The next day, in English class, Joe’s teacher—a lay teacher—asked him if he was all right. He said he was. The teacher knew what had happened. So did his classmates. One of them said, “You got it, didn’t you?” From Schmeer the Queer. That’s what students called him. Joe was singled out, teased. He was called a faggot by the tough kids, the football players. One day, Joe lost it. He took on the quarterback right in front of his English teacher, who did nothing to stop the fight. Joe pounded the quarterback into the floor right there in front of other students.

The football players never bothered Joe again. But his grades got even worse, and he barely made it out of ninth grade. Somehow, he graduated from Roman, then joined the Air Force. For a long time, he couldn’t have relationships with women. Eventually, he would marry—and in a cruel, bizarre twist, it was Father Schmeer who would marry him, because Joe’s parents, unaware of the abuse, requested that he officiate. Joe felt that something was wrong with Father Schmeer, and he didn’t want to be married by him, but he wasn’t sure what he was feeling—the abuse was deeply buried.

Joe would father five children. He worked various blue-collar jobs. As he tells his story in the Ridge Diner, two things are apparent: Joe is speaking from a place of deep honesty, and he is a broken man. In therapy, he’s been recalling exactly what happened to him in Father Schmeer’s office. It’s been deep inside him for more than 40 years. Joe says he is looking for his soul, and holds his hands cupped next to him, as if that soul—the size of a small child—might be waiting beside him in the booth.

Joe was not the only boy Father Schmeer raped. According to the 2005 grand jury report, another man came forward in March 2002 and told how Father Schmeer had abused him sexually, also in the late 1960s. When the man came forward, he spoke to Monsignor William Lynn, whose job it was, under Cardinal Bevilacqua, to question victims. The man, named “Kevin” in the grand jury report, said that he knew 15 or 16 other boys who had been abused by Schmeer.

Monsignor Lynn questioned Father Schmeer about the allegations the following month—April 2002.

Schmeer said he never abused Kevin. He did not even recall his name. Still, he agreed to undergo an evaluation at Saint John Vianney Center in Downingtown, where priests with various problems, especially alcohol abuse, have been treated since 1946; for just as long, priests who sexually abuse children have been treated there, too. The Church prefers that we think sexually abusive priests are a relatively new phenomenon, that Rome and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia first learned of it when the general public did, in the past decade or so. In various ways, however, the Church has known about, avoided, and sometimes tried to actually deal with sexual abuse by clergy for centuries.

Therapists at Vianney concluded that the allegations against Father Schmeer could not be substantiated “based on all available data.” But some “data” were missing—including Kevin’s claim that 15 or 16 others had been abused and that Father Schmeer had been accused previously of sexual misconduct with a parish cook. The therapists did read Father Schmeer’s denials and Monsignor Lynn’s contention that there had “never been any other reports of Father Schmeer being involved with any adolescents or, for that matter, with anyone else sexually.” An “ex-priest friend”—Father Durante, who had watched the door back at Roman while Joe was raped—also vouched for Father Schmeer.

Still, the therapists suggested that the archdiocese might want to look into the matter further. So Church officials conducted an investigation—of Kevin. They probed into his background, including his tax records, two divorces and bank records.

As for Father Schmeer, Cardinal Bevilacqua permitted him to continue as pastor at Saint Martin of Tours in New Hope.

The grand jury report released in 2005 is full of stories like this, and accounts of how the archdiocese, under Cardinal Bevilacqua’s directives, moved priests who sexually abused children, sometimes several times, without ever informing a new set of parishioners of the danger.

WHEN ANTHONY BEVILACQUA came to this city from Pittsburgh in 1988, he offered something that Cardinal Krol, the iron fist who preceded him, could not: charisma. Bevilacqua believed in getting out among parishioners, in going to one of his parishes for a weekend of services, in bathing as much of his flock as possible in his presence. He would inspire boys to enter the priesthood. He could relate to working-class families—Tony Bevilacqua himself had come from nothing. His parents were Italian immigrants; he was one of 11 children. His father, a mason, worked a patchwork of jobs in Brooklyn and Queens. He knew humble beginnings, and he could give hope. He would be the shining light of the Holy Spirit.