He told me his “come” was a sacrament… He made the sign of the cross with it on my breasts. Jean Hargadon Wehner in The Keepers
I sat glued to my television last weekend watching seven episodes of The Keepers one after the other. Out of all the horrific information in this Netflix documentary, these words stick in my mind. Jean Hargadon Wehner said Father A. Joseph Maskell told her that she was sinner after she confessed to him that her uncle had molested her. Father Maskell explained that her case was so severe that ordinary absolution might not work. Thus, he told her, she must participate in ritual sex with him in order to purify her soul. Jean Hargadon was too young and naive to question his authority. She only knew that she dreaded hearing her name called out on the school loudspeaker with instructions to report to Father Maskell’s office.
I watched Spotlight, the film that documented the Boston Globe’s expose of the Roman Catholic priest child abuse scandal, twice. It too was devastating to watch. Spotlight is a Hollywood film formatted as a detective story, focusing on a team of investigative reporters who refuse to give up until they bring the Roman Catholic hierarchy of Boston down. The story fits a familiar pattern: David conquers Goliath–or did he?
In contrast, The Keepers is a documentary that focuses on the untiring work of two ordinary women, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub, who have been investigating the unsolved murder of their beloved teacher Sister Cathy Cesnik for years. They learn that one of the suspects, Father A. Joseph Maskell, not only molested scores of girls at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School, but also that he offered some of girls to the police in order to ensure their silence and collusion.
At the end of The Keepers, no victory is celebrated. Many of Father Maskell’s victims committed suicide or died of drug and alcohol abuse. Jean Hargadon Wehner and the other women who spoke on the film, continue to suffer. The murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik remains unsolved. The murder of Joyce Malecki, who may have been killed because she knew something about Joseph Maskell or Sister Cathy’s death, is also unsolved. At the time of the filming, the Roman Catholic Church was testifying that the statute of limitation on child abuse crimes should not be extended.
In April 2017, the state of Maryland finally passed a law extending the statute of limitation on child sex abuse until the victim’s 38th birthday, allowing time for fear to dissipate and repressed memories to surface. This is a victory of course. But there is no reason to think that the Roman Catholic Church will stop trying to cover up widespread sexual abuse by its priests any time soon.
People want to believe Francis is a good pope. His words concerning social justice and forgiveness have given hope to some. But his papacy is tainted by the cover-up of child sexual abuse. He was the one who appointed Australia’s Cardinal Pell as Vatican Treasurer, tasking him with cleaning up financial mis-dealings in the Vatican. What were Cardinal Pell’s qualifications? Pell headed the cover-up of the child abuse scandal in Australia.
As public allegations of clerical abuse grew, however, the Church turned to Pell, highly regarded as an able administrator, to save the Church in Victoria from reputational and financial damage.
Pell instituted an in-house scheme that, in return for the victims’ legally-enforceable silence, paid out a paltry average of $32,000 in compensation. This “hush money” scheme saved the Church potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from civil suits.
The scale of the abuse eventually came to light through a royal commission which had been prompted by police whistleblowers. The commission’s statistics were shocking: between 1950 and 2010, there were 4444 allegations of incidents of child sexual abuse made against 1880 priests (7% of Australian Catholic priests). Pell’s diocese of Melbourne topped the national body count.
Pell’s involvement in covering up child sexual abuse apparently did not “taint” his reputation in the eyes of Pope Francis. Pell has recently been charged with abusing children himself while a priest in Australia. Even if Pope Francis did not know of this latter charge, why did he appoint someone involved in the Church’s cover-up of child sexual abuse to a top position in the Vatican? We can only assume that Pope Francis did not consider covering up child sex abuse to be a “high crime.” And we must ask, why did the two members who themselves were victims leave the Pope’s commission to investigate the child abuse scandal in the church?
As I noted in a previous blog, researcher and former priest Richard Sipe estimates that at any one time only 50% of the Roman Catholic clergy is celibate. In addition to his own research he cites the following studies:
A study of Swiss priests published on May 12, 2003, revealed that 50% of that clergy had mistresses. Father Victor Kotze, a South African sociologist conducted a survey of the priests in his country (1991) and found that 45% had been sexually active during the previous two year period.
Pepe Rodriguez published his book length study of the sexual life of clergy in Spain (La Vida sexual del Clero 1995). He concluded that among practicing priests 95% masturbate; 7% are sexually involved with minors and 26% have “attachments to minors;” 60% have sexual relations, 20% have homosexual relations.
He further refined the figures of 354 priests who were having sexual relations:
53% of these were having sex with adult women, 21% with adult men, 14% were sexually active with minor boys and 12% with minor girls. Although Rodriguez’ book caused a monumental debate no one has challenged the reality of his numbers.
According to Sipe, the widespread practice of “sexual sinning” among the Roman Catholic clergy makes it difficult for them to single out the child abusers in their midst. In other words, if more than 50% of the Roman Catholic clergy has “sinned” sexually at one time or another, who are they to cast stones at their brothers? Is Pope Francis himself one of the less than 50% of priests who have been celibate during their entire careers? And if not, does he feel he “shares” whatever guilt is attributed to those who break the vows of priestly celibacy? Could this be why as Pope he was willing to overlook or even to reward Cardinal Pell’s cover-up of the child abuse scandal in Australia?
Sipe warns that as long as celibacy is required of the Roman Catholic clergy, we can expect the cycle of abuse and cover-up to continue. Though the abuse of children is the most egregious, it is not only children who are abused in sexual relationships with Roman Catholic clergy.
In a throw-away line in The Keepers, Cathy Cesnik is quoted as having written to the priest with whom she was in love that she experienced his behavior as “erratic.” I assume that what she meant is that after they became intimate, he felt guilty and pulled away. How many adult women and men have been psychologically harmed by priests who act on their sexual urges and make promises they do not keep?
Hypocritical celibacy is a very sick system indeed.
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Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger
Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.
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