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

In 1999, in frail health and on his way home from Mexico, Pope John Paul II would make an unprecedented stop in St. Louis to see his long-time Vatican worker bee. It seemed to be a clear message: You are still one of us.

The cardinal, now 76, appears to want to get back to Rome—where his gray presence is suited for behind-the-scenes work. “He runs off to Rome every two weeks,” says a local priest who worked in the archdiocese’s office and got to know Rigali when both of them were at the Vatican two decades ago. “His work there is more important to him than here—it’s a terrible thing for the parishioners and clergy.” Many observers believe that the Vatican will soon find someone new to run the Philadelphia archdiocese.

RICHARD SIPE, THE psychotherapist and ex-priest, as well as Tom Doyle, notes that most of the serious trouble the Church has gotten into for 2,000 years somehow involves sex, and that the strictures of celibacy and utter control a cleric is supposed to exhibit over both mind and body lead to problems—not sexual abuse, per se, but almost inevitably a certain degree of hypocrisy. It is time, they believe, for the Church to fully emerge from the fourth century, when the idea of celibacy as an organizing principle gave Catholic clergy distinction and energy. Our understanding of human needs and behavior has changed since then.

Yet the problem isn’t simply that the Church is stuck in the Dark Ages. It’s more fundamentally an orientation. On how protecting the Church trumps all.

“The organization is corrupt,” Sipe says, “if you think of hypocrisy and double-dealing as corrupt. I’ve been in on depositions of cardinals in sex-abuse cases, and they lie with tremendous abandon, because God’s law is above man’s law and they represent God’s law. They see all of this as sin, and they are arbiters of sin.”

And so, in this line of thinking, the worst behavior imaginable, even priests raping children, is a grievous sin, yes, but as sin, it will be addressed within the Church.

The one necessary ingredient—the thing that keeps those in power morally afloat—is total fealty to the Church. Bevilacqua, in arrogance, and Rigali, in fear, came at their churchly duty through diametrically opposed prisms. But it amounts to the same thing: obedience. And it bears repeating:

“The only virtue is obedience,” Sipe says. “You are not beholden to charity or truth or anything else. Everything can be sacrificed to obedience.”

Including children put in harm’s way. And including, not incidentally, the monitoring of clerical behavior. Sipe once asked an American bishop why other bishops had such a tough time dealing with sexually abusive clerics. “Undoubtedly, part of the problem is that some of the bishops themselves are abusers,” the bishop answered.

No one’s suggesting that Anthony Bevilacqua or Justin Rigali abused children. But if they deal with sexual abuse exclusively within the Church and treat it as merely sin, don’t their own human failings become permissible transgressions? That is, sins that can be absolved.

Bevilacqua and Rigali are protected within their church, and they are protectors themselves.

THERE IS SERIOUS anger now among Catholic parishioners in Philadelphia. They are talking and organizing. The top-down hierarchy they’ve been beholden to no longer holds sway. Yet that, ironically, may be the Church’s hope for long-term survival: voices on a grassroots level forcing the powers that be to at least listen.

In fact, it’s a wonder it has taken so long for an uprising. It’s not like sexual abuse is a surprise among the faithful. One Saturday a few months ago, my carpenter was at my house installing a dishwasher; he’s a neighborhood guy, and I asked him if he’s a Catholic. He is. I told him about this article and asked him whether he had been aware of any sexual abuse growing up.

“I went to school at Roman,” he tells me. “We had priests—there was Schmeer the Queer. Everybody knew about him.”

Hiding in plain sight.

Joe, raped by Father Schmeer in ninth grade, continues to search for his soul. He wants nothing from his church—just an apology, directly from Father Schmeer. That’s all. In fact, Cardinal Rigali recently granted Joe a few minutes of his time, asked what he could do for him, and that’s what Joe asked for: an apology from Father Schmeer, who is now ensconced in a church-run Prayer and Penance program for troubled priests.

“That’s not going to happen,” the cardinal told him.